I've been sent back on leave for a special occasion: my father's funeral.
I was in Iraq, fighting the "good fight" when I got the call. A satellite radio was handed to me, after I had been summoned to the communications tent, and I pressed it to my ear. A static crackle later, I could hear my mother's voice. She was upset, and I already knew why.
He'd finally left us.
With mixed feelings, I boarded the helicopter, back to civilization. From there it was a few truck rides and a plane ride home. Well, what used to be home. The city was collapsing, in a manner of speaking.
I'd gotten some info on what was going on back home, but the reports were vague. Sounded like something they would have under control after a week or two. Problem was, they never were able to gain control over the situation. It got worse with each passing day, and by the time I made it to my mom's house in San Jose, things had gotten dire.
And then I found out how dad had died.
It was this damn outbreak I had given no thought to. He had caught this virus, or disease, or whatever they wanted to call it, and that was it. Mom said he showed minor symptoms, like coughing and a fever, and they didn't think anything of it either. Until it was too late.
My mother cried when I walked through the front door, dropping my duffle bag to the floor to swallow her up in an enveloping hug. Despite how horrible I felt for thinking it, I was glad it had been my dad and not my mother. She'd been through enough.
"Oh, Christopher... I can't believe it happened like this." Her voice shook through her sobs, and I squeezed her tighter. Closer.
"Shh. It's okay, ma. We'll be okay."
I would make sure of it. I swore it to myself to keep her fragile heart safe. My beautiful, broken mother. She was the only thing that mattered anymore.
A few days went by as we prepared for the funeral. I watched the news religiously, trying to figure out just what the hell was happening with people. If they weren't dying from the outbreak, they were losing all humanity and violently attacking others. Even those they loved.
I could only imagine what could have happened to my mother if my dad had been strong enough to live past the symptoms. Would he have killed her? I had no doubt in my mind that he would have. Violent was his middle name.
But ma still loved him…
I scoffed at the thought as I pulled my suit jacket on. It was an old one of my dad's and it barely fit over my shoulders. I'd put on some muscle from training and being on active duty. I'm surprised I didn't rip the seams.
"I'm ready, ma." I half yelled as I walked out of my old bedroom. It looked the same as the day I left to join the Army. My mom never wanted me to go. Dad forced me to.
When she appeared in the hallway, wearing all black, including a black veil on the fancy hat dad had bought her last year on their anniversary, my heart sank. She looked so beautiful and so sad. Anger crept up inside, and I found myself cursing my dad for leaving her. Again.
But this time, it was permanent.
I threw on a small smile for her as she looked toward me. No doubt she was thinking I must look just like dad when he was younger. Unfortunately. I walked to her and hugged her gently, putting my arm out for her to loop her’s through. We walked out together.
The drive over was crazy. The streets were packed full with vehicles, I figured they were trying to vacate the city, but I'm sure most of them were just going about their routine lives. It wasn’t that bad yet, at least according to the news. I had my doubts, though. Things seemed a bit worse than the media was letting on. But wasn’t that the usual?
We arrived at the cemetery on time, having followed the hurst vehicle. My mother tried desperately not to cry. Said it would ruin her makeup, but I know she’s not worried about her damn makeup. She’s just trying to distract herself.
I put the car in park along the long, windy road that penetrates through the lush green grass and trees. Dad’s gravesite is somewhere near the middle, next to a willow tree. It was a nice spot, I thought, which is why my father had already had it reserved as a family lot. When ma died, she’d end up next to him. Stuck with him for all eternity.
The thought made me shudder.
“Are you ready?” I asked her in a low voice. She was wiping the tears carefully away, trying not to smudge her mascara. I’d seen my ma cry like this a thousand times before. Every time because of him. Every time she would pick herself up and try again.
She loved him so much and he never deserved it.
I shook my head, disappointed in my own thoughts. My dad lie dead not 50 feet away from me and I could only think of how much I hated him.
“Let’s go.” She whispered and opened the car door. A shuddered breath escaped her as she exited the car, shutting the door. After a moment to collect myself and my thoughts, I opened the door and got out, too.
Dad was an influential man. He ran a large construction company and had built many of the houses and buildings around our area. He had money, and people liked that. So they liked him. I also found that he was a lot nicer to anyone other than me and ma. It was something that always infuriated me.
Why could he be a good person to strangers, but so mean to his own son and wife? That he claimed he loved. The poisonous thought seeped through my being at an early age, and got stuck there. For good reason.
We made our way through the slightly damp grass. They must had watered earlier that morning. I didn’t really mind but ma was wearing toeless strap on shoes and her feet were getting wet. When I looked at her, though, she was focused ahead, unconcerned.
That’s my ma, always looking forward. Never dwelling on the small stuff. She was a smart lady.
We arrive and take our seats under the shade of the willow tree. Our chairs are closest to the casket, which is sitting wide open. I dared not look inside just yet. I had to be prepared. I held my ma’s hand as we awaited the other people to arrive. Friends and family poured in and took their seats behind us, giving us many apologies and condolences as they walked by. I was surprised so many showed up, due to the circumstances.
Soon, we were ready.
A woman, who seemed to be my mother’s age, approached the podium beside the casket and cleared her throat before looking up and beginning her speech. She was the funeral director.
She droned on for awhile about my father’s accomplishments, the people he had helped to have better lives, how great of a husband and father he was. Yeah right, lady.
I kept my ma’s hand firmly in mine, and I could feel her trembling. She was trying real hard not to lose it. Not to break down.
After the whole speech, a few people were allowed to come up and say a few words. Neither me or ma had anything to say. At least not anything good. So we listened to a few men and women go up and talk about how great dad was. It seemed to last forever, but soon enough, it was time to say our goodbyes.
We allowed everyone else to go up and view the casket before us. Some left flowers, some left letters, and one even left a stuffed animal. Who were these people? They seemed closer to my dad than I did. It didn’t matter. Not anymore.
It was our turn now, and we rose from our chairs slowly, reluctantly. We walked up to the casket together and when I stared down inside, I lost my breath.
I hated this man, but I loved my dad. The idea of him. The rare occasions he did act like my dad. He was gone, dead in front of me and finally, I shed a tear. I desperately tried to fight them, but once my mother saw, it was all over for the both of us.
She crumbled over onto his body, arms sprawled across the lifelessness. She cried. She screamed. She pleaded. But it was too late now. He was gone.
I draped an arm over my ma’s back to comfort her, but it didn’t help much. The reality of the situation had struck her like a flash of lightening. Her body was racked with sobs as she finally stood erect again, a gasp of shock escaping her quivering lips. I looked down to see what she was staring at and my mouth dropped.