In the early days of that long, cold winter, as the first in a crippling series of snowstorms descended on the entire northeast, I rode my increasingly unreliable motorcycle from New York City to my hometown of Yardley, Pennsylvania, in a mood so foul that not even some of Columbia's purest cocaine and a few slugs of Jamison could do much to alleviate it. Despite the first accumulations of snow, I leaned hard into every curve, passing car after car on the New Jersey Turnpike with a ferocity that mirrored my pissed off state. Although I had every reason to be upset -- my recent layoff, the dissolution of my marriage, or, most conveniently, my destination, headed as I was to the funeral of my estranged father, the wealthy and highly esteemed county judge -- so messed up was my frame of mind at that time of my life that instead of directing my ire at any of those perfectly justifiable targets, I found myself most upset with the one person who was probably least at fault for anything, cursing the name of my little sister Georgia for having guilted me into going to said funeral in the first place.
Mom really wants you to come, she said when she'd first called to tell me the plans.
Bullshit, I'd said. Ill be surprised if Mom even goes herself.
Okay fine, I want you there. Dont make me do this alone, Tripp. Besides, I havent seen you in almost two years.
Ive been busy.
Yeah, ruining your marriage.
But true, from what I hear.
Not one bit. Ive been busy with my career. My marriage ruined itself without any help from me.
Tripp, I just need you to come home, okay? I know you never forgave Dad, but Im having a hard time with this and I need to see you.
She knew I would eventually cave. I always did, whether she was still in diapers and would beg to ride on my shoulders, or in grade school demanding that I walk her all the way into her classroom even though it meant that I was often late for my own homeroom to begin all the way across campus. Later, my therapist would argue that subconsciously I felt myself to blame for Georgia not having a real father around much, as if his leaving was somehow my fault. She advised me not to feel too much paternal obligation towards my sister. It was advice I never took.
I left the city later than Id intended and ended up pulling into the parking lot of Saint Mary Magdalens church several minutes after the ceremony was to begin. A few groups were still straggling up the steps and into the vestibule, but no one I recognized. In no rush to go inside, I leaned on my bike and lit a cigarette, wondering if it wasnt too late to turn around and head back up north.
I checked my phone and realized that I had two missed calls from Samantha. Of course I did. For the past week, she had called every day to check on me, acting as if my dads death was going to send me into some kind of spiral from which I might never recover. She should have known better. We had been married for four years and in that time she had never heard me say much about my dad either good or bad. To me, it was as if he had died years ago, and my grieving process was long since complete. Samantha knew this, and yet she continued to expect me to feel....something. Im not sure what. As to why she even cared what I did or how I felt at this point, now that was another issue. If I were spiraling downward, it was her fault and had nothing to do with my father. I deleted both of her voicemails without listening to them.
I stomped out my cigarette and leaned into the wind as I walked across the crowded parking lot, steeling myself for what was about to come.
The church was completely full from front to back, the way it had only ever gotten during services for Christmas and Easter in my childhood. Our family had come practically every Sunday back then, at least until the summer I turned fourteen and Dad moved out. After that, Mom had encouraged my sisters and me to keep going, but she also made it abundantly clear that she had absolutely no interest in going to his church any longer. Both of my sisters had continued on and have done so basically uninterrupted to this day. I, on the other hand, had stopped immediately and until this very moment had neverstepped foot inside a church of any kind.
Squeezing in past a Mexican family and their several small children, I instinctively dipped my fingers into the holy water and sprinkled myself with the sign of the heavenly father. It had been ages since I'd done that and I was a bit self-conscious about it, although it felt surprisingly familiar and comforting at the same time.
My mom and sisters were in the front row sitting next to my Uncle Leonard and his family, with the only empty seats in the building taking up the rest of their pew. I walked briskly down the aisle and slipped in between my mom and Georgia.
I was starting to think you wouldnt come, Mom told me. It was less a condemnation than an observation, said in a tone that implied she wouldnt have blamed me if Id decided not to come. Or so I imagined.
Me neither, I said. I gave Georgia a peck on the cheek. Hey Sis.
You smell like booze, she said. This most definitely was a condemnation.
I had a drink in dads honor, I told her. What are all these people doing here?
Georgia turned around and looked behind us. She appeared not to have realized how full the church had gotten. Once this fact settled in, she gave a grateful -- if sad and fleeting -- smile. "Dad had more friends than you know, she said.
