by Sam N. Yago
A man and his estranged father reconnect at a funeral.
"Your phone is under the table," I warned her, and offered to pick it up.
"That's okay. I'll get it later."
"I don't mind," I said, getting up from my seat. I crouched under their table to grab the phone, which had slid next to her right foot, and set it beside her handbag. "Here you go."
"Thanks. I'm so helpless," she said, making the statement sound more like a question.
"Nah, you look like you have things under control," I lied, and returned to my seat.
The little boy managed to break free from his mother's grasp onto the narrow aisle. His tiny legs failed to move in concert with the shaky floor of the train, and he promptly lost his balance. He hit his head on the edge of the table as he fell, and proceeded to wail as only toddlers can. The mother shot me a look of exasperation and shrugged as she set him upright.
"Little firecracker, I bet," I said.
"You have no idea," she said, and graced me again with that beautiful smile. She was pretty, looked to be in her late twenties, and probably married her college sweetheart. No sooner had that assumption crossed my thoughts that my eyes wandered to her left hand, and noted the absence of a wedding ring. Single mother? No, newly divorced, more likely. My left thumb subconsciously found the underside of my ring finger, which a wedding band had once encircled.
"I'm Sully," I said.
"Miranda," she said. "And, these are Madelyn and Mackenzie." She pointed to each child in turn as if the gesture was necessary.
"Hi, Madelyn," I said, giving the girl a little wave, which was rewarded with a blank stare in return. Then, to her brother: "Hi, Mackenzie."
The little boy stopped crying, taken aback by a stranger knowing his name and talking to his mother. He afforded me a little huff before climbing back into his seat. He peered at me from behind the seat back. "Her name is Maddy."
"I see," I said, turning to his sister: "Hi, Maddy." The little girl stuck her thumb in her mouth and buried her reddened cheeks in her mother's shoulder.
"She's a little shy," Miranda offered.
"Indeed," I said.
"And I'm Mack," the little boy corrected.
"Yes, sir," I replied, feigning a salute. Mack shot me one more suspicious look before turning around and sinking into his seat.
Mack's mother cast him a loving smile that went unnoticed, and then turned to me. "Do you have any?"
"No," I replied with a light chuckle, immediately regretting how insensitive it may have sounded to her. "Sorry."
She smiled, "Don't worry about it. You know what they say about 'druthers,' right?"
I nodded, half-heartedly. I had decided in my early twenties that kids would not be in the cards for me. I would later meet (and eventually lose) a woman who fortunately had identical leanings. There's a tiny part of me that always felt a pang of guilt over not having produced any progeny, if only for passing on my inherited name, a sort of unspoken requirement of my father's. I'd sometimes thought the idea of there being a Jacob Aaron Sullivan "the third" rather appealing. Even more to my father than to me, I suppose. I had even decided my son's nickname would have been Bud--Jake and Sully were already taken, after all, and I'd always had an aversion to the name Aaron. Especially since that's how my father referred to me despite my having asked him to call me Sully instead.
And, don't get me wrong--I love kids, and, without much effort on my part, they also tend to have an affinity for me, regardless of the situation, as if I have some sort of subconscious influence. But, to this day, a larger part of me relished in all the reasons, cliché or no, for not having any children, always feeling so unapologetic whenever I enumerated those reasons. However, an even larger, rational part of me was not apologetic at all. "Is Seattle home?"
"Just a little north of," she said, rocking Maddy in her arms. "Their grandmother's in Portland. You?"
"I live there," I said. "Portland, I mean. I'm heading to Seattle for my father's funeral."
"Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss," Miranda said.
"Thanks. I'm good."
And, I was. My father and I hadn't spoken in over a decade. A week ago, a heart attack made the silence between us a more permanent arrangement.
Growing up as "the junior" to Jacob Aaron Sullivan was, to put it mildly, a sort of hell on Earth, and being the sole offspring had made it so that I had no choice but to exclusively benefit from my old man's constant expressions of disappointment.
