[Warning, contains mention of death of a loved one.]
I stood staring at the sea foam green doors. The sea of students maneuvered around me like the flow of a river breaks to a jagged rock in its current. There is no way I can do this.
I took a deep breath, C'mon, I thought, You have to do it. For him. He would have wanted you to carry on.
Yet as I willed my feet to move, I remained stuck in place. It was here, I remembered, that we had hung out for the first time. We would meet outside of these doors before school and said goodbye here every day. Thinking about how that is never going to happen again makes my bones ache and my heart hollow.
That was the first Monday back at school. I had begged Dad to let me stay home, but he was still hopelessly angry with me and showed no sympathy at all. I wished more than ever that morning that mom was still around, but of course, she never was. She left and isn't coming back. So I went to school, and doing so felt like the hardest thing I would ever have to do. Ever. But this, oh this was so much worse.
Here I was, staring again at the sea foam green doors. Except for today, no students bustled around me. The sky was gloomy but hadn't bothered to cry. If my emotions controlled the sky, the state would be flooded and lightning would rain down from the heavens for today, this awful day. But the sky did not comply; it never did. So I settled for gloomy.
I was wearing black leggings and a black T-shirt. Nothing special, which made me feel terrible. I wish I had something more formal, but this was all I could find in black. Ben had always said I had a colorful personality, which leaked out onto my clothes...
I blinked back the tears. I couldn't start crying already. I had an hour, after all.
At first, I didn't understand why he would want a funeral in the gym of our high school. I knew it was a customary ceremony to mourn lost member of Hugh school “families”, but the whole funeral? When I was told, I didn't believe it. I mean, really, the high school? That was what I thought until I realized I had to believe it; since his mum spoke to him before he died. Mum. That is what he always called her. Him and his funny fake accents that leaked into his speech...
I blinked back tears. I couldn’t afford to remember him today if all days. I had to get through this, and then I could go back to my hole of despair and self blame.
Well, anyways, his mom said he told her his happiest memories were in high school. He didn't know it then, but he was saying those words on his deathbed. So, she felt it was the best place to hold his funeral.
Anyone who knew him would know that wasn’t where his happiest memories were made, nor where he’d like to be remembered forever. To me it seemed as though his mom was trying to hold on to him, the version of him from her mind, as if he were still living. It felt like such a selfish thing to do. I was going to have to go back to that gym three times a week, and she would never even have to see it again. My therapist thought holding it in the gym would help me with the healing process, so I had no objection to offer. But something about it still felt wrong to me, like something inside me needed to be settled. Like Ben would’ve have wanted me to remember him and grieve him in our spot, not some superficial place his mom decided for him.
Thinking about all this practically killed me, so I had to stop. I don't really remember it, but my dad managed to push me inside. I robotically greeted some of Ben's family and his friends. His friends tried to comfort me, but I was devoid of all emotion and expression. Past the point of any comfort, just numbness. My dad guided me into the gym, where my eyes welled with tears, and sat me down in a chair next to him.
And here I am, sitting in a chair at Ben's funeral.
The worst had already happened. I had prayed and prayed that no fighting would ensue today, that we could all just mourn him together. But of course, they were bickering from the moment they saw each other. Mumbling things in each other's direction, all the passive-aggressive feud speak. Today this quarreling was irking me more than ever, surprising me with the fact that I had any capacity to feel emotion at all. Ben's Mom, Mrs. Bently, murmured something that my dad heard, and apparently, he had enough.
"I can't believe you! Acting like this is my fault, I never wanted this!" Dad's voice bellowed across the room as he stood from his chair.
"Well, it certainly isn't my fault now, is it? If you had just let me take care of this, we may not be here today! And it wasn't your child who died now was it, James?" The mother remained in her seat, though tears welled in her eyes and her voice seemed on the brink of breaking.
My dismal self looked around the room. People sitting in gray fold-up chairs, looking transfixed at the scene unfolding in front of them. My father, previously sitting at my side, was up from his seat and yelling at Mrs. Bently, in the aisle across from us. Mrs. Bently was held to her seat, most likely from the weight of grief rather than self-control. I could relate. I turned to look at the front of the room but seeing the coffin made tears roll down my cheeks and my shoulders shake uncontrollably.
