When I entered the condo, the first person I saw was Joey, sitting on the couch. He was crying quietly, so I sat beside him and put my arms around him.
"It was very peaceful, Joey. He didn't suffer at all. He just went to sleep." Joey nodded. "When he died, he was wearing your necklace. He loved you so much, and he was so proud of you." Joey nodded again.
After that we sat in silence. There was nothing to say. The rest of the evening dragged by. Eventually, we went to bed, but neither Joey nor I slept much.
The next afternoon, the telephone rang and Grandma answered. She listened and said, "Thank you for telling us. I don't know whether we'll go to the visitation, but we certainly will be at the funeral." She listened for a moment and then gestured to me to take the phone.
"Hello?" I said.
Mr. Russell asked, "How are you holding up, Richard?"
"Not very well, to be honest."
"I'm sure that's true. You'll feel better with time, you know."
I nodded and then realized he couldn't see my nod over the phone, so I said, "Yes, sir."
"Richard, since you were Mark's best friend, we wondered if you would like to say something about him at the funeral on Saturday."
"Oh, Lord," I said, "I don't think there's any way I could get through it without falling apart."
He was silent for a moment before asking, "Do you think you could write something which somebody could read for you?"
"I could try," I answered. "I'll see what I can do."
He agreed and then asked, "Do you think Joey would want to read his poem at the service?"
"I doubt it very much. He's a pretty shy, private person, but I'll ask him and get back to you."
Mr. Russell thanked me, gave me his e-mail address, and we hung up.
I told Grandma what Mr. Russell had suggested and then I asked her what a "visitation" was.
"Often, the day or night before the funeral," she said, "there are visiting hours at the funeral home. Mark's family will be there to receive guests. However, Mr. Russell told me that Mark's casket would be open, and I didn't think you would want that, so I said that we probably wouldn't go. If you want to, we certainly can."
The last thing I wanted was to see my Mark, dead in a coffin. I told her I really didn't want to go. "Will the coffin be open at the funeral?" I asked.
"No. It'll be closed then." I breathed a sigh of relief and went to find Joey.
Joey was in the bedroom, trying to read. "Joey," I said, "I just finished talking with Mr. Russell. He asked me if you would want to read your poem at the funeral."
A look of horror came over his face. "Oh, Jesus, Richard, do I have to?"
"Not at all," I assured him. "It was an offer, not an order. I think they know that Mark loved the poem, so they wondered if you would like to share it."
"No, Richard. That was a very private message to Mark. I don't want other people hearing it."
"That's fine. I'm sure they'll understand. I'll tell Mr. Russell tomorrow."
I took a piece of paper and tried to think about what I might write. I gazed at Mark's picture for a long time, but nothing came to me. At bedtime, the paper was still blank. I climbed into the upper bunk and tried to sleep, but lay wide awake. I was still thinking about what to write when I finally dropped off. The strange thing was that, when I awoke in the morning, I knew what I wanted to say and how to say it.
After breakfast, I wrote for awhile, reread it, and then sent it off to Mr. Russell, thanking him for asking both me and Joey to participate in some way and telling him about Joey's answer.
Later in the day I received an e-mail from Mr. Russell. He thanked me for sending what I had written and said that he completely understood Joey's refusal. He wrote the details of time and place for the funeral, which was to be on Saturday so Mark's school friends could attend, and said that the Russells wanted my family to sit in the front pew with them. He suggested we get there a little early so we could get organized. I showed the e-mail to Grandma when she got home.
That evening, Grandma took me to Sears to buy a suit, telling me that it would honor Mark if I dressed up. We bought a dark suit, a nice white shirt to go with it, a dark tie, and some black shoes and socks.
The funeral was to be at the Episcopal Church in Osterville. I had never been to a funeral except for my mother's brief one, and I was very nervous. I didn't want to burst into tears and disgrace myself, but I knew it would be an emotional time.
As we rode to the church, I watched the cars passing by and wondered how the people could be so oblivious to what was happening that morning. I felt as though the entire world should be in mourning and that nobody seemed to care.
We arrived at the church at 9:30. The Russells were already there, and we went into a private room to wait. They introduced us to Mark's aunt and uncle, Mr. Russell telling me that Mark's uncle would be reading what I had written. Peter and Christian were also there, and were going to be sitting with the family.
When it was time for the service to begin, the priest came in, introduced himself to everyone, and led us out to the narthex, where the coffin was waiting. I almost lost it right there, but held on. The priest stood in front of the coffin and we lined up behind it. "I am the resurrection and the life…." He intoned, as we began moving forward. A shudder shook my body briefly, but again I was able to hold myself together. I was amazed at how many people there were in the church. It was packed. His whole school must be here, I thought. People really did care after all!
We moved down the aisle and into the front row. Grandma was on one side of me and Joey was on the other, while Tim was on the other side of Grandma.
The service droned on. I don't remember much of it. About halfway through, Mark's uncle went to the lectern. Joey took my hand while Grandma took the other.
"I am Walter Russell, Mark's uncle. For the last year-and-a-half of his life, Mark had a very special friend, Richard Guthrie. Mark's parents asked Richard to write about Mark for this service, and it is his words I read now."