Father grew up in Seattle, excelled academically, and established himself as among the best litigators in the city at the beginning of his career. He hailed from two generations of lawyers, including, more directly, my grandfather. In fact, two of my father's three siblings were also in the legal profession. (I'd once heard that Aunt Sylvia had also intended to study law but instead became a homemaker, as women in her time seemed predisposed to be.) Father had always expected I would follow in his footsteps. Yet another of a long line of disappointments would later happen when I instead chose to study music, a useless endeavor in his mind. The proverbial nail on the coffin was when I dropped out after my first semester, and gave up on college altogether.
Mother was a paralegal who'd caught the young litigator's eye, and they would marry within six months of that eventual after-work cocktail rendezvous he was finally able to convince her into having. In true Sullivan fashion, my father insisted on being the breadwinner. It would be many years later that Samantha Jane Sullivan (nee Gershwin) would confess as to how much she'd regretted her acquiescence.
When I came into the world less than a year after my parents got married, you can bet Jake Sullivan was thrilled to have had a male for a first-born, to whom he couldn't wait to attach his moniker. For a couple of years, I was their pride and joy, but Father had always wanted more children--at least one more boy, and maybe a girl--with his having been one of four siblings helping to fuel that desire. Subsequent attempts at pregnancy ended in one miscarriage after another--my mother had apparently developed an infection in her uterus after the first pregnancy, which had rendered it defective-- and they soon stopped trying. Father had always looked at his wife (and at me, by extension) a little differently since, although he would never admit it.
"And your mother?" Miranda asked.
"She passed away in oh-three," I said.
Miranda's eyes widened. "Oh, God. I am so sorry." She emphasized the last two words as if her well-being depended on having done so.
"Thank you," I said. "She lived a good life."
She lived a good life. How I'd grown to question the way that phrase sounded, like it should be reserved to describe the brief existence of a beloved pet or something of shallow significance. It seemed a perfunctory expression, non-committal. To use that phrase about a human being, let alone one's own mother, somehow seemed a bit of a betrayal of that person. Like one couldn't be bothered to further elaborate on that person's impact.
I'd always wondered if Samantha Sullivan believed she'd lived a good life in the fifty years she was afforded. What regrets other than giving up a career had she allowed to fester? How profound were her feelings of inadequacy when she couldn't contribute to my father's legacy by bearing him more children to carry his surname? Was she, at any point, happy at all? During her final years, it was apparent her raison d'etre was to serve as the connection, however tenuous, between my father and myself. I did not envy her that task, although it seemed to me it was a responsibility she had relished, as if her life wouldn't have had any purpose otherwise. When she died, I felt the connection instantly snap, and took it as the permission to leave town. For my father, I imagined it was an opportunity to relieve himself of any further paternal obligations.
Miranda had looked away, partially mesmerized by the scenery outside. It appeared our conversation was over. She was lightly stroking the curly blond locks of her daughter who was loudly snoring by then; Mack, too, had decided sleep was a good way to pass the time. The two teenage boys who have been in another booth since the train left Portland were still on their laptops, and remained closed off to the world compliments of their headphones. One of the train conductors was in the back booth, lost in a paperback. I peered out the window as well, the views of Puget Sound in the rain providing an appropriate backdrop to the day.
My mind wandered back to my father. If it hadn't been for Aunt Sylvia, I wouldn't have been aware of his funeral let alone his death. Uncle Charlie didn't think highly of my life's choices either, and chose not to keep in touch. And, my other uncle--George Sullivan, the youngest among the siblings--was all too dead to care.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," a voice happily chirped from the overhead speakers in the dining car. "We will be arriving in Tacoma in approximately nine minutes. We will be opening the doors at Business Class and cars three, six, and seven only."
"So, how are you holding up?"
It took me a moment to realize the disembodied voice belonged to Miranda. "I'm good, actually. My father and I...weren't very close. I'm worried about coming up with something meaningful to say. You know, for the eulogy."
