I got grounded not halfway through my own father’s funeral, during that boring, well-lit service, for playing on my blue Gameboy Color while my Uncle Martin, my father’s brother, gave the eulogy.
I was sitting there, in the front row of that stuffy Presbyterian church, trying to maneuver my way through a dungeon, when my mother heard the tiny chiming of an opening chest through the miniature speaker. I had just found the dungeon map. She looked down at me, and without a moment’s hesitation ripped my Zelda cartridge from its slot, and plopped it into the large red handbag that she carried everywhere.
My screen went blank. The memory was gone, and I would have to start all over again. I sat in the chair fuming, my Gameboy sitting uselessly in my lap. That had been stupid and nasty of her, and I wished then that I was alone at home in my backyard and away from all of these people I did not know, and safe in the treehouse my father had built for me.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t cared that he was gone. I had been devastated when my mother told me, that awful night. The night that had been similar to so many others. It was a Friday, and we had decided on what movie to watch: Godzilla vs. Mothra. My father asked if I wanted to go to the Blockbuster with him, but I told him no. Earlier in the week, he had given me my Zelda game, and I was still charging my way through the kingdom of Hyrule.
We waited for him to come home from picking up the movie for two hours. By then, my mother and I had eaten all of the popcorn and were watching adult sitcoms I usually wouldn’t be allowed to watch. Then the phone rang, and my mom went and answered it, and went all quiet. Then she hung up the phone, turned off the T.V, and walked over to me without saying a word. She crawled up next to me, and held me close on the couch. She didn’t tell me just then, but I knew that something was wrong, felt the wet drops of her tears dampening my hair.
When she told me, I threw my Gameboy at the T.V as hard as I could. Neither one broke, but the Gameboy left a spiderwebbed crack in the glass of the television monitor, that was never fixed. I didn’t believe her, and screamed it at her. My father was coming home, we just had to wait a little longer. She shook her head at me, eyes shining with tears, and told me that he was dead as soon as the truck hit him, and she was sorry, with open arms, coming in for a hug.
I shoved her away and ran to my room and slammed the door. I stayed up as long as I could that night, looking out the window, just waiting for his headlights to appear.
So yes, I had my mourning period, but I did not want to cry during the funeral. Crying was something private, something you did alone and quiet, so no one else would see you. Crying got kids beat up in school. And I certainly did not want to cry in front of all of these relatives I had never met before that all told me I looked just like my father. I hated that, that they treated me like I was some clone or replacement for him. I wasn’t. I was just me.
Without my Gameboy I was forced to sit and endure the rest of the service. When my uncle was done speaking he stepped down, and came to sit next to my mother, and put a comforting arm over her shoulder. I idly flicked the power switch on the side of my Gameboy on and off.
After the pastor had said some words we all went outside, and followed the casket to the grave. I stood in the grass in my black dress shoes and watched, as they lowered it into the ground, and a part of me didn’t really believe that he was in there. It had been a closed casket, because my mother said that she didn’t want me to have to go through any more than I had to. But to me, it somehow didn’t seem like my father had died at all. He had just, gone away that night. And I was still waiting.
When the service was finally over I was hungry. I sat in the backseat of our new car, a white station wagon, and asked my mother, “Can we have pizza for lunch?” I figured there was a good chance that she would say yes, given the circumstances.
Instead she surprised me. “No, we’re all going to the reception now, to eat.”
“But I’m tired.”
“It won’t take long. And there’ll be better food than pizza there. It’s a potluck. Everyone’s bringing a dish to share.” She started the car and followed the line of cars out of the church parking lot.
“Where are we going?” I asked her.
“To your Uncle Martin’s house.”
“Can I have my game back?”
It was a long drive to my Uncle Martin’s house, at least twenty minutes, and the time stretched on even longer without my game. I spent the car ride looking out the window, moving my two fingers against the window, pretending they were a man jumping from house to house, or flying through the air.
Most people would say that the reception of a funeral is the best part. With the seriousness and the grieving behind, the idea is to celebrate the life of the deceased, and eat good food and tell stories and laugh. This is all fine unless you are eight years old, and an only child and the only kid there. Then the only thing you have to do is sit at the kitchen table and listen to stories of things that happened before you were born, or when you weren’t around.
I filled my plate with every dessert that was there: dark fudge brownies, store-bought cake, sugar cookies stacked on a paper plate and wrapped in cellophane, and ice cream and pie. I knew that it would give me a stomach ache later, but I didn’t care, and no one stopped me, or even seemed to notice.
Uncle Martin came up to meat one point. His tie was loose and his cheeks were red all the way up to his receding hairline. He clapped a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye.
“Your father was a good man,” he said. “I know this is going to be hard for you, son, growing up without a dad…But your father, he, he was a good man…” Someone came over and started to walk my uncle away then, and I could still hear him muttering about my father being a good man.
We left pretty soon after that, and, after another long car ride, we finally returned home, to the gray house with the big yard and the maple tree in the back where my treehouse was. I was still angry with my mother for taking away my game, so I went to my room and grabbed several comic books, my backpack and my flashlight. Then I went out, and climbed up the rope ladder to my treehouse.
My father had helped me build the treehouse for my seventh birthday, and it was the best present I could have asked for. In it, I had a sleeping bag laid out underneath the plastic square in the roof he had made, so that I could look out at the stars. My telescope was also in there, and I had charts of all the constellations, and posters with the phases of the moon.
I liked to look at the stars and space, but right then I didn’t. Instead, I sat down on my sleeping bag and pulled out one of my Spider-Man comic books and read until I was finished, then pulled out the next one. I read until the sun set, turned on my flashlight, and read some more. When I had finished all of the comic books I pulled out my notebook and tried to copy Spider-Man in different poses, swinging through the city.
I loved Spider-Man, but felt more of a real connection with Peter Parker. That night, while reading alone in my treehouse, I felt more like Peter Parker than I ever had before, losing my father like he lost his Uncle Ben: swiftly, with no warning at all. I wished that I was brave enough to run out into the city and fight crime in colorful spandex. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t even brave enough to stand up to the meaner kids in school, who threw the dodgeballs too hard and made nasty jokes about other people.
I was glad then that it was still summer vacation, and that I had over two months of full summer days to take advantage of before the school year began again.
My mother didn’t come up to check on me. She knew that I sometimes preferred to sleep in my treehouse, that I would ask for food if I was hungry. My stomach twinged at the thought of eating anything at all, as stuffed with sweets as it was. I lset my notebook aside, hunched forward, and held my stomach and groaned as it pinched me with pain. It had been stupid to eat only desserts.
I laid down on my sleeping bag and waited for the pain to subside. After all the discomfort and the boredom of the day I was happy to be in my safe place, even with a sick stomach. I crawled into my sleeping bag and curled into a little ball.
The next morning I climbed down my rope ladder, walked inside the house and into the kitchen, where my mother was waiting with a cup of coffee, and the worst surprise.