I'll start where it's easiest: Eduardo died September 16th, 2021 at the age of thirty-nine. He's survived by his girlfriend, two daughters and a son just old enough to remember who he was. Eduardo's greatest fear was that his son wouldn't have a father figure either. I'd told him Viktor would be fine, but what did I know? I was just some scumbag salesman getting dragged behind his final grand adventure.
I met Eduardo on the side of the road outside rural Ellington. I had vacation hours to use-or-lose, so I took a reviled respite in the quiet corner of Nutmeg country. A fitting hideaway for a scoundrel like myself. "Nutmegger" was less insult than inspiration.
My car had a flat from some merciless tractor bolt. The perfume of cows and asphalt in humid early-summer day had vomit mingling with rage in my throat. Best estimate for roadside assistance was an hour and forty-five minutes. It might as well have been a year for a high-strung salesman. This was an inefficient use of vacation time that could've been spent maximizing how and when to relax proper.
Eduardo had been on his way to the drop-zone. He'd intended to jump from a perfectly good airplane because it seemed the thing to do if the door was open. I thought the muscular short-haired man was insane, but he'd offered to exchange my tire with his spare. Who was I to question a good deal?
He escorted me to the rustic bed-and-breakfast. I told him I was fine, had everything under control and wished him well on achieving terminal velocity in the direction of the ground. It sounded fun, I'd lied. But Eduardo wasn't listening.
He'd already cleared the passenger seat of his rental sports car. Even offered to buy drink after his tandem skydiving adventure. I told him I didn't drink as vodka sloshed around a flask in my suitcase. He countered with dinner at a local restaurant as I assured him I wasn't hungry. After hours of travel, my stomach grumbled at the mention of food. Jig up, we were on the road past pastures and barns towards the only airstrip for miles around.
Eduardo's kids didn't cry at his funeral. Neither had their mother. They'd wrung out their tears long before I'd met Eduardo. Dying was easier to stomach than watching him wither. I told them he was in a better place where cancer couldn't creep through him anymore. I didn't know. I barely believed. But Eduardo had.
He'd told me at length about the music he heard in his hospital bed at night, beautiful as rain during drought. I'd never seen a grown man cry before Eduardo. I knew it in concept, but tangible experience was unsettling. He'd said his first steps after sliding onto that open field, parachute in tow, were something of a baptism for him.
"He asked if I liked roller coasters," Eduardo said, eyes wet with wide smile. "I said, 'Not really.' That's when he said, 'Wrong answer,' and started spiraling us around and around!" He was laughing as the large tandem-instructor he'd been strapped to carried the billowing chute and pack to a canopied area, re-packing away from the sun's glare. "Ready for your go?"
I was not ready, but the man's ardent zeal had me saying yes before I realized what was happening. I thought there'd be more to signing onto something so dangerous, but taking your life into your own hands is as natural as getting in a car and walking down a busy road. A couple signatures and a quick safety class was all that stood between me and the warbling prop of a Cessna twelve-thousand feet in the clouds.
I don't remember screaming. I remember seeing the plane we'd just been in disappear into a tiny dot as the tandem instructor strapped to my back rolled our bellies to the encroaching Earth. I swore I could see the curve of the horizon. There was nothing I could do. My whole life was in the hands of someone who knew what he was doing. I was just along for the ride. Not so different than Eduardo and I after that evening's meal.
He said his son held it together better than his daughters. He was six and they were twin eleven-year-old princesses. He worried about Viktor. I remember asking the little man how he was doing as he set the table. He said he was the next man of the house. They needed him to be strong. Like his father. I found Eduardo slumped around the corner against the wall, a mess of quiet tears. Dying was the easiest part.
I extended my vacation by a week, then another, before tendering a formal extended leave-of-absence. Management inquired why and I said there'd been a family emergency that required my full attention. It might've been the most honest thing I said with the company and it was still untrue. Voracity isn't a virtue in sales. Maybe that's why I'd excelled. Maybe it's why I was so exhausted by it. Maybe I didn't know how tired I was until I met Eduardo.
