Thomm Quackenbush, author

Eulogy for Kelley | 2011 | Measuring in Standard Ambers

12.02.11

Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.  

-Michael Landon

 


Floating Aloft

I am not certain what to expect from Kelley's memorial service. I assume it is not a funeral, that he will be there in spirit but not in body. I hope this is the case, at least, as his corpse is not an experience I feel I need. I am not sure of the etiquette of terms - funeral, wake, memorial service - because I have gone only to a couple of these. People online had been speaking of Kelley's Catholicism - that he was so devout that he refused to dress up as a zombie for a zombie Easter party (instead, he dressed as an ostensibly post-mortem Judas and told everyone that he was the reason they were all there) - but this was not a facet of his personality I was ever given occasion to encounter. The vast majority of my prior association with Kelley took place as we tried to terrify the paying public. Theology did not play much of a part in our discussions.

On the drive to the Calvary Chapel, I feel anxiety that expresses itself through urges toward road rage. I understand that this is what is going on and to not let it get the better of me (even if the person in front of me is driving with their hazards on, ten miles below the speed limit, on a road where it is impossible to pass them legally, rather than pulling over and letting the twenty cars behind them go). I meet Amber in a dusty parking lot outside a building that in no way seems holy. She is surrounded by mourners, which is to say "people in black clothing". The demeanor of those in the parking lot, while slightly subdued, is still closer to amusement than anguish.

Amber, dressed in khakis and a black top, is there only for me. She did not know Kelley and had no occasion to have ever met him, since I was too poor to take us to the Haunted Mansion this year. I did not ask her to be there, but she offered to join me when I mentioned I would be going to the service. I was at the very least relieved that she opted to join me, but I was not going to ask her. (Though more precisely, I was overwhelmed with love and appreciation that my girlfriend was willing to sacrifice an evening to be in an awkward social situation with me rather than allow me to languish alone in discomfiture.)

The assembled throng agrees that this parking lot, adjoining what they assure us is a hockey rink, is likely not the right location however much the address assure us otherwise. We spy a sign for the chapel and trudge down the long driveway. People around us crack jokes about how tricking us into meeting at the wrong location would have been what Kelley would have wanted and how the lack of an obituary could all be a part of a massive practical joke. I squeeze Amber's hand, which I have placed inside my capacious coat pocket as defense against the chill of the night, hoping to convey something to her, though I don't in the moment know quite what. I cannot focus fully on anything but the moment, her hand in mine, the cold.

When we find the chapel, I am astounded to see how beyond full the parking lot is. Could they all be here for the memorial service? It does not seem possible. When I went to Emily's father's funeral, the funeral home was packed, but that would have only accounted for one hundred people at the most. This parking lot implies fivefold as many mourners.

We make our way into the building, the air heavy with evaporating tears and a dense silence. I shake hands with and hug people who I have never before seen in anything but shrouds, masks, and latex prostheses. "These people should be dripping blood from every orifice," I whisper to Amber. "Then I would know who I was hugging." Indeed, some people are referred to only by appellations such as "Scary Guy" and "Devil Boy", even if said in somber tones.

We are ushered into a carpeted room that is packed beyond capacity, eventually being directed to seats in the second row, just behind the band. The pastor gets on the microphone and asks if the church family - those who are members of this chapel but not expressly biological family or Kelley's friends - would kindly move to a secondary room to make space for truer mourners. I hear some shuffling, but the view behind us looks no roomier.

This space is vast and seems as though it could accommodate over four hundred in comfort. Later, I will be quoted the figure of a thousand mourners, but I do not know how accurate that is. There is a raised stage, on which the pastor, a couple of guitars, a keyboard, and several mic stand sit. On either side of the stage are six-by-five foot screens projecting a picture of Kelley smiling in his slightly goofy way. In the back, someone is thanked for volunteering his time to do lights and sound for this service. The few church services I have ever attended - weddings, funerals, Christmas - have been markedly more austere.

Kelley's father and mother grace the stage at the pastor's request. His father talks about the parts of Kelley I know, the man who could charm a raging bull into docility, the one who made friends of everyone, the man with the heart of a child to whom kids flocked. To this last point, his family is gathering donations in Kelley's name to provide Christmas gifts to those children in need. He says how, in watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he was reminded of Kelley. He is the balloon held aloft, but all of us are the connection that keep him anchored to this world. He seems composed, almost peaceful, in a way I am certain I would not be. He then speaks of Kelley's religious side, something the pastor will detail almost to the exclusion of anything else, how Kelley had wanted to be a committed member of the church, how he wanted to more keenly feel the presence of God in his life. Granted, my conception of Kelley is weighted toward his adolescence when he was foulmouthed and hormonal, but what his father describes is almost a version of him beyond my imagining. Kelley apparently had the "Footsteps" poem tattooed in whole upon his left upper arm, as it reminded him that Jesus was there to carry him in his times of need. This brings his family comfort, because they know Kelley is not gone but merely practicing his volleyball spike with Jesus.