"Focus on the good memories," Miranda offered.
"Of course," I said, noting silently how impossible that task would be.
Not surprisingly, there was quite a turnout at the funeral home, with most in attendance being former work acquaintances of my late father's. I saw Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Charlie at the front pew, but the rest was a sea of unrecognizable faces. My cousins didn't seem to be here; I tried to attach meaning to that fact but couldn't. They probably had not expected to see me here either.
Aunt Sylvia noticed me, and bee-lined in my direction. She hugged me tightly and gave my cheek a light peck, a gesture that had always reminded me of my mother. "Your uncle would like to speak with you."
"Good to see you, too," I said.
"I'm sorry, Sully," she said, "It's wonderful to see you. But, you'd have to understand how anxious your uncle has been when he found out you were coming."
"Oh, did he miss me that much?"
"He's worried about what you might say," she said. "These are your father's friends and colleagues. He's written something for you to read."
"Of course, he did," I said. Aunt Sylvia escorted me to the front of the small chapel, from where Uncle Charlie had been casting sideways glances at me while chatting with a pair of guests. It was only then that I noticed to his left a large, framed photograph resting on an easel. It was of my father but at an age that I barely remembered. I'm certain he didn't have all that dark brown hair before he died.
Uncle Charlie excused himself from the guests with whom he'd been chatting, and stepped up beside me. He placed a hand on my right shoulder, and, with gentle pressure, led me to a corner, as if it provided ample privacy. Charles James Sullivan had always been a man of decorum. Regardless of how he felt about me, he would never allow himself to make a scene. "Listen, Aaron," he half-whispered. "I know you're smart enough to understand how important today is, so--"
"Sully," I interrupted.
Uncle Charlie caught my full meaning for the correction, but chose not to acknowledge it. He handed me a sheet of paper, which bore his meticulous handwriting. I scanned the page, and instantly felt a knot in my stomach. On it were phrases like, Jacob Aaron Sullivan was a pillar in the community and He was a loving husband and father--things that I wouldn't catch myself saying in a million years. "Please do not deviate from this."
"I don't know the man this is describing," I said, handing Uncle Charlie the sheet of paper, which he begrudgingly accepted. "I'll say what I want to say."
Aunt Sylvia groaned behind me. "Please, Sully, would you please do us this one favor?" I turned around and noticed tears pooling at the base of her eyes. Nothing about my Aunt Sylvia was disingenuous; it was impossible for me to ignore her anxiety.
"Do your father this favor," Uncle Charlie said, and extended the sheet of paper to me again. I took it from him, nodded, then turned around to sit at the front pew. I decided there was no sense fighting the pair of them about this.
What harm was there to read from a script anyway? After all, I had been struggling to find the words to say about a father with whom I'd had no contact for way too long. What had he been like during his last few years? Had the thought of me being at his funeral ever crossed his mind? When was the last time he had considered me at all?
Uncle Charlie gave me a final nod, and returned to speaking to the couple from earlier. Aunt Sylvia gave my shoulder a light squeeze, and walked toward the back of the room to welcome new arrivals. I stared at the closed ornate coffin, flanked by a large photograph of a younger version of a father I never truly knew.
"You must be Aaron," a voice from above me said. I looked up and saw the smiling face of an older woman whom I didn't recognize. She looked to be in her late fifties and bore a refined, subtle beauty that I imagine still turned quite a few heads to this day.
"Yes," I said, standing up to offer a hand. She took it with slender fingers, and shook it lightly. "It's Sully, actually."
"Oh, that's right," the woman said, "Your father did mention you went by that."
"And you are--?"
"My name is Alice Whitcomb," she said with a solemn voice. "I was your father's, well... companion."
"Companion?" I said.
Alice gingerly let go of my hand and smiled wistfully. "Your father and I were in a loving relationship these past six years. He talked about you all the time that I feel as if I know you already despite us having not met until just now."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Oh, yes," she said. "He always talked about his son, the talented musician."
