Embry normally loved crying on the subway – the solitude of it, the isolation of it. He’d look people right in the eyes, through his tears, challenging them to ask if he was alright, just so he could say, “No. I’m not.”
People don’t know how to react to honesty. It’s one of their biggest faults.
The depth of the sadness is what surprised him. It wasn’t like this was the first death he’d experienced. Not by any means. Not even the first grandparent. But it had been a while. Over two years since he’d last known someone to pass. The longest he’d ever gone.
He wiped his cheeks and hid his eyes from the other passengers on the 2 Train. His tears were warm and thick. Not the usual “Why doesn’t another girl like me?” pity-tears that are cold and drip slowly, almost needing a slight flutter to carry them over the cheek bone. He’d become increasingly accustomed to those since he and his ex split up three years ago.
The sadness wasn’t all about his Grandpa. Make no mistake, Embry absolutely loved the man and was, truthfully, in awe of his life. He wished he was a better man, one to make his family proud. And he was working on that. But for some reason, this impending death woke up so much more than Embry expected. Every feeling of loss and emptiness and heartbreak. And he realized how alone he was and how much he wanted to change that.
The train stopped at 14th street and, to avoid anyone from sitting next to him, he just got off. The cold air felt good against his warm cheeks, still damp.
He was on his way home from what could be described as a date, but Embry would probably choose other words. No surprise it was rough. He’d gotten the call that his family was starting the morphine drip just as he was arriving at the small, Indian eatery on the Upper West Side.
Once again, he was going to miss his chance to say goodbye.
The year he and his ex split, Embry was living overseas. His family and his friends were thousands of miles away. And over a twelve-month time span, he went no more than five weeks without a phone call that someone had died. And he learned, each death carries it’s own sadness for each of us.
With his aunt, he was heartbroken. It was sudden and unexpected and no one had time to adjust. But, at the time, Embry had his wife. And she held him.
With his best friend’s baby, who was just fifty-one days old, Embry didn’t even know the words to say and drank angrily that he had been unable to afford the plane ticket home to meet him, and then, more so, to mourn him and be there for the family.
With his friend, who had, at 24, been given a year to live but didn’t make it that far, he simply couldn’t take it and just got high. That was the seventh death in five months. Embry didn’t feel at all bad or guilty for numbing.
There were 7 others that year, 14 in total, and each led to a completely different reaction. But this time, he was alone. And it had been a long time since he was alone while facing life’s most honest reality: This will happen to everyone you know. And will happen to you.
He wandered down Jane Street, wondering what his death would be and how and when and if he’d be ready. He pondered the awful date he’d just been on, then the girl who he was actually in love with, who he wished he’d been out with, and wondered if either of them would mourn for him. He handed a homeless guy a five-dollar bill and then felt that wasn’t enough to make his grandfather’s name mean something so stopped into a bodega and bought the aging veteran a coffee and a muffin. As he handed it to him, he worried the old guy might be gluten intolerant and thought he should’ve bought him a banana. But Embry hates bananas.
The old man looked at him and smiled. “Thanks. How you doing?”
Embry wanted to sit and talk, but he didn’t have it in him to socialize. Maybe that’s why the date was so painful. Maybe he just really wanted to be talking to someone else. He simply nodded and said, “Stay warm.”
Time started to get increasingly blurry as he pulled out his pocket-pipe and took a small hit of the fresh haze he’d just purchased. He didn’t want it to numb what he was feeling, but he needed to stop having the same conversation over and over in his head. Walking the winter streets of New York and holding conversations to himself had become more than a habit but a lifestyle. He frequently walked home from work in Midtown to his dilapidated studio in Crown Heights – a near 9-mile trek.
It wasn’t always the exact same conversation, but the same players involved – the girl he liked, his parents, his boss, his ex, his ex-boss, a few others sprinkled in for variety. Now, while waiting to get the call that his dad’s family’s patriarch was no longer here, all he wished is that he could be regaling stories to someone who would hold him and laugh with him and drink Licor 43 with him.
Embry had a long-standing, well-engrained tradition of toasting the recently departed with their favorite drink. He’d seen a movie with his college girlfriend, in which a comedian died, and his final request was that everyone tell their favorite joke at his funeral. Embry always loved that. So, when he would say goodbye, which due to the distance he had put between himself and his nearest and dearest, was most often not at their funeral, he would order a round for anyone near by and tell his favorite stories. He’d raise his glass to the life lived not the life lost. He’d cherish the memories and lessons learned. He’d share generously in their honor. And then he’d get drunk.
The call didn’t come that night. Or the next. Or the one after that. And for days, Embry and his family, existed in the fog of loom. Not able to fully say goodbye. But also having no misconception of hope. This was his time. He had lived a long, great life; he’d created a family that spanned the globe; he’d fought for his country; he’d helped his community; he was generous; he was kind; he was quite the charmer, even after he’d lost his greatest love; he ate; he drank; he danced; and he had the greatest stories that his family would tell for generations.
When the time came, Embry’s favorite bartender poured the nine shots of Cuarenta Y Tres that Embry had ordered as well as two more – one for himself and an extra for grandpa. The group of regulars raised their glasses, laid their hands upon Embry’s shoulders, and simply said: