A man, wearing a shirt two sizes too small for him, but two sizes too big for most other people, leads us into a dimly lit room. There are probably over 30 long wooden benches. It’s a huge room, which isn’t what I pictured on my way here. I also didn’t picture that we would need most of this space. At first, there are maybe 15 people. They are all immediate family, who I easily recognize from spending so much time with them. But then, more and more keep pouring in—more than I had ever imagined would. There are a couple of tough guys leaning up against the wall with biceps dying to break free of the short sleeves that contain them. There’s an older woman with a beehive hairstyle right out of the 1950’s. Here comes a group of 20-somethings who seem completely out of place. I realize they belong once they make their way over to my 20-something cousin to help comfort him with homey handshakes and embraces with double back taps on his shoulder. Within an hour, there are way too many people to count. I don’t know half of them, but most of them know me.
The first few times, it brings me to tears. I hear it over, and over, and over, and over again. “Hey Mike. How are you holding up? I’m so sorry for your loss. The phrase is engraved into my head. It comes with the hug (sometimes with the kiss on the cheek, which sometimes leaves the remains of transferred tears that don’t belong to my eyes) or the occasional handshake and tilt of the head. All I can say in reply is a simple “Thank you”. I struggle to think of anything else to say; a common theme throughout the night. Golly Gosh! I am just doing so outstandingly splendid, why thank you! doesn’t seem fitting. “Thank you” is the only thing that makes sense. I begin to tune out the “how are you holding up?” question because everyone who asks the question knows the answer before I say it. Putting myself in their shoes, though, I realize I’m not the only one struggling to find the right words. It must be hard for these people to come up with anything else to say besides “I’m sorry for your loss”.
Then we make eye contact. As I scan the room in an attempt to take my mind off the proceedings, the old man across from me is staring at me dead-on as if he were staring for an eternity, and I just so happen to lock sights with him, stuck in the inevitable awkwardness of not knowing who this man staring at me is or why, but knowing that he knows exactly who I am and has a reason for looking. He walks towards me magnificently slowly but with a definite purpose. I don’t know whether to look away in order to avoid further discomfort or to stare right back, peering into him as far as he is peering into me. I will hear it replayed in my head over, and over, and over, and over again. “Hey, you’re Mikey right? I just wanted to let you know how much you meant to him. If you ever came up in conversation when we spoke, he would change completely. He would smile from ear to ear and he would tell me how unbelievable you were and how much he loved you.” I begin to break down before he finished talking. He called me Mikey. Only one other person called me that. He must have learned it from my grandfather, who was the only one that never called me Mike or Michael. To him, I was Mikey Magoo.
I remember the time he took me fishing off the pier in Manhattan Beach when I was five. We walked from his house to the pier, talking on the way about how well Pre-K was going. When we arrived, he taught me how to set up the fishing rod. After hours and hours, I finally felt a pull. We reeled it in. We held it above the water for a few minutes while I debated whether to keep the fish or release it back into the water—to let it go or watch it die. When I had come to my final decision, my grandfather threw the fish back in. He comforted me and assured me the fish would be fine, knowing it would devastate me to find out that it died. I didn’t realize it though; in the time it took me to make my life-altering decision, I had forgot that the fish wouldn’t live longer than a few seconds.
I remember his old house on Nostrand Avenue, which had a porch with green AstroTurf flooring and white, rusty railings that allowed me to see everyone below through the spaces. It overlooked the gigantic avenue from the towering third floor. We would sit on the folding beach chairs and count the cars that rushed past by their color. One white car. Two grey cars. A red one. Oh, there’s another white one. Wait, no, that’s beige. I loved sitting on his lap, impressing him with my extensive knowledge of the color wheel.
I remember my first Mets game. Just Poppy and me, sitting on the third base line at Shea Stadium, maybe ten rows from the field. The opposing Astros came up to bat to begin the game, and their first player got a hit. Jumping in my Mets jersey two sizes too big and wearing my Mets hat, also two sizes too big, I cheered and clapped as if the Mets had just won the World Series. Then, he explained to me that it’s not a good thing when the other team gets a hit, while displaying his ear-to-ear grin, chuckling like he always did. I sat back down, and began to learn the rules of baseball.
I remember all of those ridiculous jokes he told me. Like when he would ask me if I was a smart feller (his fake southern pronunciation of fellow) or a fart smeller. I couldn’t count how many times I heard that one. I remember all of the funny faces. Like the one where he would take a huge gulp of air, puff his cheeks out, cross his eyes and pull up on his ears. That one always made me laugh. I never really appreciated the jokes or the faces up until now.
Actually, I realize, I never really appreciated him up until now. The difference is that now I can’t tell him any of this. I can’t tell him how much joy I got out of fishing with him, or counting cars, or going to a baseball game, or his silly jokes and faces. I had 17 years to do it, and I waited a few days too long.
Now, I am staring at his casket. I stand there in a trance, unable to move or speak. I’m devastated that I didn’t get a chance to give him a formal goodbye, and that I didn’t tell him how much he really meant to me. But at this point, I realize that I don’t need to do that. I realize he already knows that. He knows how much I love him. He knows what he means to me. I remember the time when he told me over the phone from Florida: “Mikey Magoo, you will never know how much I love you.”
Now I know.
Age 17, Grade 12
Berkeley Carroll School