"He did?" I managed, unable to believe what I was hearing from this virtual stranger who was regarding me with discomforting familiarity.
"In fact, he'd once almost convinced me to see one of your shows when your band was in town. But, I'm very uncomfortable with loud places so I told him to go by himself," she said, then chuckled. "His ears were still ringing when he got home! Oh, when was that?"
"Wait, my father was at one of my shows?"
"Oh, yes! It was the one at the...it had the word box in the name--?"
"That was six months ago..."
"That sounds about right," Alice said, "Oh, he would not stop talking about how amazingly you played the guitar. He even compared you to, oh, who did he say? Jimmy something?"
"That's it! Oh, I'm quite terrible with names," she said, smiling widely. "Anyway, it is so nice to finally meet you, Sully. I truly wish this happened sooner."
"Me, too," I said.
Alice circled in front of me and sat down on the pew. She motioned me to do the same. I did so, but not before again regarding the large, framed photograph of my father, as if viewing it with a slightly different pair of eyes.
"Your father was devastated when your mother passed away," she began. "He loved her dearly, as much as he loved you. He acknowledged your relationship was strained but he was too prideful and stubborn to make the first move to repair it. Something tells me those traits run in the family...?"
I smirked and half-nodded. "I'm the junior, after all."
"When you moved away, he believed any opportunity for reconciliation to be all but lost. So, he buried himself in his work, and, after he retired shortly after your mother's death, he focused his energy on his charity efforts. He and I met during one of the fundraisers he'd helped organize." She smiled at that last thought.
"Honestly, this is a bit much for me to take in right now," I said, standing up.
Alice stood up as well, and reached up to place a hand on my chest. I towered over her by a good two feet. We Sullivans had always been among the tallest in any gathering. I imagined the way she looked up at me in that moment must have reminded her of similar instances with my father. "I know, and I'm very sorry. I truly wished you could have known each other better toward the end. He was your biggest fan."
I allowed the last sentence to linger in my head for a moment or two. My biggest fan, huh? Just then, Aunt Sylvia approached and told me the ceremony was to begin shortly. She gave Alice a hug, then urged her to sit on the front pew by her side. Uncle Charlie walked by, and shot me a knowing look before stepping up behind the lectern next to the coffin.
As he began his speech, I once again found myself staring at the large, framed photograph of my father. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that he was in his early to mid-thirties in the photograph, which may have been taken just before I was born. On the photograph, my father flashed his trademark reticent smile on a face many agreed to be handsome. Not Hollywood-leading-man handsome, but he was not one for the ladies to ignore. Many say I looked like my father, except with lighter-colored hair, compliments of my mother's genes. But the similarity in our faces was unmistakable that the adage about the apple not falling far from the tree directly applied.
But, the apple did fall far, I mused. Quite far indeed.
"Aaron," said a voice that stirred me from my reverie. "Sully," Uncle Charlie corrected himself from beside the lectern. I felt the eyes of those around me, and realized I'd gotten my cue to step up to speak.
I stood and walked up to the lectern and stepped behind it. I scanned the faces of the crowd, a sea of strangers who were anything but to my late father. They all wore expressions of unmistakable loss, and I felt guilty for being up on that lectern. Any one of them should be up here instead of me, I thought. I unfolded the sheet of paper that Uncle Charlie had provided, and looked at the first sentence. I adjusted the microphone to align with my lips, and cleared my throat.
"Jacob Aaron Sullivan was a pillar in the community," I started, then promptly folded the sheet again and placed it in my jacket's inside pocket. Across from me was Alice Whitcomb, my late father's companion, the woman who'd captured his heart after his first love was taken from him by an indiscriminate disease. And, my mind was flooded with new information, new truths, about a man who was all but a foreigner to me for quite some time. "And, he was my biggest fan."
Strangely enough, I started to believe it.