From behind the pulpit, Father Mcinerny was leading the congregation in a prayer of the Heavenly Father. His hair had grown a little gray near the temples and his face, always so sharp and angular, had softened a bit, but otherwise he looked like he hadnt aged a whole lot since I'd last seen him. He adorned the same frameless glasses hed always worn and still possessed the same general mix of boyishness, intelligence and piousness that caused many people, myself included, to view him as smug. He gazed around at the pews and smiled warmly but morosely, being sure to make an effort of out of it.
We come here today to remember and honor the life of a great man," Father Mcinerny started out. As he spoke, his words began to blur, and my mind wandered next to the pulpit to where my father's coffin lie on a table cloaked in some kind of ornate tapestry. It was a shiny, mahogany piece, and I was at least relieved to find that the casket was closed, as I'd had a hard enough time imagining the gaunt, yellowed version of my father that Georgia had described to me on the phone last month when shed first called to tell me that he was dying. She'd practically implored me to come home and make amends while I still had the chance, but I'd told her something to the effect that if Dad wanted to make amends then he could call and say so himself, to which Georgia argued that he had tried to do so years ago but I was too thick-headed to be open to it. Whatever.
Born to an Irish immigrant farmer and an Italian American schoolteacher in Wichita, my father became the first in his family to go to college when he entered Princeton at the age of seventeen. There he graduated first in his class and went on to become the head of the Yale Review in his first year of law school, the first time an underclassmen had ever manned the position. A picture of him that ran in the paper on the day he was named editor in chief, shaking hands ceremoniously with the outgoing editor as my father mugged for the camera and the other guy smiled meekly, had hung prominently in the foyer of our brownstone as I was growing up.
It was at Yale that he met my mom, Carolyn Tyndall, an undergraduate student in the anthropology department whose Civilizations and Law History 601 class he had T.A.'d. On the night of her final exam, she had "accidentally" (depending on who you asked) run into him at a bar frequented almost exclusively by graduate students, and, imbibed with several glasses wine, admitted to having had a semester-long crush. They were married less than a year later, and exactly eight months after that, before either of them had even graduated, my older sister, Heather, was born.
Mom dropped out of school and talked her way into a part time job at the cash register of a local Genaurdi's supermarket so that Dad could finish getting his law degree. She was pregnant again, this time with me, by the time he passed the bar, at which point they were more than a hundred thousand dollars in debt and already the strains in their marriage were starting to show. They had moved into the basement of my grandparent's house in order to save money and so my grandmother could help watch my sister and me while Mom took on more hours at the grocery store. My father got a low-level cleric job in the District Attorney's office that kept him extremely busy even though it didn't necessarily pay that well, and my memories of him in those early years were mostly of coming home late at night in his suit and tie and entering the bedroom I shared with Heather to say goodnight after we were already asleep. I could never really fall completely asleep until after he tucked me in, and many nights I would stay up late into the night reading books or staring out the window waiting for him to come home.
We would eventually get our own house, of course. Once my father's career starting taking off, we moved into a rather posh neighborhood, and even though he still worked late each night during the week as he moved along the track towards becoming a judge, he spent as much time as he could with Heather and me on the weekends, coming to nearly all of my baseball games, taking us out for ice cream, teaching me how to fish, building us a treehouse in the backyard, and doing other little things that I suppose any devoted father would do for their kids.
It was during this time that my relationship with my dad was at its strongest. Because as acrimonious as things got later on, I'll admit that there were also some really memorable years -- years when I actually idolized my dad the way that some kids idolized sports heroes or rock stars. To my pre-adolescent mind, he could do no wrong. He was the funniest, strongest, smartest, kindest, most successful father I'd ever known, and even my friends all agreed that he was the "cool" dad, the one who "got it" more than other parents because he didn't act like such an adult all the time. I couldn't wait to grow up to be just like him, and as much as I might hate to admit this now, much of what I learned about being a man I learned from him during those years. He taught me little things like to always hold the door open for a girl and to cut once but measure twice. But he also taught me more important life lessons, like the joy of reading and the value of hard work. He taught me to respect people in authority but to question everything I was told; to be kind to people even when they weren't kind to me, because you never knew what they might be going through; that when force became necessary, to use every ounce of it I could muster; that honesty was always the best policy, except when a lie might spare someone's feelings without causing any harm down the road; that a sense of humor would help get me through the rough times, but a sense of passion would make life worth living. And so on.
