My mother's funeral had been in a church. There had been music and people spoke. I mostly just remember Aunt Jenny holding me as I cried.
The funeral for TJ's father was very different. We went straight to the cemetery. There was a hole in the ground with metal pipes around the edges. The coffin was resting on top and there were chairs set up for the family. TJ's mother sat in the center chair, with people I assumed to be her parents on one side and her daughters on her other. TJ stood behind his mother, his older brother beside him. There was a little girl fidgeting restlessly between them.
Uncle Owen was with Jenny, but when Grandpa went to stand near him, I was relieved. I was able to stay near my grandfather and still be near TJ.
"How you doing?" I asked TJ as I came up beside him.
He took my hand. "I've been pretty mean to you the last few days," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."
I squeezed his hand. "It's okay. I know you've been dealing with a lot. Aren't you going to introduce me?" I asked as his niece peeked her head around TJs legs.
TJ smiled, picking up the little girl. "This is Tricia. Tricia, this is my friend Ana. Can you say hi?"
The little girl waved at me, then turned to TJ and said, "Kiki."
TJ made a face, then tapped his brother, who looked exactly like TJ, only fifteen years older, on the shoulder. "Daniel, she wants a cookie."
"Huh?" Daniel looked like he had slept very little the past few days. The woman on his other side wordlessly handed TJ a pink backpack as the service began.
TJ dug a package of breakfast bars out of the bag and passed them to Tricia who ate them happily in his arms. While TJ's mother and sisters all seemed to have an endless amount of tears, TJ remained stoic throughout the service. When they began to lower the casket into the ground, I saw him falter, literally falling forward slightly. I put a hand on his arm, but he merely readjusted his hold on Tricia and stared straight ahead.
After the service, people began to move about, talking to each other. I stayed close to my grandfather. TJ had been absorbed by his family.
"What now?" I asked.
"I can drive you to the reception, but I think TJ would probably like if you went with him."
"I should probably go with you," I said. "I don't see him."
The restaurant was quaint with an entire upper floor reserved for private events. Along one wall were several collages featuring TJ's father at various stages of his life. My grandfather and I looked through them together and my grandfather even recognized some of the pictures, sharing the anecdotes with me.
My grandfather and I sat with Uncle Owen and Jenny. TJ eventually joined us with his sister Clare. The food was served buffet style and our tables was one of the first invited to get food. I started to stand up, but TJ hadn't moved.
"Hey," I said consolingly when we were alone. I placed my hand on his and gave a gentle squeeze. "Are you hungry?"
"Not really," TJ replied despondently.
"When's the last time you've eaten?"
"You're not my mother," he said forcefully, but quiet enough that no one could hear him.
I simply squeezed his hand again. "I just was going to say that even if you're not hungry, you should try to eat something."
"I need some air," TJ grumbled, pushing himself away from the table.
"Would you like company?" I offered.
TJ shook his head before stalking down the stairs. I watched him leave, debating whether I should follow him. Deciding to let him brood a little longer, I joined my grandfather in line for food.
A flood of people visited our table and it was not until people were starting for home that Aunt Jenny asked if I had seen TJ.
"When we first got here, we were talking," I recalled. "Then, he said he needed some air and I never saw him come back."
"Did he take his own car here?" my grandfather asked.
Aunt Jenny nodded. "He drives Dad's car when he needs a ride. I suggested he take it today so he could go back to the camp if he wanted. But I meant after the reception."
"He needed air?" I asked, turning to Uncle Owen. "I bet he went to the campsite."
"You go ahead," my grandfather said. "Owen'll bring me back."
I nodded, kissing my family goodbye. I stopped to tell Mrs. Mason one more time that I was sorry for her loss and headed back to the camp.
I stopped in the office to check in with my dad. I told him about TJ and he said TJ had come through several hours earlier, but he had not seen him leave.
I ran to my room to change into camp clothes and grab my pack. I told my father I was spending the night in the woods and headed up the access road.
