We were friends when her mother died. It was sudden. I don’t know what killed her—I was too young. I knew it was something with her liver.
It wasn’t a well-attended funeral. Her mama looked strange in the casket. Permanent smile. Waxy skin. Open caskets are hard for me. Always have been.
I needed air.
I went outside to sit on the sidewalk, head in my hands. Daddy found me. He sat down and said, “Was wondering where you went off to, Ace. You alright?”
No, I wasn’t. Seeing my friend’s mother in a casket—the same woman who made us grilled cheeses—turned my stomach to vinegar.
He loosened his necktie. “I know it ain’t easy, but you gotta be there for your friend, she needs you.”
While he spoke, she came outside. She was a small girl. Freckle-faced. Toothy grin. She wore a black dress. She sat beside my father. She didn’t feel like talking.
So he did.
He told stories. He talked about growing up, about tractors, eating chicken brains for breakfast, the Br’er Rabbit, and about walking on iron beams for a living.
He made quarters fall out her ears. He even swallowed his tongue for us—one of his best tricks.
For a grand finale, he recited Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue.” When he got to the swear word—my favorite part of the song—we laughed.
My friend giggled so hard it made her cry. The girl leaned onto his shoulder. She lost it. Snot everywhere. I saw Daddy’s eyes water. He choked them back.
“What about heaven?” she said. “Is it real?”
Daddy held her tighter. “If heaven isn’t real, darling, I refuse to take part in it.”
“Can I go there?”
“Not today, honey. But in a little while.”
A little while.
That was a few lifetimes ago. She left to live with her aunt in Virginia the following year. And as it turned out, Daddy gave up the ghost three years thereafter. I haven’t heard from her since I was four-foot tall.
Then an email.
The subject read: “Merry Christmas.”
She told me about a girl. A child who grew into a woman—same toothy grin. She went to college, then decided that a professional life wasn’t for her. She wanted a husband. Family. She got one.
She sent photos. Her kids look just like a little girl I once knew. Cute as a duck in a hat.
She wrote: “You remember Mom’s funeral? No matter how old I get, I’ll never forget that trick where your dad swallowed his tongue. All these years I’ve wanted to thank him for caring so much.”
I’ll pass this message along to him, Katelyn.