I stepped out on the front porch with my mother. She turned briefly and made sure the door was locked before we, together, made our way down the steps. It was a beautiful summer day, but I hadn’t noticed. Actually, I hadn’t noticed much of anything since my mom told me about Johnny Lynch. My mom had made me shine my shoes and I was wearing my Sunday pants and a freshly washed and ironed shirt.
We walked up the street, past the Richardson house, finally stopping in front of the Lynches. The iron gate near the sidewalk was open and there were several people on the porch. I knew most of them as I went to school with their kids. Most lived in the neighborhood and I had been in many of their homes.
As we approached the porch, we were greeted by the neighbors that congregated there, all speaking in hushed tones. Snatches of conversation reached me. “A terrible thing”, “Playing alone”, “a passerby saw him”, “fire department”, couldn’t swim”. It felt funny to be surrounded by so many adults. Slowly we progressed through the front door where we were met by Mr and Mr’s Lynch. Mr Lynch looked very stern, but then again, he usually did. Mr’s Lynch however, had a strained smile on her face. I always liked her because she would play in the back yard with me and Johnny. The way she looked today was strange to me, and disconcerting. She was like someone else.
My mom talked with them quietly for a few minutes. Mr’s Lynch dabbed at her eyes. I had never seen her cry and I found it upsetting. I tried to peek into the living room. All I could see was several rows of chairs and the room smelled sweet. I felt my mother take my hand and lead me toward the room. As we entered, I could suddenly see the white coffin with a candelabra at each end, and lots of flowers.
All the fear that had been gnawing at me for two days suddenly gripped me. I stopped where I stood, fixated on the coffin. I felt my mother place her arm on my back and gently guide me to one of the chairs toward the rear of the room. There I sat with her arm around me. “Are you alright” I heard her say. I couldn’t answer, but shook my head yes.
We sat for a while before other people filed into the room and began taking seats. Mr and Mr’s Lynch came in and sat in the front row. A gray haired man with a somber look stepped to a podium and the room fell silent. I don’t remember what he said. I could not stop looking at the coffin. Throughout the room, I heard people crying and sobbing and I had this overwhelming feeling of sadness. The room grew very small and oppressive. I wanted to go home.
I remember when the man was through talking, how everyone formed a line and filed past the casket, some bowing their heads and remaining a minute, while others just looked in and moved on. Most then stopped briefly to speak with the Lynches before leaving. My mother asked if I wanted to wait for her there, or would I like to say goodbye to Johnny. I didn’t really want to go, but at that moment, my mother was my rock and I did not want to be alone. I didn’t answer, but stood and took her hand, hanging on as if I would lose her if I didn’t.
We joined the line and slowly moved forward. I remember wanting to run but knew I couldn’t. I was going to have to look at a dead person, and I was afraid of what I would see. As we made our way to the coffin, I cautiously peeked over the side. There was my friend Johnny, to my surprise, looking much as he always had, except his eyes were closed. I was transfixed. Now that the moment had arrived, I could not pull myself away. Mentally, I was registering every detail. He was wearing a suit and tie. He never did that. He wasn’t smiling. He was always smiling or laughing. My mind wrestled with fear and curiosity, juxtaposing what was then and what was now. The reality of the moment struck me. This is what dead looked like. I wanted him to move, to open his eyes. I wanted it to be the way it had been two days ago. I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t going to see him or play with him anymore. I wasn’t ready to believe this was real.
I grew up a lot that day. Although almost everything was as it had always been, it was not the same, nor was I. Life had handed me a new reality. I had lost a friend. I had stared at death for the first time. And I didn’t cry. “You were very brave” my mother said, and maybe I was. But being nine years old never felt the same again.