I wept at the funeral, though no one saw or heard me. I suspect that many of those in attendance, including family members and longtime friends, would have been surprised to see I was even capable of tears.
My composure is legendary, you see.
But, as with all things, it has its limits. And these were much in evidence on that bright, windy morning last fall. Look at what I had lost, though: any chance of ever rekindling a relationship with my only son. The son I loved more than life itself, but loved in a way that was inarticulate and clumsy and saddled with conditions.
Now all I have are memories of him: memories I will carry with me for the rest of my days on Earth.
The most recent of these are incredibly painful. They are filled with arguments, accusations, and criticisms. I see him standing there, cheeks flushed with anger, fists clenching and unclenching, telling me that I am a failed, abusive father. Telling me that I was a cold husband to his late mother, whom he claims I treated cruelly even into the final years of her life, when the cancer was eating her alive. Declaring that when he is a father and a husband himself, he will strive to be as different from me as possible.
Indeed, he says, that is how he will measure his success in these roles.
But I have harsh words of my own. I tell him he is a poor son. I tell him that I would never have dared to show such disrespect to my own father, regardless of whether I agreed with everything he said or did. I call him an ungrateful little bastard. How dare he criticize my fitness as a parent and a spouse, while at the same time taking advantage of the wealth I have devoted my life to amassing? How dare he attack me, this boy of mine; this petulant child fit only for warming a therapist's couch.
The earlier memories are the better ones, and yet these are the most painful of all. I am reminded of a number of summer mornings, all in the years during which my son was not yet big enough to go to school, when he and I would head down to the beach for a little fun in the water, just after dawn. I was working pretty much every day back then, striving to build my new business, but somehow I managed to find the time for such jaunts.
I wanted my son to be able to swim. I thought it was something that every boy and girl who lived close to water, particularly the ocean, should know how to do. And do it well. My son was keen to learn, which I appreciated. But always, once I was done coaching him, he would ask for his reward.
He would say, "Swim with me."
And of course I would. Understand: when he asked me to swim with him, he didn't mean by his side. Instead, once I'd agreed to his wish, my son would throw his tiny arms around my neck; and then, with his warm, vibrant little body pressed against my back, I would stroke out past the breakers, into the calm sunlit waters beyond, and there let the current carry us along the shore, until at last I tired and was compelled to take us back to dry land.
Then, suddenly, he was big and knew how to swim and I could think of no reason to take him to the beach anymore. So I put an end to our little trips. I explained that he was old enough to go swimming with his friends now, and, besides, I was getting to be very busy. Orders were up, and matters of profit and payroll and input costs all needed tending. He seemed to understand.
Well, I won't waste your time with all the things that happened between those long-past summer mornings and the day of our last farewell. I'd like to say that there were a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of miscommunications, between my son and me. But I'm afraid the truth is that we understood each other quite well. Perhaps too well. One thing the boy inherited from me was his stubbornness. When he took a position, he held to it, as did I. Neither one of us could give an inch; it was a matter of pride. And I might have applauded him for his resoluteness, had he not displayed it so often, and so valiantly, in opposition to me.
Of course, now it's too late for either of us to extend the olive branch.
I suppose he inherited my reserved nature as well, for I saw not one single tear roll down his cheek as he gazed upon my coffin. Nonetheless, I sensed in him a deep, and perhaps unanswerable, sadness. I wonder if it welled up from the same spring as my own.
I watched his wife take his hand during the ceremony and squeeze it; I watched his hand gently close around hers. His own son, very young and looking uncomfortable in his little suit, was seated beside him. The boy appeared rather bewildered by the quiet beauty of an Anglican funeral. Several times I saw my son reach out and stroke the head of his child, saying nothing. I asked myself: for whose comfort does he touch him—the boy's or his own? I couldn't say. Maybe it was helpful to both.
I would like to embrace them all now: my son, the daughter-in-law I barely knew, and the grandchild I knew not at all. It was possible once, with the right words. But it isn't now.
Well before the funeral was over I turned and left, unable to bear any more. Departing, I observed the faces of many of the other individuals present. All were appropriately solemn, though none looked grieved. I wasn't surprised. In life I had often hoped that there were would be numerous prominent individuals at my funeral, just so that everyone else would be aware of my importance. I'd gotten my wish: in addition to my relatives and business associates, three members of Congress were in attendance, as was the Governor. But none of these people really knew me, and I didn't really know any of them. I think most were just putting in appearances anyway.
Several folks shivered as I passed by, surely mystified by the little fleeting spot of coolness in the air, which is all that signifies my presence now. I floated over sun-dappled marble slabs and gardens of stone Crosses, over clutches of vibrant, many-hued flowers, carefully groomed paths, and, finally, the iron fence separating the church cemetery from the maritime forest beyond.
There, in that forest, I have remained to this day, floating in the shadows of great oaks and pines, above bracken ferns and palmettos and wild grasses that grow in places where there is warmth and light enough. If I'm fortunate I sometimes have the pleasure of watching a little girl pick flowers at the edge of the forest, or a gang of boys build a fort further into its interior.
I wish I could speak to these children. Let them know that not all ghosts are scary; that some of us are merely sad, and lonely, and doomed to spend eternity longing for things forever beyond our reach; that while some of us may haunt, others are merely haunted. I wish I could tell them that some of us became ghosts to those we loved long before we died. But I can't.
And so I drift on. Drift on remembering my child's heartbeat against my flesh, the softness of his breath on the back of my neck, and the love that shone in his large blue eyes when he looked up at his father and said those marvelous words:
"Swim with me."