The memorial service for my brother’s father-in-law, Konnie, was held in Chino, California, and most of the guests who lined up alongside the busy boulevard to greet the grieving widow, S, at the chapel’s entrance wore cowboy boots. Spanish words colored the conversations the way the pink camellias brightened the green of the shrubs surrounding the funeral home. My sister’s 18-month old daughter played peek-a-boo with the railing, her happiness the antithesis to the broken-hearted crying we could hear from inside.
My most vivid memory of Konnie took place in Maui at my brother’s wedding to Konnie’s daughter, T. We all flew out there, T’s parents, our kids and us, and a slew of friends. The lot of us stayed together in a beautiful villa right on the beach. I had just gotten dressed for the ceremony – fancy make-up, my longish hair put up in a blossom of crisscrossing locks, a dress that made my curves look more voluptuous than lazy. I had to get something from our rented van and I skip-ran down the front stairs, barefoot, past Konnie. When I returned, I looked up and there he was, watching me and smoking a cigarette. His hair was cropped short, military style – his hefty build was draped in a green print Hawaiian shirt. He leaned on the railing, a tattoo, blued with age, visible on his forearm. I smiled and waved and he waved back, saying, “You clean up real nice there.”
I laughed, said thank you, and walked up the stairs, meeting my niece, Aa, at the top. The wedding was on.
Konnie loved fishing, Model-A cars, and smoking. He was known for often using the words son-of-a-bitch (said more like “sum-bitch”) and bullshit (said more like “boo-shit”). I got to know him a little when we’d go to B’s and T’s home for barbeques. We’d all sit by the pool late into the evening, smoking and drinking and chatting. He spoke caringly about his family, living and deceased. I could see beneath the rough exterior, a truly kind soul. He had a low, quiet laugh. At the same time, it was best to duck and cover when he got crotchety. If you weren’t expecting harsh words, he could hurt you.
He and I talked only a couple of times since he learned he had lung cancer. I tried to encourage him, reminding him to take one day at a time, but he looked at me sideways and said, “I won’t be around more’n six months. I know that.” I could only pat his hand and nod, knowing I was on the outside of that journey. Just like everyone else was. There’s little to say on the subject when you aren’t facing such a certain, immediate future, like someone in his position.
“We love you, Konnie.”
The service ended with my brother getting up in front of the gathering to thank everyone. I noticed as he got up that he walked exactly like my father. I was proud of B this past week. The death had been sudden, unexpected. Konnie had collapsed in front of his house. His wife, S, was devastated, like a lost child – his daughter was stoic. B drove the two around all week, helped make the arrangements, finally, thanking everyone. My little brother…was no longer little.
We piled into our cars after the service, each of the cars bearing the orange “funeral” stickers. We turned on our lights and started the long drive to Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, accompanied by the funeral traffic cops on bikes and one cousin on a Harley who helped manage the unwieldy line of folks. As we drove, I chatted on the cell with my sister, both of us admiring the Harley cousin (long hair flapping in the wind beneath his black helmet, leather jacket whipping back and forth) and recalling the funerals of our parents. Got a little weepy. The ride got a tad wild on the 60 freeway when we had to deflect away from the 57 eventually to merge onto the 605 where we’d exit. The motorcycle men waved their hands frantically to get us all to the left, then to the right. I learned later my aunt had no sticker, sweating it out at the end of line like a flea hanging on to a greyhound.
I felt honored to be in the procession – honored to be taking part in such an old tradition. There’s this wonderful sense of importance in that line as you roll through stop signs and stop lights. The dead need us as they make their way to their place in the deep dark.
Once there we stood watch on a green hill spotted with flat, granite headstones, the remnants of an ocean’s wind kicking up, chilling me. The sky was a bright stone’s blue, downtown Los Angeles clear and steel grey in the horizon. In between here and there are miles of suburbia and industry and commerce. So much so we even have cities named City of Commerce and City of Industry.
We didn’t go to the follow-up dinner. Instead my sister and I took our grandmother to lunch at a local fish house where we talked over beer about the dirty dreams we have in our old age, making my grandmother laugh and laugh, saying, “Sin vergüenza muchachas!”
I think Konnie would have laughed, too.