He and mom seemed to fight less in those years, but I also can't remember them spending a whole lot of time together. If there was much affection left in their marriage it went unnoticed by their children. Mom filled what little free time she had with volunteer work for the American Cancer Society, a cause she became dedicated to when her own father passed away during my third grade year after a long struggle with brain cancer. We saw as little of her on the weekends as we saw of my dad during the week, as she took to writing out solicitation letters, requesting grants, organizing local groups and generally throwing herself into the cause.
They must have found at least some time to be affectionate, however, because it was around my eighth birthday that they announced they were pregnant again. Coincidence or not, it was around this time that I first began to notice my father's drinking had become a problem. He had always enjoyed his Martinis, and it was never uncommon for him to come from work looking tired and disheveled and oozing an acrid mix of Brut aftershave and gin. But his drinking now grew heavier and more frequent, starting earlier and earlier in the day. Even during the weekends, when he once seemed so present for me and the girls, he now started drinking gin and tonics with lunch and making excuses for why he couldn't ride bikes or go to the park. It was just as well, I supposed, since I was becoming old enough to have a social life of my own, but what hurt so much was that I was supposed to be pushing away from him, not him from me.
Then one night in my first year of high school, the shit hit the proverbial fan and made such a splattered mess of my life that, when I stop think about it, things haven't really been the same since.
Father David said a few more prayers and then invited Uncle Leonard up to give the eulogy. Uncle Leonard rose from where hed been sitting next to Heather and walked behind the pulpit and thanked everyone for being there. I hadnt spoken to my uncle in years, but we had exchanged Facebook messages a handful of times, and heor more likely his wife, Aunt Meredithhad continued sending me Christmas cards every year, making them the only people from my fathers side of the family I kept in any amount of touch with.
Depending on how you knew my brother, youve probably come here to either celebrate his life or make sure that its really over, Uncle Leonard said, giving out an awkward laugh. He shuffled some cards in front of him and apologized for having to write down his thoughts. I just wanted to make sure that I gave Tom the tribute he deserves. Because even though he would be the first to tell you that he didnt always live his life up to his own high standards, he was a great brother, a darn good judge, and he died doing something he believed in, which I suppose is what brings so many of you here today.
This brought on a series of Amens and even a splattering of applause from the congregation. "My brother was a complicated man who left a complicated legacy," Uncle Leonard continued. "But to me, he was just my big brother, you know? I remember one time when we were kids, I was maybe ten and he must have been twelve or thirteen, and I'd stolen one of our father's cigarettes and headed out behind the garage. I lit it and took a drag or two, and just then Tommy comes down from the house and he's got this scowl on his face and he says 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' So I took another drag and said 'I'm smoking a butt, what do you think I'm doing?' You know, trying to look all tough. And he tells me I'm too young to be smoking and I need to put it out, and I basically tell him that he can shove off, or something like that. And then he asks me where I got it. I told him I took it from dad's pack when he wasn't looking. Well, that really set him off, and he starts calling me all sorts of names and telling me I'm a thief and that if I don't put it out right now and tell mom and dad what I've done that he's going to tell them for me. The next thing you know Tom's got me in a headlock and he's beating the living crap out of me while I'm screaming bloody murder."
Uncle Leonard said all this with a wistful look in his face, as if he was recounting one of his fondest memories. "But that was my brother for you," he continued. "He stood up for what he believed in, and if you went against him, God help you."
The call came one Thursday night just as we were finishing our dinner. I remember it was a Thursday because I was in a rush to finish eating so I could bang out my homework in time to watch Seinfeld. I answered the phone to very serious sounding man on the other line asking if this was the residence of Thomas Reynolds. Nobody ever called my dad Thomas so I knew right away it wasn't a friend of his. He asked to speak with Mrs. Reynolds, and I put my mom on the phone. Heather, Georgia and I sat there and watched as her faced turned from curious to serious and then to a state of total shock as she listened intently. Her complexion had turned ghostly white by the time she thanked the person on the other end of the line and said she'd be right there.
Dad had been in an accident, that much we knew. A very serious one that had placed him on life support in the critical care center of the hospital, where he would remain for two weeks while they tried to stabilize his injuries. He'd suffered a collapsed lung, severed spleen, three broken ribs and a shattered right arm that would be essentially useless the rest of his life.
