Funeral Translations

(I’ve always believed that it should be required by society for each of us to attend at least two funerals a year. The reason being, each time I attend one I reassess my life and ask myself if, when I finally bite the big cookie, will the people talking about me have to lie in order to make my life sound meaningful. I decided to write a story about that. At some point this story took and turn and I’m still wondering why.)

         Cloyd “Catfish” Miller’s heart had finally had enough and just decided to stop five days ago. Of course this killed Cloyd, but at least the heart finally had some rest. A group of thirty-seven people sat quietly in the small chapel of Beckman’s Funeral Parlor and waited for the service to begin. Along the front row sat Catfish’s family: Three adult children from his first marriage, two from his second, one from his third. His third wife, Hope, Jr. was also there, and another child named Storm from an affair that he’d had twenty years earlier. The hired pastor finally stood, made his way to the lectern, greeted everyone, and opened with a stiff, written prayer. Then he invited Pat, Catfish’s eldest of all the offspring, to come forward and read the eulogy. Pat somberly walked forward, settled behind the lectern, pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, and started to read.
         “Cloyd ‘Catfish’ Miller was born May 2nd, 1952 and passed away November 5th, 2012…” Pat felt his chin start to quiver and he cleared his throat trying to gather himself back together. Not that he was sad about his dad, necessarily, but he never read aloud the words of his dad’s passing in front of people. This is a one-time event for anyone and it caught him by surprise.
         People sat in their seats passively staring at Pat and their minds wandered about what they were going to hear. How can this eulogy say anything at all positive about the life of Catfish? Everybody in the room knew the guy and knew that whatever was written on that paper there in front of Pat was going to have to be the work of a good White House press secretary in the midst of a scandal. Some real work needed to happen in order to spin Catfish’s life onto the positive side of the ledger. As Pat continued to read, people subconsciously translated what they heard.

Pat: “Catfish was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, and enjoyed many days as a boy hunting and fishing with his friends.”

Translation: “Yes, he was born in Portsmouth. Sure, he enjoyed hunting, but he enjoyed hunting his FRIENDS with a BB gun, stinging their backsides and laughing at them.”

Pat: “He attended Portsmouth public schools and in High School he met Loraine, the love of his life, and they became high school sweethearts.”

Translation: “He actually rarely attended high school. Loraine was dating his friend and he managed to con her into leaving that relationship. His friend became his former friend. Still is.”

Pat: “He played cornerback for the high school football team and enjoyed several successful years.”

Translation: “That’s what Catfish told Pat. He never once attended a football game, and probably didn’t even know they were called the Trojans.”

Pat: “When Catfish graduated in 1971 he started working at Taylor’s True Value Hardware where he stocked shelves and learned the retail business.”

Translation: “Graduate? More like thrown out because he set someone’s locker on fire for the sixth time. Taylor’s was the only place that would hire him, and only as a favor to his mom. Plus, Catfish only went to work when he figured out that the welfare system wasn’t going to cover him. He probably thought the word ‘retail’ meant reattaching a tail to an animal.”

Pat: “In 1972 he began work at Beenie’s Tackle Shop and there was given the nickname that would be his the rest of his life because of his great knowledge of catching catfish.

Translation: “He was fired from Taylor’s for showing up to work drunk for the fifth time in a month. His friend’s dad owned Beenie’s and hired him as a favor…another favor. And, he was named catfish because he mistakenly told a customer that the killer whale and the catfish were distant relatives.”

Pat: “He and Loraine married had three children: Pat, that’s me, Greg, and our little sister Raylene.

Translation: “He knocked up Loraine and they got married with a proverbial shotgun pressed against his back.”

Pat: “In 1980 he married Ellen and together they had two children, Pat and Patty.”

Translation: “He had an affair with Ellen while still married to Loraine. Ellen got pregnant, and Loraine threw him out. And what is the deal with the name Pat, anyway? Oh, and not to mention the waitress at Gabby’s with a boot-leather face and a voice that sounded like gravel being dumped out of a wheelbarrow. He was hitting on her even while Ellen was carrying his baby, and while he was still married to Loraine.”

Pat: “And in 1983 Catfish married Hope, Jr. and they were blessed with their child, Patricia.”

Translation: “Same story, a couple of different players. And, so now we have four Pats in play.”

Pat: “Catfish was a life-long fan of his Cincinnati Bengals, enjoying many Sundays watching them at Gabby’s Sports Bar with his friends.”

Translation: “He was loud, obnoxious, and never remembered the end of any game because he was drunk out of his gourd. Gabby couldn’t stand seeing him and eventually banned him from ever coming back.”

Pat: “He was passionate about his fishing, spending many hours in his boat out on the river, bringing home tales about the one that got away.”

Translation: “Passionate is not the proper word in this case. He spent many hours with his line in the water, not even a hook on the other end, drinking a twelve-pack of Pabst, and smoking two packs of Marlboro reds. Things would fly out of his body that could beckon the scrambling of a haz-mat team. You never wanted to respond when he inevitably would say, ‘pull my finger’ because it was just too frightening.”

Pat: “Catfish loved his friends and would do anything for them.”

Translation: “Like borrowing their money never to pay it back, passing out in their living rooms after all-night benders, taking their wives and girlfriends, etc. ”

Pat: “He spent countless hours with Kevin, Mike, and Trevor, and they became known as the Four Amigos throughout town.”

Translation: “Pretty sure they didn’t know what the word ‘amigo’ meant. Kevin, Mike, and Trevor aren’t even here today.”

Pat: “Catfish was an avid mechanic and spent many an afternoon underneath his beloved 1968 Camaro.”

