A hand tapped his shoulder.
"Weren't you going to take off early to stop by the funeral home, Jim?"
"You're right, thanks, Melissa," he said to his supervisor.
"Are you O.K.?," she went on. "I know you and Ralph were good friends."
"Yea, we were," Jim quickly interjected. "Say, if I'm going to make it for the viewing, I'd better get moving. Thanks, again, for reminding me."
Before she could ask any more questions, he grabbed his coat, and was down the hall. Melissa reminded him of a mother hen, caring for all her chicks. He wasn't feeling a part of her brood at the moment, though.
To be honest, he had completely immersed himself in his work in an effort to disconnect from his feelings. He didn't want to think about Ralph. It's amazing how easy it is to lose yourself in a computer. He truly had lost track of the time. Some short-cuts and a heavy foot on the accelerator would be necessary if he were to make it there on time. Maybe he could lose himself in the traffic as well.
As Jim pulled out of the company parking lot, his thoughts returned with a vengeance. The two of them had been friends from childhood. Over the course of years, they had travelled different paths, and yet they somehow stayed together. Ralph was what you might call slow, but steady. He wasn't really mentally handicapped, but there were definite barriers that stood in his way. His hand grip could crunch any knuckle, if he so wished. Even so, Ralph was one of the most gentle persons Jim had ever known.
It was quite by accident they ended up working for the same company. Ralph was on the maintenance crew. Slow, but dependable. That's how his supervisor described him. His childhood nickname followed him: "Bullet," as in "fast as a speeding bullet" and "shaped like a bullet." It took on a note of endearment, though, rather than derision. Everybody got to know Bullet. His popularity was due to his good nature, a rock of Gibraltar amid shifting sand.
His death had hit the whole company, because he was one of those people whose presence makes the wheels turn, far more than any C.E.O. Yes, he fixed things around the place, but it wasn't his work that made him so valuable. It was who he was, and how he worked that made a difference. He had long ago accepted his limitations, and moved within them. In a deadline oriented, "get it done by yesterday" atmosphere, people needed his slow, methodical movement nearby to connect them to reality. Their true, internal clocks became set by "bullet time." He would be sorely missed.
Jim thought about this as he picked up his wife, Molly, and headed for the funeral home. They couldn't visit during the evening hours because of a school play that night, already promised to Tricia. Arrangements had been made so they could drop by in the afternoon. Not many folks would be there then, anyway, which was just fine for Jim.
Ralph's parents were there, as well as some other family. Out of the corner of his eye, Jim could see the open casket as he entered the room with Molly. This was the moment he had been dreading. He hated the thought of funerals. Thus far, he had been able to avoid most of them. Growing up, his parents always gave him the choice of whether of not he wanted to attend. Rarely did he say, "Yes." He couldn't back away from this one, however.
He had wondered what on earth he would say to Ralph's parents. The phrase, "I'm sorry," lasts one second, and then what? Strangely enough, conversation flowed easily. These were the people who had opened their home to him as Ralph's friend so long ago. They were almost like his own parents.
"We've known for a long time he might leave us this way," Ralph's mother said. "His heart was never as strong as the rest of his body. The doctors made us aware of that when he was a baby." The conversation turned to memories from childhood.
"Do you recall when all you boys stayed up all night playing monopoly?," his Dad asked.
"Of course. I also remember barely being able to keep my eyes open in church the next day..."
The time came for talk to end and the moment of truth to begin. Molly held his hand as they walked over to the casket. Somebody said, "Doesn't he look so natural? They did a good job on him."
"No, he doesn't look 'natural'," Jim thought, but didn't say. "This is not how I remember Ralph. He was slow, but not this slow." He reached out and touched his hand. Cold and waxen. In that moment, the reality of Ralph's death came over him. Inside, it was as if a portion of his heart break off and fell to the floor. Sinking...sinking. Jim's outer mask stayed firmly in place, though.
"Are you O.K.?," Molly asked on their way out to the car. Another mother hen, clucking.
* * * * *
Later that evening, they were sitting in the audience watching Tricia's school play. Jim tried to be fully there, but it was hard. He found himself moving in and out of what was happening on stage.
He remembered the last time he'd seen Ralph. It was in the hospital. A mild heart attack, they said. Bullet looked very much his old self. Had it not been for that blasted gown with the split down the back, you'd never known something was wrong with him. They laughed together, reminisced over days gone by, spoke of office politics, joked about Ralph's love life, or lack thereof. It was a good visit. Jim felt great after it.
The next day, Ralph was gone. A massive heart attack, they said.
As he sat there watching his daughter dressed as a tree, Jim counted his losses. It wasn't just Ralph he was grieving. Ralph was a connection to his childhood, a more innocent age. Never again would he see those years. With his friend around, he was reminded of his roots. Would he now start taking himself much more seriously, with this co-player of monopoly out of the game? And friendship, where would he ever find someone as true and dependable as Bullet?
Molly looked over at her husband and, even in that dim light, made out the trail of tears running down his cheek. She put her hand on his. Thank God for mother hens. Later that evening, she enfolded him in her wings as his sobs rent their bed.
* * * * *
The next day they dressed up and headed for church. Like his parents before him, Jim gave Tricia the choice of whether or not to attend. She decided she wanted to be there, to say goodbye to her "Uncle Ralph," for that's what she called him. His family had chosen a private grave site ceremony for earlier that morning, so there was no casket in the sanctuary. The bulletin read "Memorial Service," not "Funeral."
While the organ played, Jim looked around. The place was nearly packed. Many people were there from work, including the company president. That surprised Jim. Apparently Ralph had touched even him. Many faces from childhood were among the crowd. There were also a multitude who were strangers to Jim.
When the organ finished, the minister began. "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness." After a prayer, they sang Ralph's favorite hymn about God's faithfulness.
Several had been asked by the family to share remembrances of this loved one, Jim included. Though many such thoughts had come to mind, he hadn't been able to nail any down. He was still undecided as to what he would say, when the time came to speak.
"Ralph was my best friend. I'd like to share with you two stories about him. The first takes place up at Ferguson Lake. A group of us boys were camping together up there one weekend long ago. Around the campfire, we decided to go skinny dipping. Ralph wasn't too sure he wanted to do that, so he said he'd stay and watch the fire. The rest of us snuck up to the water's edge, stripped, and quietly got in the water. We swam out to the float, praying that there were no snapping turtles in that lake, and no park rangers nearby.
"At the float, we saw a light travelling the edge of the shore. When it reached the spot where we'd left our clothes, the lantern flashed out toward us, who were trying to hide behind the float. We expected any minute to hear, "Alright, boys, you've had your fun. Party's over." Then the light went out. A few minutes later a swimmer appeared next to us. Ralph had arrived, slowly, but surely."
Tension was broken. The congregation roared.
"There's another story I want to share. As some of you know, Ralph was never the fastest person around. We nicknamed him 'Bullet' in spite of, or because of that - I was never sure which. On one occasion, though, he was the fastest.
"When our daughter Tricia was born, somehow Ralph was the first one to arrive at the hospital, even before any of her grandparents. To this day, Bullet has been first in her heart. Mine, too. I'd just like to affirm that this slow, but steadfast friend of ours is now God's bullet, who has gone ahead of us, following Jesus. Thank you."
The rest of the service flowed on. The minister spoke of resurrection. The choir sang, for Ralph had been a singer, also, and their song rose to the rafters. In closing, the minister read from the book of Hebrews:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."
As they left that place, Jim had the distinct feeling that his inner clock had been reset to "bullet time," or was it God's time. He could go on now, slowly, but surely.
©1996Peter L. Haynes