While we held vigil over his bed, the exact details of the accident began to emerge. Another car had been involved, and the driver of that car was also in the hospital. In fact he was right down the hall, and in even worse shape than dad. A third person, a woman, had been treated for minor injuries at the scene and then sent home. The woman was my father's paralegal and, we would find out later, his girlfriend, with whom he'd been sleeping for the last eighteen months. But that wouldn't come out until the deposition. First there were police interviews and toxicology reports and three separate surgeries over the course of three weeks, separated by a staph infection and, finally, my father being declared stable and moved to a different floor in the hospital.
Then the other driver died.
Even before Uncle Leonard was finished speaking, I was starting to regret that I had ever come. I'd always held a healthy dose of anger for my father, especially in those first few years after the accident, when it bordered on rage. But in recent years, I'd gotten so busy with school and work and marriage (and more recently, I suppose, divorce) that my anger towards my father had kind of faded into the background. It was still there, always lurking beneath the surface, but it had become less acute, like a dull headache that won't really go away and only bothers you when you think about it. So I'd tried my best not to think about it, to put my father out of my mind as much as possible. And for the most part, it had worked. But now, staring at his coffin and hearing Uncle Leonard talk about what a great brother he was, I felt the anger start to work its way back into my consciousness, like a claw gripping at the base of my spine.
"I know that a lot of you have stories about my brother," Uncle Leonard said. "So I'd like to invite anyone who'd like to say a few words to come up and share them with us now."
A brief silence hung over the crowd as everyone exchanged glances to see who might want to step to the podium. I found myself hoping that no one would step forward, that by their silence they would indicate that they had come, like I had, not to celebrate but to vilify the man that lie before them. No such luck.
From near the back of the church, a woman stood up and announced that she had something to share. She was middle aged, maybe late thirties or early forties, with a pudgy face and the look of a woman who has stared down her demons and come away a little worse for the wear. As she approached the front of the pews I felt that she looked vaguely familiar, but I could not quite figure out from where.
She started out very shyly and timidly, in a voice so low that even the microphone strained to pick it up. "I first met Judge Reynolds about six years ago," she said. "During a very low point in my life. I don't know that I believed in God at that point, but I most definitely believed Jud-- Tom was my guardian angel. He listened when I needed to talk and gave good advice when I needed to hear it. He never passed judgement and he never let me pass judgement on myself. Thanks to Tom, I started to feel good about myself for the first time in a very long time. I have been sober now for five years, seven months and three days, and I have Tom to thank for it. I literally owe him my life."
The congregation clapped its hands again, in support of this woman's sobriety. So that's why they were all here. These were his AA pals. I should have known. My father had started going to AA immediately after the accident, but begrudgingly and only under the advisement of his lawyer, as a preemptive move to demonstrate to the courts his commitment to making things right. He ended up sticking with it, and eventually he would become a mentor and, for a while, even the head of the regional chapter.
The woman at the head of the church then turned to my father's coffin and held her hand up to her mouth, covering the quiver that now came to her lips. "You'll never know how much you've done for me," she said, and, before she was overcome with tears, she stepped down from the podium.
As she walked briskly back to her seat, I scanned the faces in the crowd, still not recognizing any of them, imagining them all part of AA. I knew of my father's involvement with the group mainly from my sister, which is how I'd kept up with his life at all these last few years. How ironic, I'd always said to her when she would tell me of how well he was doing with AA and how involved he was in helping others maintain their own sobriety, that his commitment to the organization seemed to ardent, so unwavering, yet his commitment to us, his family, had dried up years ago.
Another person stood and made their way to the head of the church, an African American man so large that he could have played defensive end for the New York Giants. His dark suit clung to his shoulders and chest as if it could barely contain their enormity. And yet he did not appear overweight for his frame; despite the belly that forced his tie to fall awkwardly to its side, he seemed to be made up of more muscle than fat. When he spoke, his voice was surprisingly high pitched, and he seemed to be on the verge of crying already.
"This dog saved my life too," he started out. "Who would have thought that it would take some white dude from the suburbs to help me get clean, but he did. Oh sure, I fought it at first. That's what happens when the court appoints some cat to come in and basically be your second parole officer. But T-Bone won me over. Showed me that there was another way to live my life. I remember one time I was feeling real low, man, like I was ready to just drink, smoke and snort anything and everything I could get my hands on. And I was sitting in the parking lot of the liquor store basically having a big ol' argument with myself, when my phone rings and its T-bone himself. As if he knew just then what I was going through. And he asks me how I'm doing, right? And I'm honest with him, I tell him just then I ain't doin' so well. So he asks me where I'm at and he tells me to stay put and twenty minutes later he's there. We sit and we talk and he has this way of just relaxing you, you know? And before long we's out getting coffee and that's that. The moment passed. But if it ain't for this guy right here," he says, thumbing in the direction of the coffin, "Who knows what kind of trouble I woulda gotten into that night. So I just wanna say thanks, T-Bone. You're one hell of a dude."
