by Hugh Gilmore
The biologist J. D. S. Haldane once wrote, “The universe is not just stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.” So too the world of human perceptions.
Some years ago my brother-in-law Joe dropped my wife, Janet, and me off at a fancy hotel in Hawaii, where we were to meet my ex-wife and her boyfriend. We arrived first. Janet had to use the ladies’ room. I sat outside the hotel entrance on a stone bench. A car pulled up and a man got out carrying a little shopping bag. He came directly up to me, I guess because he thought I was waiting for him, and he said, “Mister Gilmore?”
“Oh good, sign here please.”
“For what?” I say, as I took his pen.
“For Colin Gilmore,” he said, uncertain how to pronounce Colin’s name.
I looked at the bag. He pulled the handles wide so I could look in. A silver-colored, shiny, thick cardboard box, about 8-by 8 by 8 inches.
Oh my God. I signed.
“Thank you, Mister Gilmore. I’m sorry for your bad fortune.”
I wanted to take this box and run around the world. I was so weirdly happy because the orders to take my boy off support had come while I was still en route to Hawaii from Philadelphia. So far his passing had just seemed like an abstraction.
The feeling of holding him once again, but in this way, was indescribable. No bigger than the football we tossed together when he was a kid. Condensed. I looked at the box and thought, my son is in here. I hadn’t seen him or felt him, or been near his physical presence since I’d hugged him goodbye at the Philadelphia Airport the day after we’d seen a great blue heron gliding over the ice in the fog. Now I held him again.
Oh my goodness. I was so sad, but temporarily cried out, and had felt so abused by how he’d passed without my being there, that now I felt almost giddy, with what, I don’t know. To call it happiness would sound too weird. Honored! I felt honored. Privileged. Paternal. And criminal, as though the forces that kept me from seeing him one last time had been temporarily thwarted. I fully expected my right to hold him like this to be contested.
How sick it all gets when a marriage dissolves. The most elemental parts of life get twisted and torn – two kids pulling at a toy until the arms come off.
Janet came back. I showed her. She held onto the empty bag while I cradled the box lovingly in my arms like a baby. We left the entrance of the hotel and walked the grounds of the resort in silence. A last walk with my son.
The reason Janet and I were meeting my ex and her man was so that we could hear Kahani, a friend of Colin’s, sing some of Colin’s favorite Hawaiian songs, just for us. We were told that Kahani and Colin often stayed up late singing together while Kahani played his guitar. I didn’t know who set this up, but it was not my cup of tea. I didn’t want to be part of it. Hawaii was a place I was disliking more every minute. But to resist was to risk getting upset all over again.
As a courtesy, the hotel’s management had closed off the outside balcony of the ballroom to assure privacy for our intimate event. We all took seats at the garden tables and Kahani started quietly playing. His voice was sweet and gentle, almost hypnotic. Our eyes teared up. Before each number he told us what the song meant to the Hawaiian people and added a brief anecdote about how much Colin liked the song. He won me over. The experience was soothing.
But then I noticed from the corner of my eye that a middle-aged couple had heard the music and found a way through the curtains to come out on the balcony. With each stanza of song, they moved in closer, till they were part of our group. They watched Kahani with admiration and then turned several times to look lovingly at one another. Their beaming, radiant faces said they’d come a long way for this vacation in paradise, and were paying a lot of money for this special privilege, and darned if it wasn’t worth every penny to have a great little private session like this with a genuine Hawaiian singer roaming the hotel, looking to serenade the guests.
No one had the heart or strength to tell them they’d stumbled on what amounted to a private funeral concert for an unfortunate 18-year old boy who’d been killed by a drunk driver a few days ago. And that the boy’s parents and step-parents composed the rest of the audience and that the tears in their eyes were just the prologue of the hundred-year mudslide to follow. We sat on the balcony and listened, tears moistening our eyes, but barely able to avoid shaking our heads and laughing at the absurd scenario the scene had morphed into.
Adapted for the Local from Hugh Gilmore’s forthcoming memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in mid-January, with a reading/signing scheduled for February 27 at the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill Hotel. Presented by the Chestnut Hill Book Festival. All are welcome.