TJ wasn't there when I arrived. I began to worry he had taken the trail and gotten hurt when I saw a little red bird out of the corner of my eye. As soon as I turned for a better look, the bird was gone. But I was facing the sunrise/sunset trail and I realized where TJ must be.
He was sitting on the rock, staring at the waterfall while dangling his bare feet into the water. When I emerged from the trail, TJ glanced up. When he saw it was me, he went back to staring at the water.
I removed my shoes and sat beside him. The water was cooler than I expected. "Ready to talk?" I asked after a moment.
"So, you can tell me it'll be okay? That you're sorry for my loss? That you know I'm sad now, but it'll be better someday?"
"None of those are gonna make you feel better."
"Then what does? Cuz I'm not sure how much more I can take!"
I pushed TJ in the pool. I wasn't sure why I had done it. I smiled in spite of myself.
"Oh yeah? You think that was funny?" TJ asked with a slight smile as he stood in the waist-high water. "How do you like it?"
He grabbed my waist and pulled me in to the water. We splashed a few times before TJ caught me in his arms and pulled me close.
"I'm sorry for being so awful," he apologized.
"It's okay," I reassured him, running a hand through his wet hair. "I've been there. I get it."
TJ kissed me so gently and sweetly, I thought I would melt. He had never kissed me like that before.
"I forgot," TJ said simply when he pulled away. He pulled me close to him, resting his chin on my head.
I was still mesmerized by that kiss. "What did you forget?"
"That you know what it's like. That your mom died suddenly, too."
I tried to hold him tightly, but my teeth were already beginning to chatter. I could feel my entire body shivering with cold.
"Ana! You're freezing!" TJ realized suddenly. He led me to the beach.
"I…I…I'm o…kay," I stammered.
He held me close, but he was no warmer than I was. When I couldn't stop shivering, he dug through his pack and pulled out a sweatshirt.
"Here. Put this on. Take off your wet things."
TJ handed me the sweatshirt and went back to the rock, facing away from me. I remembered I had packed a bathing suit in my bag with the intention of leaving it at the campsite.
As quickly as I could with shaking hands, I peeled off my wet clothes and put on the bathing suit. TJ continued to watch the waterfall, giving me my privacy. I covered myself with the sweatshirt and joined TJ.
"Are you cold?" I asked.
TJ shook his head but said nothing.
"I'm sorry I pushed you in," I continued. "I don't know what came over me."
"I needed it," he said, still not looking at me. I saw a tear streaming down his cheek. "I've been acting like a jerk."
"You've been acting like someone who lost his father."
"It's my fault he died," TJ said, tears falling more rapidly.
I placed an arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. He buried his face in my chest and I stroked his hair.
"It's not your fault," I reassured him.
"It is. I told him about hiking the AT and he got all freaked out. The stress was probably what did it."
"He called my grandfather," I told him. "Talked to him about your hike. I got the impression my grandfather convinced your dad to let you go."
"I talked to a lot of people today. You know what I heard a lot? Two things. One was how suddenly and unexpectedly he passed. The other was how proud he was of you."
"I was thinking of not doing the hike."
"Talk about it with your mom. And my grandfather. But I think he would want you to go. And I'll go with you. We just need to convince my dad. Grandpa already started."
We sat in quiet for a moment, then TJ sat up suddenly. "Do you hear something?" he asked.
Above the din of the waterfall, I could hear a mournful birdsong. I looked all around.
"Look!" TJ whispered, pointing to the sky. A small bird was circling high above us. Was it my imagination, or was the bird red?
We sat in silence, listening to the bird and watching the waterfall.
"We're gonna finish clearing the trail this week," TJ declared as the sun began to set. "Something tells me we'll be able to get it done this week."
"The camp will heal," I said, putting an arm around TJ's waist. "You will too."
TJ nodded. "I know. I feel it. This summer, we fix the camp. Then, next summer, we hike the AT."