Translation: “He was hung-over and napping under his Camaro.”

Pat: “He was always willing to help others out when they had car troubles.”

Translation: “He was always willing to borrow your car when his Camaro wasn’t running, which was more often than not.”

Pat: “Five days ago we learned that Catfish’s heart was just too big to continue and he was taken from us.”

Translation: “There might be a slight misunderstanding as to the context of the word ‘heart.’”

Pat: “We will miss him terribly, but know that he is looking down on us right now.”

Translation: “Who, exactly, will miss him? And, oh, I believe he’s looking UP at us right now.”

         Pat stuffed the paper into his hip pocket and walked back to his seat. The rest of the service continued: the reading of some scripture, a canned sermon, Amazing Grace sung by a hired singer, an amateur slide show. No one had seen the elderly gentleman slip into the back of the chapel right after the start of the service, sliding into the very last seat next to the left aisle. He was in his early eighties, wore an old tweed jacket with elbow patches, and a tie. His slacks were high waisted as would have been common when he was much younger. His eyes betrayed the wisdom gained from years of what life had offered. It is probable that no one would have recognized him, though many in the room would have known him. He had spent the forty-five years of his working life at Garfield Jr. High School in Portsmouth teaching English and Literature. Cloyd “Catfish” Miller’s childhood home had been three houses down from his and he had witnessed the boy from birth until the moment he moved out eighteen years later. He had seen Cloyd’s young, broken face when his father left the family never to be seen again, leaving Cloyd’s mother fearing whether or not she would be able to continue to pay rent on their squalid little home. He had witnessed the sadness of the family when a car struck Cloyd’s younger sister while she was crossing the street.
         Cloyd, along with the other neighborhood children simply knew this man as Mr. Lucas. Cloyd eventually discovered that his first name was Patrick.
         The teachers all knew each other in Portsmouth and would talk about different students that were coming up through the ranks. Mr. Lucas had heard the rumors that Cloyd possessed a sharp intelligence, even witnessing it from time to time seeing him playing with his friends in the neighborhood, and looked forward to one day being his teacher. He had a special concern for Cloyd, knowing the difficulty of his story.
         When Cloyd finally walked through the doorway into Mr. Lucas’ seventh grade literature class, he was a broken boy. Over time Mr. Lucas was able to nurture a discovering curiosity in him and eventually saw the bright look that comes from awakening the creative spark. Cloyd could write, and did this as well as anyone Mr. Lucas had seen in years. Mr. Lucas encouraged Cloyd to keep a special notebook and to write daily whatever came into his mind, and he faithfully did this most days. Seventh grade became eighth grade, and then Cloyd moved onto high school. It was here that the change happened.
         Mr. Lucas knew that Cloyd needed to get out of his situation, out of where he lived. His mother would turn to one relationship after another in order to soothe the loneliness that covered her like a dark curtain. Mr. Lucas couldn’t blame her, but he knew the toll that it was taking on Cloyd. If he could somehow persuade Cloyd into pursuing a life that led toward college, he knew that a scholarship would be available. It was not to be.
         Mr. Lucas sat listening to the empty sermon coming from the bored pastor at the front. He quietly reached into his jacket pocket and found an old, tattered Moleskine notebook. He opened the front cover and read again the name written with the handwriting of a twelve-year-old boy: Cloyd Miller. He flipped through the pages, glancing at stories, poems, journaling, discovery, sadness, joy, humor. There were fifteen or twenty empty pages at the end, but the last entry was to him: “Mr. Lucas – Thank you for believing in me. I’m so sorry I didn’t believe in myself. Years ago you encouraged me to take the ‘road less traveled’ that Robert Frost wrote about. I saw that road, but was too afraid to take it. I am giving this notebook to you because you were the one who brought these stories out in me. I will always be grateful to you for everything you are. – Cloyd Miller, March 3, 2011.”
         Mr. Lucas’ hand reached to his shirt pocket and pulled out a well-worn Parker fountain pen. He opened the Moleskine to a blank page, lifted the lid off of his pen, and began writing a new eulogy:
         “Cloyd Miller was born May 2nd, 1952 into a world that wasn’t prepared to nurture him. He had great potential, but that tiny seedling of potential needed rich soil and plenty of water around. Cloyd had none of those things. When his mother’s third boyfriend beat him for spilling a soda in the car, Cloyd took on the blame himself. At the second beating he did the same. At some defining point he decided that he didn’t need his mother, but that he needed to feel safe because he only felt Fear. He had two very real choices.
         The first would be difficult. It would mean for him to take on responsibilities normally expected of someone much older than he was in the midst of an almost impossible situation. It would mean studying hard and allowing those around him who actually loved him to help get him into a college. It could have been done. Maybe.
         The second choice was to remain in the familiar and fight for himself in the manner in which the fight came to him. The familiar, though difficult, was at least there in front of him, and he felt more Fear toward the unknown, the unfamiliar. So he chose the latter and Fear dictated the remainder of his life.
         Fear pushed him away from the journey that he desperately needed and turned him into the surviving person that he became. Fear told him the incredible life that was waiting for him outside of his circumstances could never be lived by a guy like him. Fear also told him that anyone who was his friend would eventually hurt him, so he may as well hurt him or her first. Fear kept him tied up to the world directly in front of him. Fear buried the adventure and took that young boy away from us a long time ago. And Fear finally took his body on November 5th, 2012. Those of us who really knew him could never judge his life. We only feel sadness.”
         Patrick Lucas snapped the cap back onto his pen, closed the Moleskine, quietly stood, and left the chapel.

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