Not By Blood
Brooke ran across the funeral parlor and gave Ozzie a hug as soon as he walked into the room with his parents.
"Oh, Ozzie, isn't it terrible?" She sobbed as she clung to him, her face buried in his chest.
Ozzie hadn't even accumulated himself to the surroundings yet. His parents proceeded to where the photo boards were set up documenting Uncle Stan's life through the years.
The open casket was in front of the room and there Stan was, surrounded by flowers and the Crucifix. Stan's family was on the far side of the room, receiving guests. Poor Aunt Lisa looked like she had been hit by a truck and cousins Laurie and Louie appeared dazed.
Brooke was the granddaughter of Uncle Stan's late sister Karen. Ozzie was the son of Aunt Lisa's brother Willie so he and Brooke were not related by blood but they had gotten to know each other through the years at various joint family gatherings. They also attended the same church although Ozzie lived in Greenville and Brooke resided in Mt. Griffin.
Ozzie was surprised by Brooke's open display of affection and support. Although they were familiar with one another and friendly in their various encounters, there had never been any overt signs of interest from her. In fact, she showed up at the last family gig with some guy on her arm.
"It's terrible," Ozzie concurred, finally answering Brooke's question while peeling her off of him. "I should probably walk the gauntlet," he said.
"I'll look at the pictures with you," Brooke volunteered. "There are some great ones."
The two teens stood in front of the white poster boards on easels and reviewed Uncle Stan's life together – from his childhood, through his adolescence, high school years, and his adult life – candid shots of him throughout the years enjoying birthday celebrations, holidays, camping trips, hunting, fishing. His wedding photos. Hanging out with pals. Being a Dad. Being a husband. Brooke was offering a narrative description of the photos she was familiar with, pointing out her grandmother, of course, and the photos she was in.
Brooke was wearing a sleeveless black dress with black stockings as she stood next to Ozzie who was wearing his one suit with a yellow shirt and black tie. Brooke was wearing black high heels that made her look a few inches taller than she really was. Her black hair was parted down the middle and hung on her shoulders. Ozzie wasn't exactly sure what he was supposed to say. Stan was a great Uncle who treated Ozzie right. His Dad got along well with him too as a brother in law and the three had spent quality time together. Aunt Lisa was always nice and welcoming whenever they visited and it seemed surreal that Uncle Stan was gone so young at 55, the victim of a two year battle with cancer.
"I should say a prayer," Ozzie said when they were done looking at the photos.
"Oh, sure, yeah," Brooke said. "I already did."
Ozzie knelt on the kneeler in front of Uncle Stan's casket and said a private prayer, thanking Stan for all he did for him and the family over the years. Stan looked peaceful in the casket, Ozzie thought, his face taunt but serine, his moustache trimmed and his hair styled.
He hated the concept of receiving lines at wakes, never sure what to say to the grieving family members, even when they were his family members. He gave his Aunt Lisa a hug – he was taller than her now – almost crushing the white tulip she was holding.
"Stan thought you were great," Aunt Lisa told him her tears fogging up her glasses.
He gave his Cousin Laurie a hug too and shook Louie's hand. Both were a few years older than him but they had been great pals in younger years. Laurie was now a married Mom (her husband Rob was also in the receiving line) and Luke was just finishing up his college career. Ozzie awkwardly mumbled 'sorry' and 'tough loss' and then bailed out of the receiving line as fast as he could. There were other relatives to say hello to – aunts and uncles, other cousins, family friends but he ended up sitting in the back of the room with Brooke although he wasn't quite sure why. Maybe he felt a bond with her on this weird day.
"Where's your boyfriend?" Ozzie asked. "The guy you brought to the 4th of July picnic."
"We broke up," Brooke replied. "He wouldn't have come to this anyway. The picnic was torture enough for him."
"Is that why you broke up?" Ozzie smirked. "He couldn't deal with the family?"
"That was part of it," she admitted.
"I wish we didn't have to deal with this," Ozzie sighed.
"I haven't stopped crying," Brooke said.
It's been devastating for everybody," Ozzie said. "Such a great guy."