Why did it have to be Ben? I couldn’t help feeling like it was my fault somehow. After all, he had snuck out to see me the night he got in the accident. Or was it our parents' fault? Our parents, caught up in their stupid feud, that something this tragic happened?
My father turned and noticed my sobs as I looked away sheepishly. The room fell silent. He looked over at Mr. and Mrs. Bently, both with wet cheeks and silent sobs, at Benjamin Bently’s coffin, and then at me.
“Julia hasn’t been herself since it happened. At first I was furious, and I still am mad that she was sneaking around with my enemy's son. But something inside of me has shifted, seeing my little girl like this. Something about Ben really changed her. First for the better and now for the worse. It's just something I don't understand."
“I loved him, Daddy. I love him now. And he’s gone.” I continued to son. I couldn’t explain how I truly felt. Now them fighting while we’re supposed to be grieving was so awfully disrespectful I couldn’t stand it.
My father looked at me. Really looked at me. I looked back for a moment, and saw something in his eyes changed. He recognized me, my grief. It was the same grief he had felt for mom. He recognized the feeling of heartbreak, in love with someone who will forever be in your past. I watched as my father took a deep breath before speaking:
“He was only 16,” he started, taking his hat off his head as everyone stared at him, “These kids, they really cared about each other. And it was foolish of us to ever keep them apart. I suggest a truce. For Ben. And for my daughter.”
Mrs. Bently smiled sadly, “He would want that," but her face fell a little, and she spoke, "But after everything that has happened, we couldn't possibly let it go. No matter how much we want to."
I saw a rude comment about my family emerge in her, fueling the flames of her repressed anger, but she didn't open her mouth to share it. Instead, she stared at my father, and Mr. Bently rested his hand on her shoulder, attempting to comfort her, but really he was using her to comfort himself. Mrs. Bently didn't seem to notice his hand and just kept staring, the tears gone from her eyes. Her grief was being overcome by stubbornness, determination, and, above all, downright hatred. My father seemed at a loss for words. He was trying, so hard, for me. For Ben, which is something I never thought I would see him do. It was then I knew what I had to do. Not for our parents, not for the dozens of people here today. Not even for Ben or my memories of him that would live on in me until my last dying day. I would do this for me.
I stood up, glancing only for a moment at Mrs. Bently's shocked face and my father's stricken demeanor. I kept my eyes high, though they were filled with tears, and walked from my seat into the aisle, and up to the front of the room.
I stood there for a moment, facing Ben, where he lay in his closed casket. Thinking of him, lifeless and stuck in a box to be buried in the soil made it hard for me to stand. I started to shake, and I choked on a sob as I rested my hand on his casket. The room seemed still around me. I lifted my hand from the casket and looked up. All I could see was the metal bars lining the gym roof, but I knew there was something more. I began to comprehend. Ben's body was here, in this room, in this casket. But that wasn't him. Ben is no longer living, but his spirit is alive. It lives in his family, in all the things he loved so much. Including me. And though I couldn't see him, I knew he was with me. As I understood that, I felt the hundred pounds of emotional weight and guilt I had been carrying fall through me, into the ground to be buried deep with everything else that was dead. Ben was dead, but he wasn't gone. For the first time, I felt the black hole that was my heart begin to fill itself again. With something new. Perhaps it was remembrance, or even hope. Whatever it was, it gave me the strength to let out a large breath and speak to everyone in front of me.