Most of you have probably known Mark longer than I have, but not better. I met Mark while I was working in the yard next to his house. We soon became fast friends, and over the course of the summer, we grew to love each other. (I heard some murmuring behind me.)
I learned that Mark was not only a talented swimmer, he was a warm, generous, funny boy. We talked about books a lot, and he insisted on sharing his with me. We swam a lot, and he gave me lessons. He also generously gave lessons to my brother Joey, who has now become a competitive swimmer. Mark had won a medal for winning the 100 meter freestyle at a state meet. He said it was his most prized possession.
Mark was full of corny jokes and terrible puns. Unfortunately, I can't share them here. He had a deliciously filthy mind. (Here there were chuckles throughout the church.)
When Mark went to the hospital last September, I visited him nearly every weekend, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Russell, who treated me so kindly throughout the whole time. Mark always seemed cheerful and upbeat when I was there, and I was sure he was going to recover.
It wasn't until he came home in June and told me that he was dying that I knew the truth. Until then, thinking himself that he would get better, he never let on how awful his sickness was. From then on, we agreed to be totally honest with each other, and we were.
We talked about God, we talked about dying. Both of us knew that what was happening was totally unfair, but we concluded that life really wasn't about being fair.
As he got weaker, I helped to take care of him. I cleaned him, I fed him, I read to him, and I loved him. When he complained that he was a burden, I told him that it was a privilege to help him, which was totally true.
A few days ago, I was called from school because Mark's time was very near. When I got to his house, he asked me to hold him, which I did. He took off the medal which was around his neck and gave it to me, saying he wanted me to have it. I'm wearing it today to honor him.
Mark died in my arms. At the end, he asked me to kiss him. As I did, I felt him breathe once, twice, three times, and then never again.
I have been desolate since that moment. I know that, eventually, things will get better for me, but I also know that I will never cease loving him.
Mark, thank you for being my friend and my love. Thank you for the fun, the joy, the caring you gave me. Now your suffering is over. No more will you feel sick. No more will you be in pain. No more will nasty chemicals flood your body, weakening and sickening you. You are finally at peace, and I rejoice for that.
Goodbye Mark. I will always remember you, my friend and my love.
Joey and Grandma gently squeezed my hands as Mark's uncle stopped, folded the paper he had read, walked to the pew, and handed it to me.
At the end of the service we filed back out of the church, getting into our car for the ride to the cemetery. There, Mrs. Russell showed us where to sit, again in the front. There seemed to be a huge crowd all around the open grave.
Mark's coffin was brought and put on some sort of contraption on the grave. The priest stood and read some more prayers and things. When he finished, Grandma nudged me. I took the single red rose I had been carrying, walked hesitantly to the grave, and put the flower on the coffin then returned to my seat. Men began lowering his coffin into the ground. When it was at the bottom, Mark's father took a shovel full of earth and dropped it into the grave. I'll never forget the sound of the earth hitting that coffin. It was then that I lost it completely. I sat there, tears flooding my face and running off my chin, my body heaving and shuddering, while other people added shovelfuls of earth. Joey took my hand and Grandma took the other again as we went quietly back to the car.
We had been invited back to the Russells' house for a reception. I really didn't want to go, but Grandma said we would be showing support for his parents.
By the time we got to the house, I had more or less gotten hold of myself. We went in and stood around talking. I met some of Mark's classmates who said they really liked what I had written. They talked about him, telling funny stories which made me feel a little better.
Mrs. Russell came up and gave me and Joey hugs. "Thank you again, Richard, for all that you did to make Mark's last days bearable for all of us and for writing such a wonderful tribute to Mark." She handed me a laptop and said, "Mark wanted you to have this. He said there's a message to you on the desktop. He also wanted you and Joey to have some of his books. I'll pack them up in the next few days, and maybe you could come and get them. Joey, you should know that Mark was wearing the necklace you gave him when he was buried. He asked especially for us to see to that. Richard, I want you to come and visit us often. We'll have many good memories of Mark to share, and we want to keep being a part of your life."
I thanked her for the laptop and told her I would definitely visit.
Finally, Grandma rounded us up and took us home, stopping to pick up some pizza on the way. I wasn't hungry, so she said I could eat later. I sat on the porch and opened the laptop. Sure enough, on the desktop there was an icon that said, "To Richard." I opened it and began to read.
Dear, dear Richard,
Thank you again for all you did with and for me.
Thank you for being my friend, my love, and my lover.
Thank you for sharing your love of books.
Thank you for sharing your brother.
Thank you for being my voice of reason.
Thank you for the nasty things you did for me, always without complaint.
Thank you for praying for and to me.
Thank you for the wonderful sex we had, especially the fucking.
Most of all, thank you for holding me, kissing me, and being with me right to the end.
Richard, I imagine that, as you're reading this, you're very sad. You know that I've gone beyond the pain, beyond the suffering, so don't be sad for me. If you're sad for yourself, I understand and love you for it. But I want you to think about something. You're still very young. You have a full life left to live. I want you to find somebody else to love, Richard, not as a replacement for me, but as a new love and a new life to share. Believe me, wherever I am, I won't be jealous; I will be happy for you.
Now, goodbye Richard. Remember that I love you forever.
I closed the computer slowly, as I marveled that, with all his troubles, his final thoughts had been for me. He had given me permission to live happily and to find love. What greater gift could he have given?