“That funeral ate balls,” my brother Gus said as we walked through the Seattle rain to his car. He unlocked the doors and Dad got in the passenger side, while Mom sat in the back with me. I can be a tad verbose, but couldn’t speak. My mouth, like my heart, felt cauterized.
Mom reached for my hand. “Oh, honey,” she said. “I know this is awful.” She paused. “Where should we take you to eat?”
Usually I’d tease her about Greek protocol, how we hone in on food no matter the circumstances. We’d just left my best friend Neal’s funeral, though, and everything seemed absurd, but not in the funny way.
I looked down at my black wool coat. It was cold now, as it usually is in October. If it’d been chilly two weeks ago, Neal wouldn’t have squeezed in one last trek at the end of climbing season. But the temperature had spiked and he’d left to summit three more peaks in the North Cascades. If the weather hadn’t warmed unseasonably, most likely he’d still be alive. We would’ve gone to the movies Wednesday as planned, instead of my attending his heretofore unscheduled funeral this late Friday afternoon.
“I don’t care where we go,” I whispered. “I can’t eat.”
“Gus, did you hear that?” Mom asked my brother as he pulled out of the Mountaineers Club parking lot and onto the adjacent highway. “Take us to the noodle place at University Village. We need to feed her.”
Dusk encroached and oxygen seemed to exit with the light. Whatever I drew into my lungs felt numbing and poisonous, like the car’s tailpipe snaked into the backseat. The thought of noodles made my stomach lurch, but Mom, Dad, and Gus were sad and exhausted and needed a meal and a way to decompress. Neal and I had been intertwined romantically or platonically for twenty-one years and they’d accompanied me to his funeral not merely to provide comfort, but because they loved him. As Mom said earlier that morning, we lost a family member, too.
Perhaps Neal’s family was unaware of this, though, as they were often unaware of his day-to-day life. At the funeral, they asked mourners to fill out three-by-five index cards describing how we knew him and to drop them in a brown cardboard box, like we were voting for senior class president. And the service itself, replete with slideshow, folding metal chairs, and speakers making corny jokes into malfunctioning mikes, was like a cross between a prom and an AA meeting, only less formal and with fewer tears. His mother wore red and greeted me with a beaming smile. She did not appear in the grip of mere shock, but something else entirely.
Neal cited this dynamic when explaining why he left home at seventeen to complete high school in Australia. Even his most casual acquaintances joked he hadn’t stayed put since. To know him at all was to ask, “Dude, where are you off to now?” and to be regaled, often over chocolate mochas, with details of his latest expeditions.
Neal and I first met Spring quarter 1988 at Seattle’s University of Washington in an honors Creative Writing class. I told him he should be a mystery writer. He parried by asking me out. I had a boyfriend, but Neal and I became friends and wandered campus discussing our short stories and his acting classes. (He later graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key in Drama.) When he was selected to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., his professors allowed him to miss classes so he could enthrall patrons in our nation’s capitol. Even when Neal tried being still, his talent propelled him across the continent.
I’ve kept the stacks of postcards Neal sent over two decades from Ecuador, London, the Galapagos Islands, New York, China’s ancient silk route, the Italian Alps, Zanzibar, and occasionally, somewhere more prosaic, like Los Angeles. In our twenties, he sometimes hiked or bicycled in such locales, but as we grew older, his tastes increasingly skewed almost exclusively toward rock and ice climbing. He quickly developed the expertise that allowed him to scale tens of thousands of feet again and again. He said he felt drawn to “grand vistas” and was mesmerized by their surreal beauty.
As my family and I pulled up to the restaurant, I thought about what Neal might have thought about as the rock gave way on that last mountain and he fell 1000 feet.
Even in death, Neal had remained in perpetual motion.
My brother Gus was right: today’s funeral ate balls.
LITSA DREMOUSIS is the author of Altitude Sickness, a wry and candid examination of rock and mountain climbing and the mainstream culture that venerates it. Available from Future Tense Books’ new ebook line Instant Future, October 2014. Her essay “After the Fire” was selected as one of the “Most Notable Essays of 2011″ by “Best American Essays 2012″. The Seattle Weekly named her one of “50 Women Who Rock Seattle”. Her work appears in The Believer, BlackBook, Esquire, Jezebel, McSweeney’s, Men’s Health, Monkeybicycle, MSN, New York Magazine, Nerve, Nylon, The Onion’s A.V. Club, Paste, Poets & Writers, Salon, Slate, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, on KUOW, NPR and in sundry other venues. Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.