"I appreciate what you said, Dad," I paused, watching as Mr. and Mrs. Bently sat at attention, their cheeks wet with tears, listening; while my father, still shocked, staring at me, retreated into his seat. “I agree, Mrs. Bently. Ben would have wanted a truce. That is all he ever wanted. It's all I have ever wanted! Your endless fighting and bickering have brought nothing but trouble for all of us! How many stores have you been banned from because you were yelling at each other in the dairy aisle? How many state-issued warnings have you been given? How many times have you had to drive a family member to the urgent care because they were brawling in the streets with each other? And the worst part is that you encourage them!" I felt my face burning, contrasting with my wet cheeks. At this point, I was angry-crying. But I was not embarrassed. I felt, in a way, empowered. "I have spent my whole life on the sidelines. Watching my uncles and cousins fight with the Bently's, sitting silently at the dinner table listening to the men, while I was being discussed like a Princess in need of a noble suitor. My mother was the only one who ever stood up for me, and when she left, I practically became mute. Ben was the first person in my life to treat me like a real person. With thoughts, ideas, and opinions! I loved him! And I am sick of being treated like some, some Shakespeare's Juliet! My boyfriend died because two groups of adults can't get along! So I am done sitting on the sidelines. There will be a truce, and a truce is happening now. Yes, for Ben. Yes, for the countless occasions that happened before this. But really, because it's time to stop. So we can move forward, and embrace the future.” I paused and let out a shaky breath, “So no one else has to die."
The room was silent. Everyone was in shock. I stood, facing the room, watching everyone's dumbstruck faces when, from the very back of the gym, someone clapped. Just like that, the whole room burst into applause. Everyone remained seated, they weren't, after all, clapping because I had made a phenomenal speech. They were clapping in agreement with me. It was time for this to be over.
The only people who weren't clapping were my father and Mr. and Mrs. Bently. Mrs. Bently's face kept changing color and expression. She was angry, then sad, then understanding, then upset, then raging, then devastated, then somehow all of the expressions mixed together. Mr. Bently sat silently beside his wife, looking stunned, his face pale. My father was red as a tomato, his facial expression switching from angry to embarrassed almost as fast as Mrs. Bently's face was changing. I knew I still had something that I needed to say.
The crowd's eyes followed me as I made my way toward the Bently's, and the clapping slowly died out, so the room was silent yet again. Out of respect, I kneeled in front of them. I spoke to Mrs. Bently as I grabbed her hand, "Ma'am, I loved your son. I still do. And I know how much it hurts right now, losing him," Mrs. Bently sniffed and a few tears streamed down her face, "Covering up your feelings with anger, giving yourself someone to blame, such as my Dad or me, only makes it harder for you to heal. I know there is always going to be a missing piece in your hearts," I was addressing both Bently's now, "I know there will be one in mine. But Ben isn't gone. He will always be with us. In our hearts, and also in everything he did and loved. Maybe that is why he wanted the funeral to be here, to remind us that pieces of him are everywhere if we know where to look. My Dad is right, Ben would want a truce. So all the fighting can stop. But also, maybe, so three of the people who loved him most," I gestured to the three of us, "Can remember him, mourn him, even, together." I gave a sad smile to the Bently's who together broke into sobs and hugged each other for support. To my utmost surprise, Mrs. Bently reached out to me and pulled me into the hug too.
After that deely touching moment, I made my way toward my father, who was still fuming in his seat. He tried to speak, but I cut him off.
"Dad," I watched his brow furrow and gulped, "You should know I have nothing but respect for you. Everything I said I meant, and I won't take it back. I neglected to mention that, although Mom may have stood up for me as a woman, you were the parent who stayed. You love me enough to care for me every day, to put up with every crazy decision I make, and even try and make a truce with your worst enemies for me. I am so grateful for everything you've done for me, and don't want to upset you. But things do have to change."
I took a deep, shaky breath and met my father's gaze. His eyes softened. "Oh, Jelly Bean," he called me by my old embarrassing nickname as he pulled me in for a hug.
For the first time in weeks, my heart hurt a little less. And for the first time ever, I could feel the hatred between the Bentlys' and the Olveras' melting away. I sat down next to my Dad, who was smiling down at me, tears still running down his face. I looked at the Bentlys', also smiling through tear-rimmed eyes. At the crowd, some crying, some smiling, some doing both, but all feeling understanding. And finally, at Ben's body, concealed in a coffin.
Things were going to be better from now on. I could feel it in my bones, in the air, and from the energy all around me. I closed my eyes and for the first time since I lost Ben, really, truly, smiled.