Of course we were much later than planned. We sat on the tarmac at O’Hare for more than an hour. While I watched various airport personnel scurry around with carts, tools, and anxious expressions, I realized that this vaguely-described “equipment delay” was a sign that I should step off the plane and take a cab to my apartment in Humboldt Park. I hadn’t slept in days. And I wasn’t ready to deal with everything on today’s itinerary. I closed my eyes, envisioning myself waddling up the center aisle, up the jetway, through the airport–avoiding the people movers–and eventually jumping in a taxi. I could be back to Western Avenue in 30 minutes.
When I opened my eyes, I was still sitting next to my mom. She was torn between fretting about the time–because how on earth could we fly to Decatur, pick up the rental car AND arrive at the cemetery by 2:00–and trying to talk me into eating some kind of cheese-dominated sandwich purchased in the airport. Minutes later, we were hurtling through the air toward a small industrial city in Central Illinois. Ryan had once told me that most of the world’s manhole covers were made there. The turbulence was terrible. My mom was as white as a sheet, gripping my hand to comfort herself. I silently wished the plane would drop out of the sky, freeing me from all of the pain ahead of me.
Our rental car was long gone.
The funeral was over.
We took a $75 cab ride to Ryan’s parents’ house. I was staring out the window, watching the sad flat scenery race by while my mom explained the story to the female cab driver. A story that I would have to spend the rest of my life revealing to boyfriends and best friends. A story hastily laid out for acquaintances innocently asking, “Where is Dylan’s father?” A story whispered by my mother and other relatives while I was in the other room washing dishes. A story that would haunt my dreams for years to come.
We were late for my boyfriend’s funeral. Yes, he had been 27 when he died. Isn’t that just tragic? Such a well-mannered handsome young man. He’ll never see his child be born. Terrible, isn’t it? Such a shame. The cab driver says the same nonsense I’ve been hearing for days. “Even these awful things happen for a reason, it’s all part of a plan, blahblahblah.”
If only someone could have stepped forward at that moment with concrete proof that in fact everything WOULD be just fine.
The cab ride was not as long as I had hoped. Soon my mom was fixing my hair–better than usual thanks to a pre-funeral haircut paid for by my grandma, and filled with live daisies–and asking me to put on some lipstick. She straightened my newly purchased black maternity dress–the first item of actual maternity clothing I had purchased. In fact, this dress had been purchased a few weeks ago, in anticipation of my upcoming birthday. Ryan and I were going to drive to Decatur so I could meet the rest of his family. His mother was throwing a birthday party for me. Only his closest relatives new about the impending baby, so we were going to announce it to everyone during that visit.
Instead his father–Ryan’s parents were divorced–found out on the telephone, less than five minutes after I had called to tell him that his son’s dead body had been found under his desk.
I shuffled up to the front door of the house, struggling with my overnight bag. My mom grabbed my hand. “You can do this. You are one of the toughest people I have known in my life.”
The next two hours were a blur. Hugs from strangers and too many questions and tears from everyone. And somehow, I managed to be smile and be sociable. I’m not going to lie–to this day I am both proud and astonished by my behavior. Some secret well of strength was revealed to me that day. I realized that I could make others feel better simply by being calm and positive in the face of the darkest days.
One of Ryan’s college friends asked me out. Um.
All of our Chicago friends and acquaintances hung out in a corner, steering clear from the family. Every time I looked in their directions, I was met with a guilty look. I did speak to these people, these alleged friends of me and my boyfriend. Seeing them made me sick. Knowing that they had driven down to Decatur the night before to party in a cheap motel disgusted me.
One of them walked up to me and said, “Wow, you look so healthy.” Possibly a compliment, but double-edged at best. Later I would date her ex-boyfriend, the one who refused to marry her.
Eventually everyone left. It was just me, my mom, and Ryan’s parents and sisters.
“We want to drive you out to the cemetery,” one of them said.
I looked at my mom for help. I really didn’t think I could handle that. My composure would certainly disappear. But she agreed that I should go.
A brief drive through downtown Decatur. And then winding through a large, almost bucolic, cemetery. Flowers, trees, and quaint little benches. Fountains and singing birds. The dead bodies resting below were just an afterthought.
Fortunately everyone stayed in the car. My mom and I walked up to the mountain of flowers that marked the fresh grave. With each step closer, I found it harder to breathe. “Please, please, please do not let me have an epic freak out right now, “ I pleaded to no one in particular. I wished then that I had some sort of religious faith to fall back on. A god up in the sky to listen to me and keep me safe from all of this.
My mom started talking, a endless sing-songy string meant to make me feel better. “You can still do everything you have wanted and I promise your life will be okay and I’ll help you with the baby and you can still fall in love and maybe someday you’ll find someone else and you will smile and laugh again.”
I quietly asked her to stay behind as I made the last few steps to the grave site.
And there I was.
The flowers were making me sneeze and bees were everywhere, but none of this mattered, when I began to really understand that I was standing above my dead boyfriend’s body. The person I have loved most in my life, the father of my child, the one who could break me more than anyone else…he was six feet under the ground, never to return again. I would never touch or smell him again. No more late night baths and predawn walks through the park. The distance was so far, it made me feel ten feet tall. This was all real. I was not going to wake up from this dream. This exact moment would haunt me forever, creeping in at work meetings, while cooking dinner, and even while I’m drunkenly dancing at parties.
I laid down on the ground, with my ear to the grass, wishing that I could hear him. I remembered a conversation from days earlier, when I had said to him, “You have to get your act together. If you’re not in the room when our baby is born, I will never forgive you.” Apparently forgiveness would never matter to him again.
The tears that would not end for months began just then.
Eventually I struggled to my feet. I was thankful for the tissues my mom had thoughtfully stuffed in my pocket.
I pulled the flowers from my hair and laid them where I imagine Ryan’s head might rest.
Decatur, Illinois is sometimes referred to as the “Soybean Capital of the World.” I have not returned since, but I am imagining some day, when Dylan is a petulant teenager, we will drive there so she can see her father’s grave.
P.S. This might be the most difficult thing I have written in quite some time, as I found myself–a thousand miles and more than 7 years away–tearing up in the front window of the Green Line Cafe as I typed the last few paragraphs.