They watched as the various mourners came through the line – guys Stan knew from high school. Former co-workers. Neighborhood friends. Distant family members. His camping pals. Friends of the family.
"This sucks," somebody said from across the room.
"Quote of the day," Ozzie decided.
"I used to have a morbid curiosity about death and funerals," Brooke confessed. "But then Grandma died and now it's her brother Uncle Stan in the casket and it's just too sad to make light of anymore."
"I don't like to think about it," Ozzie concurred. "I'll be in a funk for the next few months. I still think about Jerry Miller who got splattered out there on Route 36 a couple of years ago."
They listened to people around them sharing Stan stories – some humorous, some sentimental, some sweet, some poignant, all of them emotional in the context of the moment.
"I don't think Uncle Stan was impressed with Eric," Brooke revealed.
"Who's Eric?" Ozzie asked.
"The guy I brought to the picnic," she clarified. "Uncle Stan was always full of advice. I don't think he thought Eric was good enough for me. That maybe there was something fake about him."
"Uncle Stan would say he was as strange as a three dollar bill," Ozzie laughed.
"He caught us kissing behind the garage that day," Brooke blushed.
"I'm sure he was okay with that stuff."
"Well, Eric also had his hand on my breast," Brooke said. "It was kind of embarrassing."
"He never would have told your parents though," Ozzie said.
"I know," Brooke said. "But I'd hate for that image to be the last one he had of me."
"I'm sure it wasn't," Ozzie told her. "Don't beat yourself up about it. Uncle Stan liked you a lot."
"I don't like feeling bad and sad at the same time," Brooke sighed.
"You're not bad and it's okay to feel sad," Ozzie told her.
"I'm glad you're here," Brooke smiled. "I've always liked you."
"We're sitting in a room full of family members," Ozzie said. "You have the pick of the litter."
"I pick you!" She grinned.
Ozzie's Uncle Chuck was telling the story of how Stan had been out mowing the lawn just a few days before he died. Uncle Ron was reminiscing about Stan's old pick up truck he drove for nearly twenty years and how you always knew Stan was coming because you could hear the truck approaching a block away. Chuck's wife Donna noted that Stan didn't believe in cell phones, e-mails or computers and he thought that social media was for morons.
"He was pretty old fashioned," Brooke agreed. "The telephone was the only way to go."
"He still used a turntable," Ozzie grinned.
"He liked to read," Brooke recalled.
Ozzie's Dad mentioned how Uncle Stan hated the euphemism 'passed away' and that got people around him to start listing off some of Uncle Stan's favorite death descriptions. Brown Bread. Bought the Farm. Cashed in the chips. Came to a sticky end. Counting worms. Croaked. Crossed the Jordan. Dead as a doornail. Deleted. Erased. Fell off the perch. Food for worms. Off to the Glue Factory. Gone over the big ridge. Gone to Davy Jones' locker. Gone to the big place in the sky. Joined the invisible choir. Joined the great majority. Kicked the bucket. Off on a boat.
They were laughing so hard and loudly that Aunt Sarah had to come over and tell them to quiet down.
"Uncle Stan can make us laugh even in death," Brooke said as she wiped a tear from her eye.
"We've lost a huge voice in our family," Ozzie sighed.
"What do we do now?" Brooke wondered.
"We carry on without him," Ozzie shrugged. "We're still among the living so we express our condolences and sincerest sadness and we go on with our lives, remembering his wisdom, his advice, his character, his influence, and his example."
The priest came, greeted the immediate family, said a few kind words about the deceased, offered a few standard prayers, recited a hymn, and then told the gathered that he'd see them in church. He was an older man who walked with a limp but he still had a full head of red hair and that made him look cool. The funeral director asked non-family members to visit the casket one last time and then exit to the procession, telling the pallbearers to meet the hearse at the church to bring the body inside.
"I guess I'd better go with my parents," Brooke said as she stood. "Thanks for sitting with me, Ozzie."
Ozzie stood too and watched as Brooke joined her parents across the room. He was surprised at how much he enjoyed her company, even at a wake.