I can remember this day as if it were branded into my mind by a hot iron. Though perhaps being branded isn’t your idea of fun, I must say that this was an experience that I would never forget. The kind of experience that changes your life and gives you something valuable to take with you. I was fourteen years old. It was the middle of May and the warm sun came up over the trees to greet my father and me as we made our way to the family vehicle, a blue Caravan with a big dent in the side of the door caused by my brother smashing a riding lawn mower into it. We got into the front seat and buckled up; Dad found a radio station just like every other time we prepared for a trip. He looked at me then, his eyes glistening with a mixture of sadness and serenity, knowing that the journey would soon be complete for him. “You got Mart?” he asked me softly. I held up the cardboard box as if it were the Holy Grail though all it would appear to hold was a plastic baggie and some black soot. “Yup.”
Dad pulled out of our driveway and we started on our drive towards the Gladwin City Cemetery. I got to skip school on this particular day so the only kids out and about were the ones too young to attend pre-k, and I watched them frolicking around their yards like little pixies, enjoying the first rays of summer that came from the tender sun. Everything looked so lush and green, and the air had a fresh pine needle and soil scent to it. As we got out onto State Street, I took a minute to glance at the restaurant Mack’s Menu, where my mom, my dad and I worked. Mom was in their kitchen, working too hard for too little. That’s why she had asked me to stay home and do the Deed with dad. I didn’t mind in the least. I’d have done anything for Marty.
The ride to the cemetery seemed to drag along, as if we were tiny caterpillars on our way up to the top of a tree, but the Beatles singing “Can’t Buy Me Love” made it a bit more bearable. Dad was humming along to the tune, bumping his thumbs on the steering wheel as he kept up with the beat. I didn’t understand it. How could he do it? Go on so easily? I sat in the passenger’s seat biting my nails down to the raw cuticle and watching the blood pool up as I tried to keep my mind busy. I didn’t understand, couldn’t comprehend how he could be so nonchalant. Like what we were setting out to do was an everyday thing.
When we arrived at the cemetery, we took a little cruise down the narrow dirt roads and tall rolling hills that made up the west point of the cemetery. I remember thinking how much I enjoyed spending time in cemeteries. They were lovely in their own Gothic way, serving as a resting place for those long gone. Some days, when I could get away, I would sit in this very same cemetery and write in my journal, simply enjoying the tranquility that came so easily from the solitude. We knew that this wasn’t where Marco was buried, but it was peaceful to be among the dead, and so we wound our way through the whole place, taking in the hundreds of grave makers that stood erect above the dewy grass. “They don’t have too much to say,” Dad commented, “And when they do, they tend to just leave you with your thoughts.” We admired all of the monuments and the tombs as we made our way to what they called the U-bend. That’s where Marco was buried. Say what you will about my father and I being morbid; this was our last opportunity to be together with Marty’s company.
It wasn’t long enough before we realized that we had to do this rather quickly. We both had to be at work by four and there was no making the boss man wait. Dad took us one more time around the west point before we headed for the U-bend. I held the box tightly in my hands.
We passed the little red bricked chapel that loomed in the middle of the U-bend and we came to the right corner of the horseshoe. That’s what the U-bend looked like, one massive horseshoe. Marco’s grave was easy to find because his marker was probably the most eccentric that you’d ever see. It was a grey and black marble with two faces carved artfully into it. Petite little music notes danced over the surface singing a silent melody. The faces of the masks reminded me of those that you would see at a Broadway theatre. One with a bright smiling face and the other with a sad and lonely face, one single tear drop dripping down. Having once been a talented musician and a big theatre buff, it seemed like it suited him rather well. Marco had died long before I was born and dad didn’t like to be reminded of the story. “I like to remember how he lived,” dad would say, and he’d share countless comedies and happily- ever-after stories that never failed to put a smile on my face. He had only been a few years older than me when he had drowned out in the middle of the Gladwin River. Dad never mentioned any more details. Marco had been 18 years old. Too young to die.
Dad and I got out of the car, him drying the corners his eyes with one of his little blue hankies that he always carries with him and me cradling Marty safely in my arms. The box felt heavy. This was when it all came down around me and I really put some serious thought into what was going on.
Marty Aldrich had been my friend. Ever since my dad had brought him to our home for the first time, he had been the only one who would listen to me without question, who could make me smile on the most depressive of days, and who could make me outright laugh my butt off at the stupidest things. Things like blowing bubbles with your lips when you’re trying to eat mashed potatoes or making elephant sounds after bed time, pissing mom right off. I didn’t care that he was 37 with the mind of a two year old. I didn’t care that he couldn’t eat much real food but had to be tube fed more often. It didn’t bother me at all that he couldn’t talk or walk or stand or sit or jump up and down. Marty had a pair of eyes that could show you his thoughts, that could show you his affection. This was all I ever needed from him.
But Marty had died. He had a stroke and didn’t make it through the brain surgery. He had passed after living all his life with a disease that stops you from growing and maturing at the rate that most humans do. Honestly, I can’t remember the name of it. That was three weeks ago and now here we were beside his brother’s resting place getting ready to carry out what dad said is what he would have wanted. “To be with his family.” I didn’t ever think that I’d be able to understand why things happen. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to get rid of the hurt. I didn’t want to spread these ashes. I wanted to carry him with me forever.
For a little while we just stood there and looked down at Marco’s grave. I suppose you could say we weren’t real sure how to go about this. Then dad spoke up, a soft rasp in his voice. “I have buried one member of the Aldrich family. But here and now these are to be the second ashes I am to spread over this very same spot.” “Who else daddy,” I asked quietly, even though I already knew the answer, “Who else is here?” “First there was Marco,” he replied, “Then I put his mother’s ashes down with her eldest son. Now I must do the same for his brother. That way they can all be here….together.”
And then without another moment’s hesitation, Dad took the box from me. His hands were trembling. He opened the box and lifted out the plastic bag that held Marty’s black ashes safely inside. I gasped as my father took his knife, cut open the bag and began to spread Marty all over the soft bed of Marco’s grass. I kept a sharp eye out for a suspicious onlooker because I suppose what we were doing was technically illegal. The wind began to blow softly as we finished the job, as if Marty, Marco, and Debbie were all giving a sigh of relief. Then again, perhaps it was the gentle whispers of Marco and his mother welcoming Marty to his new home.
Once we had finished we took our leave. Yes, this must sound strange to you. Weren’t there some meaningful words that needed to be said? No. We didn’t have to say a word. Why? Because everything that was of any importance was already forever branded in our hearts.
Later that day, my dad and I had decided to go to work and grab a bite to eat from our own place of business. I ordered my usual chicken strips and waffle fries with marinara sauce on the side. Dad got the usual two pieces of French toast with a black coffee. But before I could even take a bite, my dad began to laugh out loud. “What’s so funny?” I asked. He pointed to my white sweater and said as he chuckled, “Looks like Marty wanted to come for lunch, too!”
I peered down at the front of my American Eagle sweater and saw the little black specks that dotted the white cloth. I had carried a part of Marty with me, and there he will always remain.