A road. Well lit, rarely busy. Eight o'clock at night.
A still summer evening. He's walking home after work. Just over a mile total. Less than half a mile left to go. The sun is setting, but it's not yet full dark. The streetlights are on, but the sun is still brighter. Its orange glow the last warmth he feels.
Ear buds in, wrapped in country music. His secret obsession. His unspoken comfort. Thoughts turned to a relaxing night in front of the TV.
A car speeds down the road. Strikes him from behind. He doesn't see it coming.
A soon to be hit and run. The driver takes his wallet and drives off. His body left crumpled in a ditch. Three days in the morgue. John Doe. Finally identified by dental records. Like in a police procedural, except without all the pretty people, standing around and getting paid to look serious.
His body is now evidence. No one can say when it will be released. No telling how long until he's transferred from the cold dark of a steel box to the plush velvet of a wooden one. As if soft lining is any comfort for the dead. Or for those he's leaving behind.
Even before his body is returned home, a memorial is planned. A celebration of life. He was never a funeral type of person anyway. He had no time for sadness. Joy was his personal compass. Mirth his gift to all who knew him.
The Boonville Elks Lodge. A building I've driven past hundreds of times. It's shaped like a sideways comma. Appropriate, considering pulling up to the building gives me pause.
Should I even be here? I didn't know Kaiser that well...
His heart had room for everyone. It was big enough to encompass the world, if given the chance. My own heart a closet by comparison. What they don't tell you about a broken heart is that once it is mended, it winds up smaller. The remaining pieces having to be stretched like skin over a drum to fill in the gaps.
A gravel parking lot. I step from my car and brace myself. Earlier today, I was excited to see all my old college buddies. Now, that enthusiasm has melted into dread. Grief and doubt linger at the periphery. The three emotions older friends than those who await me inside.
This day is about honoring one of the best of us. Someone I now question how well I knew. Certainly, I didn't know him as well as the other guys did. I was an outlier. Treated well by all but not always reciprocating. Friendship, like money, is easier to receive than give.
A cemetery. It dominates my view as I look across the street. Square-acres of decades old sorrow and heart-aches. Final home of Confederate racists, salt of the Earth farmers, and small town good old boys. An odd backdrop for a night dedicated to remembering better times.
A look of exhaustion. That's what I see when I look at my wife's face. This is our second memorial today. The first a traditional funeral. Black clothes, bleak expressions, banal comforts. Tears leaking from eyes heavy with grief, streaking down cheeks to land on strong shoulders.
In our case, the tears belonged to my wife, the shoulder was mine. She lost someone who was a friend and a coworker. Someone she knew well. Someone she could call a friend without a shred of doubt. Someone she knew considered her one as well.
Maybe I should have taken her home first. I don't know if I can do this and take care of her...
With my heart heavy, I've kept my hands busy. Ghostwriting the eulogy she gave. Holding her sobbing shoulders. Propping her up when it all got to be too much. All so she can process her grief, hands free.
Grief and doubt are odd bedfellows.
Grief constricts my heart. Still, it beats. A strangled staccato. Pumping blood enriched in oxygen but not solace. Doubt widens my belly, letting a numbing fog loose to float through the rest of me.
Grief and doubt together shrink your brain, causing a paralysis of coherence. I freeze with indecision in the gravel lot of the Elks Lodge.
You'll be with your friends. Kaiser wouldn't have turned anyone away. He would have wanted all of us to be here together...
It is my friends I think of as my wife and I cross the parking lot.
An all-purpose room. Reminiscent of the church basements of my youth. The floor a checkerboard of dirty white and faded purple. Near the ceiling, the mounted heads of deer. Cobwebs hang from their antlers. Their glassy eyes reflecting the shapes of the people passing beneath. A council of the dead presiding above. Glaring over the memorial as everyone in the room struggles to put aside thoughts of death. To focus instead on remembering life instead.
A stage and small kitchen to the left. A potluck buffet placed on three long white tables to the right. A milieu of comfort food and trans fats. Salads, cold cuts, baked goods, and unidentifiable casseroles wafting their aromas into the air.
A table at the far side of the room. The faces of the people I'm looking forward to seeing, despite the occasion that has brought us together. The faces of my best friends, all here for Kaiser. Other faces, too. People I'd struggle to conversate with, even on my best day.
Am I the only one who brought my significant other?
Such an asinine thought, but it sticks in my mind. I force myself to replace that thought with others. Self-reassurance as a personal mantra. My pulse takes up the beat of my thoughts.
Tonight is not about you. It's not about your insecurities. Your wife is here for you, that makes you lucky. Soon you’ll be with others who have always been there for you…
A guestbook. Perched on the scant surface of a squat podium. The book teeters on its spine. Its wide covers hanging over the sides. The embossed edges of the pages catch the light, flashing gold across the ceiling every time someone signs their name and moves on.
The guestbook reminds me of Kaiser as I struggle to write on it without tipping it from the podium. Kaiser straddled life. Too big to be bothered with its confines. His smile a beacon, shining through the mists of mundanity.
A group of friends. Some always present. Others regularly featured. All connected by kinship and common interests. All here tonight. Seated together on the other side of the room.
Lasting friendships cultivated over many years. Some met as kids, others met in high school. I met them all in college and our journeys converged across four great years. Graduation separated us physically but could not sever the ties that held us together.
As I sign in, I think about everyone seated at the table. Once scattered by circumstance, tonight we are reunited by tragedy. As I remember the good times I’ve had with everyone at the table, three distinct faces take center-stage in my mind. The spotlight upon them blotting out my negative thoughts. Their faces float just behind my eyeballs as I try to focus on legibly scrawling my name.
The mark of true friendship is being able to pick up right where you left off. To carry on as if no time has passed since you last saw one another. Inside jokes bubble to the surface. Laughter comes naturally. Distance becomes meaningless.
This is the bond I have with Ben, Neil, and John. They all grew up together, along with Kaiser. In their own ways, they each made room for me in their circle of friends. A widening that allowed me to intertwine myself in their shared bond. Tethering me to their group, treating me as if I’d always been a part of it.
A decades long friendship. A family held together my mutual respect and shared admiration. Not seeing each other for months cannot erase that. I can’t think of anything that could.
Soon, we will all be together again, and it will be like we were never apart. Our friendship has not faded, and the loss of Kaiser can only strengthen it.
Tonight, doesn’t have to be sad. It’s a reunion. A family coming together to remember a lost brother…
A moment of truth. I take my wife's hand and we make our way across the room.
With each step, a single thought plays on a loop through my head.
It is my anchor to the reality of the situation. My shield against insecurity.
It is my means to get through this night. My path to move past the sadness.
It is a balm for my doubt. A salve for my grief.
A single thought, playing over and over again as I walk toward the table to join my friends.
We're all here for Kaiser...