Before Braden passed away last week he was doing the unthinkable… planning parts of his own memorial service. He wanted to make some of the decisions so that no one else would have to. He said it felt surreal, but he did it with an unbelievable calmness and sense of purpose. I am still amazed.
When he asked Kid A and I to speak, we both yelled out “F*ck” in unison. Now, I sometimes curse like an Eagles fan in a sports bar, but Kid A is not really the type, so it was kind of sweet that we both had the exact same reaction to his request. Nevertheless, we told Braden that we were honored that he wanted us to do it and we would try our very best.
Last week was a whirlwind of tears and heartbreak and sadness for all of us. My biggest concern was that neither Kid A nor myself would be able to make words come out of our mouths that would be loud or coherent enough to be heard over our crying. And it is less than glamorous to have snot bubbles when you are speaking in front of a bunch of people. But we still wanted to say something meaningful that gave honor to Braden’s memory, so we tried to make a plan.
Little did I know that Kid A’s plan involved practicing full stage makeup on the morning of the service for her part as the wolf in her ballet studio’s production of Peter and the Wolf, which is happening next weekend. Two hours before we were leaving she came out of her room looking like this:
Fortunately, the black makeup all washed off. When we got to the service we tried not to talk to anybody who might set us off crying. We tried not to look at the happy pictures of Braden on the screen or leaning on the easel. We didn’t read the Fitzgerald quote about courage on the back of the memory card that was perfectly suited for Braden. But we listened as the guitarist played the music he loved. And we sat in the high school auditorium seats and smiled and cried along with everyone else as his Grandad, Walt, his godmother, Lisa, and his friends, Jared, Emily, and Chris all spoke beautifully and from their hearts. And then we stood up and walked to the podium together.
Kid A broke the tension by telling everyone that when Braden asked her to speak, she said, “F, no!” Yes, my daughter pseudo-cursed at her ex-boyfriend’s memorial service and I could not have been more proud. It was charming and fitting and Braden surely laughed a big belly laugh when he heard it. Then she read a short passage that she wrote about Braden going off to college. It was incredibly perfect for his memorial service, even though she wrote it months before he was diagnosed. She was calm and composed and she got through the whole thing. I asked her if it would be okay if I shared it here because it is so beautiful, and she said yes…There once was a bird, brown – the color of hickory wood and milk chocolate and worn leather, with wings too big for its body. It sang songs at early hours of the morning and late at night, but never after sunrise, when the other birds would join in. This brown bird liked to feel like it was the only one up in the trees, the only one on the block, the only one on the whole earth, when it sang. It lived in the branches that rattled against our bedroom window come summer nights, storms crashing through the sky like clockwork and gone as quickly as they appeared. We would wake up every time it began to sing, and though it wasn’t the prettiest birdsong we’d heard by any means, something about what it projected had meaning, and we all knew we were meant to listen. The brown bird sang to us about love and loss and heartache and missing and empathy and pure joy, and about excitement and fear and safety and comfort and family and friendship. His big wings would have made another bird look out of proportion, but they suited the brown bird just fine. He wouldn’t have been himself without them, because besides singing, that bird loved to fly. He’d be gone for days at a time, and the sticky summer air was empty without his song. The night before a long trip, he would sing to us about all the places he’d be going, and about how he was really just biding time in the branches outside our window. Soon he’d leave for good. The next morning, a flash of caramel in the waking sky would be our goodbye. One spring, the brown bird sang for us one last time. The song wasn’t sad, but it brought tears to our eyes. We had that bird on borrowed time, and he had taught us about life, but we couldn’t hold him back any longer. We listened to him sing through the night, and when the sun came up he held a final note and was off. We all loved that brown bird, and he loved us, but his wings were too big for his body and they were made that way so he could fly away.
Then it was my turn to speak, so I wiped away my snot bubbles and held on to the podium with both hands. Next time, I will share with you what I said to honor Braden. Until then,
Wish me luck for tomorrow…