"I want to get married."
"You had three kids with her," I said. "I think you've sealed the deal, bud."
"It's not the same," he said with a heavy draw from his emptying glass. "She deserves the dignity of a wedding." Ice clinked as he put his drink down. I reached for the decanter I'd brought. Maker's Mark looked best in clear sharp-edged glass, especially as it spilled over smooth ice in a proper glass.
"Should you even be drinking, Eduardo?"
He scoffed. "What's the worst it can do?" He slugged another big draught. His beard was growing in. He'd always wanted one. "I'm already dying." His wry smile carved through my tightened chest as I chuckled.
"You sure about the chemo?"
"I'm not going to spend my last few months on the edge of death when I could spend my last few weeks living to the fullest."
Abril was thirty-three. She'd immigrated from Ecuador with Eduardo and their baby girls, Nadine and Zurine, a decade before I'd met them. Their son, Viktor, was first-generation American. Seeing their children made all their struggles worthwhile. The girls were polite and studious, listening to their parents' every word. Viktor was just old enough to start hearing stories about their past home. Eduardo wanted to explain why they'd left in his own words. He didn't want someone else giving his son second-hand insight into his father. He didn't want someone sugarcoating reality.
Their former home was embroiled in drug-trade violence. Crime ran unchecked. Legitimate business was prey for illegitimate. Eduardo and Abril were new parents. This wasn't the place to raise children. They'd attempted appropriate means of immigration, but time wasn't on the side of bureaucratic options.
They'd set the ceremony for October, two months earlier than his doctors best estimates. Eduardo had always been captivated by autumn leaves. He thought they were nature's fireworks. It'd make the best backdrop for their marriage in their adopted home. It's a shame it never happened.
Eduardo's heart outlasted everything else that failed. It was a startling cascade, falling like a hammer from a plane. No one saw it coming and it was so fast and so heavy that no one could've done anything to stop it. If Eduardo had the time to pontificate, he'd have laughed that God must've really wanted him. But he didn't joke when he hit the floor. The house shook like a stone gavel sentencing his fate.
I told Abril there's nothing anyone could've done. I lied, of course. There's plenty we could've done. We could've pushed for treatment; leveraged his kids against his resolute dignity. There were always options, but we chose not to take them. It was Eduardo's choice how he died, but it was his family that lived through the aftermath of his choices.
I was angry, but even that was a lie. I wasn't mad at him. I knew where our friendship would lead the first day he told me his story after falling from the heavens he swore he'd head back to. I was frustrated. Mostly at myself for letting myself embrace this beautiful son-of-a bitch with big smile and big hugs. He was the big brown teddy bear no one could help but love.
I think what frustrated me most was that I never told him the truth: I never had a family to speak of. My father disappeared before I was born and my mother lost me to foster care when she gobbled her psych meds. No siblings, no parents and no reason to trust anyone saying I could rely on them to be there. Every broken relationship only cinched my resolution: There was no value in voracity, truth was a lie told to manipulate someone and the best we could do is use it for our own gain.
Then Eduardo fell out of the sky and dragged me into the madness of honesty. I couldn't forgive him. Of all the people to break my heart, he's the only one I couldn't let go of. At least my parents and foster-families made it clear what kind of monsters they were and how little they cared. But Eduardo made me believe in goodness and honesty and how a life could be if I hadn't gone swirling down the rabbit hole of nihilism.
Nadine and Zurine have children of their own now, with degrees and careers to support them. Viktor received his honorable discharge after a fulfilling military career. He settled near his mother, caring for her with his wife and kids. I drank. They'd grown up knowing what a good supportive man was in their life. I grew up relying on my own cold-edged wit honed by abandonment. The worst thing I could face is a good person with an honest heart. To this day, Eduardo's genuine sincerity haunts me; reminding me who I could've been if I'd chosen to believe in more than I was dealt.