We’re all clumped together, standing around a six foot deep hole in the ground. A bouquet of white flowers—roses and lilies and carnations—is lying on top of the mahogany casket which will, in just a matter of minutes, be lowered into the earth and covered with freshly turned soil. Standing next to it is a sign that reads “In Loving Memory of Gene Weber.” Everyone is wearing their best suits and dresses, black like the night, and huddling together while the priest drones on.
My wife, Grace, sniffs and raises a tissue to her face; when she lowers it again it’s stained with dark smudges. I pull her closer to me—well, as close as her protruding stomach will allow; it never occurred to us that our child might not get to meet Gene, the closest thing to a grandfather the baby would have had. It had been a nightmare: one day we were adding the final touches to the nursery, the next we were sitting in a hospital waiting room, praying that everything would be okay but secretly knowing that it wouldn’t.
And it wasn’t.
The doctor came out with that look on his face, and he didn’t have to say a word.
These memories, swirling in my head, prevent me from focusing on the ceremony. I’m vaguely aware of the priest, who’s saying something about the gates of heaven, but my mind is far away, thinking about the baby and what it will be like for him with no grandfather, no Gene, when Gene was the one who had helped me through one of the hardest times of my life.
I still remember the day I met Gene. I had come downstairs, still wearing my race car pajamas with my short black hair sticking up in all different directions, to see Mom standing in the kitchen with a man I didn’t know. Mom was wearing her Sunday best, a pretty blue dress, and her brown hair was pulled back into a bun. The man was wearing a suit and tie, but what drew my gaze was his face. He was smiling from ear to ear, little crinkles forming around his eyes, which were green and shining in the light. I could see grey streaks in his hair. I vaguely recognized him as a member of our church, but I almost never went, so I’d forgotten most of the people there.
“Oh! Ian, I didn’t see you there! Come in, Sweetie,” my mom said. “I’d like you to meet Gene Weber. He’s kindly agreed to drive me to church today since my car won’t start.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Ian,” Gene said, extending his hand. I took it hesitantly; it was rough and dry.
My mom didn’t tell me then, and I had no reason to suspect anything. I was only fourteen years old, and the thought of my mother dating had never crossed my mind.
Three years earlier my dad had had a heart attack. I was eleven. I’ll never forget the look on my mom’s face. The way she screamed. The way she crumpled to the floor like a rag doll being dropped, sobbing unabashedly. I just watched her helplessly, unsure of what I should do and wishing I had the answer. It was all so sudden, so...final. I couldn’t understand the magnitude of what had happened or how our lives had changed. That day still haunts me.
I remember taking time off school and having a lot of old people I’d never seen before telling me how sorry they were. I remember feeling everyone staring at me, like I had a spotlight that followed wherever I went. When I’d get home at the end of the day, I’d go straight to my room, bury myself in my blankets, and just cry until Mom called me for dinner. Every time I heard the door open I thought it was my dad coming back for me. But he was gone.
It was tough during the years when it was just my mom and me in the house, and I knew it was harder for her than she let on. The house felt empty and lifeless, and loneliness seemed to seep out of the walls, filling the air.
But it all changed when Gene came into our lives. My mom told me when she came back from church that day that they were in a relationship. The rest was a blur. I remember the shock, though, and I felt like my stomach was twisting itself into a knot. I have never been angrier with my mom than at that moment. How could she? I thought. How could she betray Dad like this?
“I haven’t forgotten about your father, honey,” She said. “I will always love him. Nothing can change that. But Gene is a good man, and I think you’ll like having him around.”
“He’s coming back?” I said, my voice shaking.
“Ian,” my mom said as she brushed my hair out of my eyes. “Everything is going to be okay. I promise. Just think of him as a family friend. It’s going to be fine, sweetie.” She pulled me into her arms as I took a few more rattling breaths. She kissed me on the forehead. “It’s going to be alright.”
I was fourteen, and naturally I was angry. I wanted nothing to to with Gene. I spent hours in my room stewing, thinking about the injustice of it, how disappointed my father would have been. But it didn’t take long for things to change.
Gene was a mechanic, which might have been the only reason that I started opening up to him. I was obsessed with cars, and he started teaching me about different models and telling me stories about the coolest cars he’d ever worked on. It wasn’t long before we started discussing luxury car brands over breakfast, and how long it would take to save up enough money to buy a Tesla or a BMW. He even took me to see a Nascar race for my birthday.
He was like one of those wise old men from the movies. He would listen to me complaining about the kids at school and help me with my homework. I came to think of him as a walking encyclopedia; he had an answer to every question, and he wasn’t afraid to be honest. I remember how he used to say: “It’s a crazy time to be alive, Ian. I’m hoping you’ll be able to fix it.”
But despite how nice it was having Gene around, I couldn’t help but feel the knot in my stomach tightening. I’d get in bed at night and all I could think about was my dad. I pictured him in heaven, dressed in all white, looking down at me with tears in his eyes. Every day he was farther and farther away, and when I woke in the morning my throat would be dry and my heart would be pounding. I knew I was beginning to forget; I couldn’t remember the way he would say certain words or the way he sounded when he was angry. I wished I could, because then I could imagine him mad at me, but instead it was just sadness—a resigned despondency that haunted me—and I hated myself.