Again, the crowd applauded, even more emphatically this time. Everyone but me. I was already getting sick of hearing what a great guy my father was, how he was there for people when they needed him most. I was thinking back to the high school dance when my mom had to call my grandfather to come over and teach me how to tie a tie, to the time when I borrowed my mom's razor and first shaved the whiskers off my face, leaving it bloody and nicked up all over because I had no idea how it worked, to all the nights when I lay in bed at night, unable to sleep, trying to figure out what had gone wrong with our family and how I could get revenge for its demise.
Georgia noticed that I was the only one not clapping and nudged me with her elbow. There was no way I was going to applaud for this shit, and I clucked my tongue to indicate as much. When a third person started walking to the front of the church, I wasn't sure I could take any more. I shook my head and gave Georgia a look that I'd hoped said, You knew I wouldn't sit through this. What I wanted more than anything in that particular moment was to reach into my coat pocket and produce the antique flask that now lay against my chest, about half full with Jamison, and take a giant gulp. I considered the consequential poor timing of such an act for all of about two seconds, and though I fully realized that I'd probably regret it later, my hand was already reaching inside my coat pocket before I found myself officially deciding, Screw it, I'm taking a swig.
As I twisted the top off the flask, my sisters and my mother all turned their eyes on me.
"Really?" Georgia asked. Mom groaned and rolled her eyes. Heather looked around to see who else had noticed.
I shrugged. "Really," I said, and when I tossed back the fiery dark liquid I felt an immediate sense of relief as it warmed my stomach and loosened the claw that was gripping at my insides. Now I could calm down. In front of us, an elderly man with thick glasses and a veritable forest of hair growing out of each ear was speaking in a thick Russian accent. He told a similar story of how my father had helped him navigate sobriety, which in his case helped save his marriage. Then another man got up and told everyone how my father had once loaned him five hundred dollars so he could buy a suit and interview for a job when no one else believed in him. The next speaker was a woman who claimed that my father had a very zen like air to him because he had an amazing ability to simply "be."
God, if only these people knew. Thanks to his connections in the DA's office, my father had gotten off on some technicality and never served a single day in jail. Nor did any of it appear in the papers, which was even more of a mystery. Or maybe they all knew--my dad always was an open book, and I wouldn't put it past him to almost brag about his transgressions, as if they bestowed upon him some kind of perverse street cred--but they just didn't care, which made them all hypocrites. But I doubted it. Who could ever speak so glowingly of a man who once committed one of the most heinous crimes imaginable? He didn't deserve this type of send off, and the fact that he was getting it was starting to make my blood boil again. I wanted to stand up and tell them all what idiots they were for letting him pull the wool over their eyes.
The last time I'd seen my father, we met for lunch in a quiet, dimly lit Italian restaurant in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, a few blocks from his courtroom. Although it pained me to do so, I'd scheduled the lunch in order to ask him for the money I needed to buy Samantha an engagement ring. The thought of owing any amount of gratitude to my father nauseated me, but that's how important it was to me then, ridiculous now in hindsight, to show Samantha how much I loved her with some extravagant diamond.
"To what do I owe the pleasure?" he'd said when I first sat down. Wearing a three-piece, pinstriped suit, his thick head of gray hair gelled straight back in the modern day version of a pompadour, he looked like he had either come from or was getting was ready for court.
"I can't just say 'hi'?" I'd asked.
"You haven't answered taken any of my calls in the last two years," he'd said. "Clearly something has changed your mind." He strummed his fingers on the white linen tablecloth, a professor waiting impatiently for his pupil to answer a rather pedantic question.
"I guess I didn't have a whole lot to say to you," I admitted.
"But you do now?"
"Maybe I figured a son should have his father in his life," I'd said sharply, before looking down at the empty plate in front of me, allowing my father to eye me suspiciously.
"That much is true," he said, softening his posture. But now it was my turn to harden.
"It doesn't matter," I'd told him. "Maybe this was a mistake."
