It’s no metaphor, no artistic hyperbole meant to hint at a deeper message that you can never really know someone and really, aren’t we all strangers, at the end? No, he was a stranger, in the most literal sense, and it was his funeral.
He was a ghost long before I met him, a figment given loose form by the constant repetition of such classic anecdotes as: “The Time He Chipped My Mother’s Tooth with a Baseball” and “The Time He Wanted to go Drinking after Grandpa’s Funeral.” I knew he had been in a war with some branch of the military, though the particulars of each escaped me. I knew he had been a troublesome youth, habitually getting into minor trouble with the law over petty crimes like underage drinking and loitering in parking lots. I knew he, like me, had lived in London for a time, and that my mother and their younger brother went to visit him. Beyond that, though, there was very little. He had worked steadily to distance himself from his family, and he had succeeded: though he was the only other member of our globetrotting family to settle down on the East Coast, he had always seemed further away than relatives in Japan or Switzerland.
His death was untimely, but not necessarily a surprise. Uncle Matt had always been a drinker and a smoker–that I knew, too–and his health, it was rumored, was poor. The funeral was to be held just a few days after we heard the news, and as his closest (physically) living relatives, it fell to us to represent the estranged family to a gaggle of strangers in mourning. We drove to Norfolk for the first time.
The funeral was brief, with little of the pomp and circumstance of death. A series of bullets was fired into the air by damp, frozen men in uniform, but a number of the assembled attendees were dressed casually in black sweatshirts and jeans. The strangest part, though, was the way they clung together to grieve for this man, this husband, father, grandfather, neighbor. To join in seemed selfish, so my father and I stood together off to the side, twin pillars of stoic black, as those who had known him well sobbed openly and engulfed each other in quivering hugs. The priest remarked on how important family had been to Matt — hah!
He had built a family here, though; the evidence was right in front of me. For whatever reason, his existing family did not suit him, and so he ventured into the void and found a new one. Is there anything more American? The freedom to choose your associates, for better or worse.
I think we would’ve gotten along.