His mother demurs speaking at all, but instead nods along with her husband's remarks.

After a slideshow set to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" Kelley had made for his mother years ago (with the portentous comment "if I ever die, this is going to make you cry so much"), the pastor comes back. He largely preaches, throwing up Bible verses and challenging us to look at aspects of the Bible and tell him that the whole of the book isn't true. I don't find this consoling, though I hope most gathered do. If every word in the Bible were literally true as he claims (especially those statements that contradict other things in the Bible...), that means that Kelley is damned, since he committed suicide and that is a mortal sin that cannot be ameliorated through repentance. All the pastor will grant is that anyone who is not a Christian is going to Hell to burn forever at the hands of his loving God. "If Kelley could come back to you all," he says, all smiles, "he wouldn't. He is where he belongs." I rather disagree and squeeze Amber's hand instead of whispering my irritation. We should be allowed our tears at the death of a man and allowed to remember him at this memorial service, not told in essence that we are wasting our time.

I want the pastor to discuss Kelley, whom he knew, whom he reports came into his office months ago wanting to play a greater part in the church. I want this man not to merely close his eyes and look as though Kelley's death transports him to bliss, but to address that it hurts him personally, how this is a loss not only for him but for the world. He says Kelley would call him, that they would have frequent conversations. Did Kelley confess suicidal thoughts to this man? Did he suspect what Kelley was contemplating? But we get none of that, only a series of Bible quotes (included one from Revelations) that he, the pastor, likes with occasional mentions that Kelley might have appreciated them. I later wonder aloud to Amber whether the pastor simply slots the name of the recently deceased into a boilerplate sermon, given how minimally his portion of the memorial service had anything to do with Kelley.

After some talented Christian rock and another slideshow, the pastor asks if anyone would like to come to his podium to share a story about Kelley. "Make sure they are brief, though!" he chides us after his forty-five minute lecture about his favorite Bible quotes and our own eminent damnation. Only one person goes up, Kelley's aunt, saying how Kelley was born was she was nineteen and carefree but how she learned the meaning of love and responsibility for that love from watching her sister raise Kelley. She says that this was a horrible accident that took Kelley from the world. I look at Amber and mouth the question "accident?" It occurs to me for the first time that one could kill oneself and not have committed suicide, accidentally overdosing or driving recklessly, but this slip is just another puzzle I will not be able to resolve when I want a piece that will clarify.

There is a lull of fifteen second when people are weighing whether they, too, wish to speak, during which the pastor dismisses us to enjoy refreshments in the back.

Amber and I exit. As I do, I see Chris, one of Kelley's best friends as far as I know, crumbled into the arms of a woman while a child tugs at the cuff of his pants. I want to say something comforting to him, but find I do not have the words and know I do not have the right. Amber and I wait by the doors. After a few minutes, and several acquaintances nodding at me as they try to exit, I admit to her that I don't know what I am waiting for. For solace, I suppose. To feel connected to someone else who knew Kelley, someone who won't throw up the words of the ancient dead and weak platitudes in lieu of admitting that this was a senseless death and we deserve better than to be told to get over it now in the name of Jesus (who, as I recall, did say in Matthew 5:4 that those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted).

We follow the flow of mourners past a smiling woman offering a tray of Swedish meatballs. I find this peculiar and I am about to leave, but Amber takes one. I do as well and we are subsequently led into a room full of cakes, breads, cookies, and punch. It feels like a junior high dance.

"Is this what happens at memorial services?" I ask Amber, as I fill a small plate so as to have some reason to stick around longer.

"I don't know, I haven't been to one in a while. It seems like churches have this kind of food every time I am in one."

I bite into my cupcake and then say, "I was not aware, I have never encountered this at a church. It's usually much more about eating crackers made of Jesus."

People approach us on occasion, greeting me as I try to mentally age them a decade and cover them in fake blood to figure out who they are. This is closer to what I wanted, though some seem too nervous or relieved (that this service is over, not that Kelley is dead). I cling to Amber, chatting with her intermittently about Kelley and mortality but mostly about any other subject I can contrive.

Soon in Xenology: Moving.

last watched: Whitest Kids U Know
reading: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
listening: Spinning Jennies

Eulogy for Kelley | 2011 | Measuring in Standard Ambers

Thomm Quackenbush is the author of the Night's Dream series - We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods - published by Double Dragon Publishing. He has previously written for Cave Drawing Ink, Broken City Magazine, Paragon Press, and The Journal of Cartoon Overanalyzations. He likes when you comment.