Our conversation had devolved from there as we rehashed the same argument that we'd had in one form or another practically every time we'd seen each other since he'd moved out. He was still my father, he'd insist, no matter what awful mistakes he had made, and should be given the chance to make it up to me. Besides, he'd argue, this wasn't just some casual fling he'd been having. He'd fallen in love, truly and deeply in love for the first time in his life, and, as he assured me I'd understand some day, one could not be blamed for affairs of the heart. "You should be happy for me," he'd said that day, a drop of tomato sauce stuck to his chin.
Of course, I hadn't seen it that way and reminded him that he hadn't just walked out on mom but on all of us. "And by the way, I'm old enough to be in love myself," I'd chastised. "Did you even know that I'm engaged?" I wasn't, of course, not yet, but I wanted him to think that he was missing out on more than he was.
"That's wonderful," he'd said. But his eyes, in the way they squinted ever so slightly before he smiled, told a different story.. You'll live to regret this, they'd said. I knew he'd think I was too young and that I wasn't ready for such a big step, and it seemed obvious now that that was exactly the case. But if so he said nothing about it, choosing instead to ask politely what her name was and how we'd met and other details about her family and upbringing. In fact he was so polite and, at least outwardly, non-judgemental that I was taken aback. I would have preferred it if he'd said straight out that he disapproved of my engagement. That would have been more expected and, frankly, more comforting. It was as if he was resigned to no longer being my father, not in the sense of the man responsible for raising me. This should have come to a relief to me, because it's all I'd wanted ever since the truth of his accident had been revealed. But now that I had it, it did not.
I finished the last of my halibut and set my napkin on my plate. I'd carefully rehearsed the little speech I would give, and swallowing my pride, I launched into it. "Look," I'd said. "I haven't asked you for much over the years. As you know I've preferred to make it on my own. And I wouldn't ask for your help now if it wasn't something that was so important to me."
My father eyed me patiently. "Yes?"
"I'd like to buy Samantha a proper engagement ring," I told him, "And I'd like to borrow three thousand dollars from you to help pay for it. I can't guarantee when I'll be able to pay it back, but I can promise you'll be the second in line behind my student loans to get whatever money I have left over at the end of each month."
My father's squint returned. Three thousand dollars was nothing to him. He had offered to pay for my entire tuition at NYU, which easily would have been over a hundred thousand dollars had I taken him up on it. And yet, as he looked me over after I'd asked him for the money, some other calculation, having nothing to do with finances, was taking place in his head. At last, he made his decision.
He narrowed his eyes on me and straightened his lip. Shaking his head, in a voice flat and firm, he'd uttered, simply, "No."
I was snapped out of my reverie by the loud and earnest applause for the woman now at the podium. She looked no older than my own age. "It's true," she was saying, holding her palm up as if to testify on oath. "My father left my mom and me when I was just a toddler, and I never really had any stable men in my life until Mr. Reynolds came along. He was the closest thing to a father that I ever had." Then she looked directly at my sisters and me and told us, "You guys don't know how lucky you were to have a man like him as your dad."
That was it. I couldn't stand it any more. Somewhere deep inside me, a damn broke.
"Oh for God's sake!" I yelled, uncrossing my legs and stamping my foot to the ground.
This caught everyone's attention and turned the church deathly quiet. I felt everyone's eyes on the back of my head and realized that I now had to do or say something more, that I couldn't just leave it at that.
I stood up and scolded the woman up front. "You're so naive!" I yelled. "You're all so naive," I said, turning to face the congregation with a dismissive wave of the hand. On their faces were looks of surprise, indignation, and in some cases outright horror. I decided that they needed to hear the truth.
I walked up to the pulpit, where the woman who ruefully thought of my father as her own was so shocked by my interruption that she hadn't moved, and I practically nudged her aside with my elbow. "Let me tell you about my father," I said, leaning into the microphone. "My father was not the saint you've all made him out to be, okay? Not even close. You say that he was like a father to you? He wasn't even a father to me, and I'm his real son! You say what a great listener he was, how supportive he was, that he was always there for you. Bullshit, all of it! He was never there for me! He was never there for my sisters, or for my mom. My father was a selfish prick who never did or said anything unless it suited his own interests, and that's a fact."
What was I doing? My whole goal today was to support my sister, to be as discreet as possible, and to get in and out of there before anyone hardly noticed my presence. But now I was airing my dirty laundry in front of hundreds of people. Father McInerny had placed both hands on the armrests of his chair as if he was about to lift himself up, but he seemed frozen in place. Part of me wanted to run and hide, but I found that I still had more to say, and I continued on before I was cut off.