One day I woke up from one of these dreams shaking. I decided that Gene was responsible, that he was the one making me forget, and I went the whole day without speaking to him once. The whole week, in fact. My mother began to worry, but I wouldn’t tell her what was wrong. It was then that Gene asked me if I’d go for a walk with him. I don’t know why, but I went.
It was cold that day. We walked down to the park in silence, just looking at the maple trees. They lined both sides of the street, rustling in the light breeze. Fall had turned their leaves yellow and red and brown, and we watched as they fluttered and spun through the air until they finally hit the ground. A few times I went out of my way to step in the little piles that had accumulated in the gutters. I liked the way they sounded as they crunched under my feet. But every time I was about to make a comment about how Fall was my favorite season, or the fact that I used to make big leaf piles in our front yard and then jump in, I stopped myself. Gene didn’t seem to notice, he just looked up at the rustling leaves and sighed, smiling.
At some point he said, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” The sky was a dark grey, like it was about to rain, and the air was so cold I could see my breath in front of me. Most people wouldn’t consider it a beautiful day. But I did. Still, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I was so scared. I felt as if every word I said to Gene would replace a memory of my father in my brain. I clenched my mittened fists in the pockets of my coat.
“Would you mind if we sat on this bench for a bit, Ian?” he said. Again I didn’t answer, but we sat down anyway. In front of us stretched a big soccer field. There was a playground on the right, and all around the field there was a dirt path lined by trees. A few more minutes passed.
“You see that tree over there?” he asked. “I used to play under that tree when I was a little boy. I would take little twigs that had fallen and arrange them into squares, then I would pretend it was a tiny zoo. I put pebbles in each square to represent the animals, then I’d put some grass in there too and pretend I was feeding them.” When he smiled I saw the crinkles that had formed around his eyes. I found it hard to imagine him as a child. He seemed like the kind of person who had just always been an adult.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, you know, and this park hasn’t changed a bit. I should know. After all, I came here almost every day after school,” he chuckled, like he was talking more to himself than to me. “Do you know why that was?”
I shook my head.
“It was because there was no reason to go home. My mom worked two jobs, so I hardly ever saw her. And my dad went to jail before I could walk.” I looked at him; in spite of myself, my eyes were wide and my lips had parted. “It’s alright. He didn’t want a kid anyway.” He had said the words casually, but the light that usually shone from his eyes seemed to have dimmed. For an alarming moment, he sounded like he could have been my age; I could hear the bitterness and disappointment of a child in his words, though he didn’t express it openly. But then the moment passed, and he was just a wise old man again.
“You know I’ve only seen him three times in my life since I was a baby. My mom and I visited him once, but he was more interested in the cigarette he was smoking than talking to me. Then one time, after he’d been released, he asked me to lend him some money. After that I didn’t see him for over twenty years, and when I did, it was on his deathbed. Lung cancer.” Gene was looking forward, lost in thought. His hands had subconsciously grasped onto his knees and I could see his knuckles turning white. I’d never seen him like this. Suddenly, fourteen years seemed like a very short time to be alive.
Gene seemed to realize suddenly that I was still there, staring at him. He gave me a sad smile. “I must admit even now it’s hard to think about. But whenever I get angry I just think about the fact that my parents were very young when I was born. If they weren’t grown up themselves, how could they be expected to raise a child of their own? My mom tried, though. My dad…
“Well, what I’m trying to say is I know how important it is to have someone who’s there for you, because I didn’t. And I remember being in this very park and seeing all the kids playing with both their parents and thinking if I ever become a father, I don’t want to be anything like my dad. He taught me what not to do. How not to raise a child.
“But I didn’t have any kids. And you already have a dad. And your dad was a good man. You should be very proud of him. I know it’s hard to see the world moving on without him, and you have been put in a position that no child should have to be in. That’s why I want to make it clear that I am not replacing your father. I don’t want to try to fill a role that I have no right to fill. I just want you to know that no matter what you do, no matter how you want to view me or treat me, I will be here. I’ll support you however I possibly can, and I hope that one day you will consider me your ally and your friend.” He was smiling again, wider than before, and a tear threatened to fall down his cheek.
In his eyes I could see the truth of his words, and I felt the knot in my stomach slacken. I felt my own eyes begin to burn, and then the icy air freezing the wet streaks that the tears left behind. Gene opened his arms, and I welcomed their embrace.
The end of a prayer snaps me back to the present moment. Here I am, back in the same graveyard, burying another father. I look at Grace and wonder what would happen to our child if he didn’t have a father, if something happened to me. What would Grace do? Would she find someone else to look after the boy?
My father wanted to be there for me, but he couldn’t. Gene didn’t have to be there for me, but he was. He was the one who showed me what kind of person I could be, what kind of father I can be.
Finally, I have a father’s perspective. If something happens to me… well, it’s hard to think of my child being raised by another man, but I don’t matter anymore. It’s all about the baby now, and what’s best for him. And, just like me, the baby needs a father, no matter what.