I was cold. I always hated hospitals and the smell of circulated air. I always hated the ghostly drafts in the hallways. And now I hated it because I was visiting you there. I stuck my frozen hands deep inside the pockets of my pink jacket. Mom and cousin Jori did the same as we walked into the hallway you were staying in. Aunt Toni and grandma were standing outside your room as we approached.
"How is uncle Robert?" Mom asked.
"He's doing good. He's doing good," Aunt Toni said wiping her nose with a tissue. "He's breathing on his own." she added as an afterthought. When I first found out you had lung cancer, I was terrified but not all that surprised with the combination of smoking and your job as a fireman. Of course with the reports I was getting back from grandma on the days I couldn't visit you, it seemed that you were making a swift recovery. I glanced at mom and saw tears in her eyes.
"When you go in there I don't want you to cry. He's been through enough already. If you want to cry, cry out here." Aunt Toni commanded. But as you saw that day, none of us obeyed her wishes.
When I walked in and saw the skinny tubes around your chin that connected to your nose, I felt even colder. When you saw me, your face lit up. My throat was instantly dry; all the moisture seeming to transfer to my eyes. I was caught between leaving the room to cry and not wanting to leave you. But then you held out your hand.
" How are you, Uncle Robert?" I asked you shakily as I took your hand; yours engulfing mine.
"I'm doing good, you?" Your voice was hoarse. I could sense the lie under it, so I lied too." Im doing good," I said and then my throat grew tight and the tears were coming. And I just couldn't stop. I wanted to. I really did. You held my hand tightly seeming to give me a silent promise that you would see me again. Somehow sensing that I couldn't see you like this anymore you whispered:
"See you later Alligator." It took me a whole day to get that saying right the first time you told me. And now it slid out from old habit.
" After awhile crocodile" I managed to whisper back despite the tears. A moment later my hand left yours and I was turning to the door a sob escaping my throat. A louder sob came from mom who had just walked in.
" No, no no. There's no need for that. I told you if you wanted to cry, you cry out here." Aunt Toni said furiously to either me or mom. I didn't know and didn't care to look back because I was already walking down the hallway, hating the way you looked and hating the way I reacted.
I never saw you again.
➷ ➷ ➷
I was devastated. I felt like I was stuck somewhere between heartache and oblivion as I watched the fire truck in the distance riding slow on the vast highway in front of us. I couldn't stop staring at that coffin on top of the truck. I couldn't stop thinking about the person who was inside it.
I remember when you took me to the old bridge in Eau Gallie. I threw stale pieces of white bread into the river below us while you stood next to me smoking a cigarette. I recalled staring into the murky depths below and watching shining flashes of silver scales zipping back and forth; the chunks of bread disappearing underwater.
"What kind of fish are they?" I had asked you, pointing to the ones with whisker-like appendages on their faces.
"Those are catfish." You had said after snubbing out your cigarette on the hand railing. I had giggled at the name.
"So they're half cat half fish?" I asked. Your dark eyes had crinkled up in amusement.
"Yeah, sure— sure they are." You said smiling.
Now, riding behind your red fire truck in the black limousine, sitting behind mom and grandma , I couldn't help but smile sadly at the memory. Following us to your burial, police on motorcycles joined the procession riding on both sides of us, their lights flashing red and blue. An American flag covered your coffin, and I thought about the time you came over GG mama's house with a plastic fireman hat. I was ecstatic about wearing it because it looked like an exact replica of yours. You had put it on my head and it popped right off. According to you, my head was too big to fit it.
And it's true. My head is big. It's filled with old and new memories, discarded and forgotten thoughts, false hopes and wandering desires. Its filled with the life I have now and after you. A moment ago I couldn't look away from your truck, now all I wanted to do was look away. Beside the highway, cars pulled over. People got out, young and old to stand on the side of the road. I wish you could have seen it; the gloriousness of it! People waved flags in the air, a lone veteran stood tall and saluted as we passed. There were hundreds of people scattered on the side of the road all for you. Those policemen on motorcycles came for you. Your comrades driving your fire truck were there for you. " Grandma, look at all of them. How did they know?"I was awestruck, and I guess she was too because she never answered.
I realized these people had separate memories of you. It could have been from when you helped someone out of a burning home, or when you taught some little kids the procedures of fire safety. Maybe these people didn't know you at all and you were just the hero fireman to them. It didn't matter because all of our memories were intertwined at that moment. It was a connection that I have never felt with complete strangers before. I looked ahead at your American flag covered coffin with teary pride. I remember the last thing I said to you in the hospital. After awhile crocodile. And I saw you. I saw you in those peoples hearts; in mine, in our family's. I saw all the good you had left behind.