"I've got news for you all," I said. "I'm not convinced that my father ever quit drinking. I'm pretty sure this whole thing about him being in AA all these years was just for show. Like, just in case anyone questioned him, he had the credentials to show that he had turned his life around. But I'm not sure he ever did. I'm not sure that he didn't go right on drinking after the accident just as he had before, only in secret."
A subtle murmur ran through the crowd, and I could tell that many people were confused.
"You all know that he killed a guy, right?" I asked. At this, mouths dropped open and there was a collective gasp from the crowd. "Oh Jesus, he never told any of you, did he? He killed a guy in a drunk driving accident, and he got away with it because he had friends in the DA's office. A judge let him off and ordered him to go to AA. And that was it. Case closed."
I paused to let this fact sink in, and I could tell that my little speech was having the desired effect. People no longer looked so solemn and reverential. Now they weren't sure what to think. One woman near the front began weeping.
"Tripp, that's enough!" Uncle Leonard implored, rising to his feet.
"Sorry, Uncle Leonard, but it's not enough." I was on a roll now. The anger that I'd had bottled up all these years finally had a channel to express itself, and I wasn't about to try and put the cap back on now. "Because these people deserve to know. They deserve to know that the man they worshipped so much was nothing but a farce. He wasn't some straight edged, high-and-mighty saint who lived his life according to the perfect ideals. He was a murderer and a drunk! And for those of you who care, he was also a terrible father."
Realizing that I was practically trembling with indignation, I paused to take a breath. I stood up a little straighter, letting my shoulders go slack but not entirely releasing my grip on the pulpit. I looked out over the faces of the crowd and for the first time began to actually recognize some of them. It had been ten years or longer since I'd last seen many of them, and though their faces had all been worn by time -- appearing a bit thicker in some cases, more wrinkled in others -- one by one I was starting to be able to pick them out. There was Jimmy Landis, my father's old golfing partner and, to my mother's chagrin, drinking buddy, a mustachioed Italian who rode a Harley, drank whiskey by the barrel and was twice divorced. Beside him sat his daughter Emily, who one night when we were in middle school, behind the equipment shed adjacent to the football field, became the first girl to ever show me her tits, tiny and pubescent as they were, after her friends had dared her to flash them to me. A row back was our old neighbor Mrs. Baxter, looking fragile and thin, apparently having turned from old to downright elderly in the years since her husband had died. Across the aisle was the entire Wasserman family, who we used to vacation with each summer "down the shore," as they say in Philly, and whose youngest son, Danny, had been one of my closest friends as a child, though we'd grown apart during high school when we ended up getting involved with different crowds. As he sat there with his beautiful wife and two toe-headed little children, staring up at me with a look of bewilderment on his face, he nodded when our eyes met, as if to say he had heard me and, so I imagined, understood.
The sobbing up front grew louder and more anguished, and now it became a wail that welled up from the deep and practically bellowed off the balustrades and stained glass of the church's high-pitched roof. Suddenly it seemed to be the only noise in the entire church, and it wasn't until I finally looked over to see who it was that I noticed it was Georgia, her head buried in her hands, shoulders heaving from the effects of her tears.
Instantly I was overcome with shame, and as my mom reached over and put an arm around my sister, I realized with complete conviction what an ass I was being. I had ruined my father's funeral -- not necessarily for him, because he was already dead and what the hell did I even care if I had somehow offended him in the afterlife. But I'd ruined it for the hundreds of people who had come here mostly for themselves. They had come to pay respects and to be with one another and to pray and to renew their faith in God and, I realized now as I stared down at my sister's face all teary and snotty in her hands, to feel better about their own situations, no matter how tenuous they might seem, because life, after all, was precious and beautiful and worth living.
I might have mumbled "Sorry" into the microphone, or maybe I just thought that I had. Either way I stepped awkwardly away from the podium, walked down the four carpeted steps descending from the stage, and headed down the middle aisle that led to the back of the church. My shame seemed to increase with each heavy step, and by the time I neared the back of the church I practically broke into a sprint, so anxious was I to bust through the front entrance and get out of the building.
Outside, I looked up at the overcast sky, and for the first time in my life I opened myself to the possibility that there was a heaven.
"Fuck you, Dad," I said, practically shaking my fist in the air. "Fuck you for everything."