Essay: Saying Goodbye in the Shadow of the Queensboro Bridge

We couldn’t have an ordinary funeral. So we honored my brother our own way.

When my sister first reported my brother missing, I wasn’t worried. He was a very private person, and had the means and the money to travel; it wasn’t unusual for him to disappear. But when one week had gone by with no word from him, my sister and I reluctantly asked the police to make a wellness call.

It was the worst possible news.

At only 46, John had died suddenly—and alone—of an undiagnosed cardiac arrhythmia.   

A funeral felt too difficult. My surviving siblings and extended family all live in different parts of the country. My brother didn’t belong to any type of congregation, and finding the right venue felt as if it could take weeks. Perhaps more important, because his demise was technically considered “an unattended death,” his remains were in the hands of the medical examiner, and we didn’t know when they’d be released.

And so, I found myself hunkered down at my kitchen table, researching weather patterns for Manhattan. The idea was to plan an ad hoc memorial service that would take place in the city, in a park, at night. It felt like the right thing to do. My brother and I had lived in Manhattan for 23 years. We knew the town. We had mutual friends, places we loved, a history in the city. Plus, Johnny loved being outdoors, in all weather. He cycled, he swam, played tennis, practiced yoga. He also loved the park by the river, only a block or two from his home.

I’d hoped to do the service exactly 7 days after John died, but the forecast was for rain, according to 10 different websites. These are the things I allowed myself to think about. The easy things, like the weather. I selected December 2, 2016, 9 days after his death, a random number, but forecast to be in the low 40s, with clear skies. After I’d settled on the date, my first call was to my brother’s best friend, Joey. I told him, and then the others, that we’d meet on the steps of my brother’s apartment at 7:00 p.m., and walk down to the East River, to Carl Schurz Park. There, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, we’d each read our eulogies.

Even without a liturgy, or a minister, we still felt compelled to come together and celebrate my brother, to mark his passing through this communal act.

It was good to keep my mind focused on logical details. It will be dark by the time we get down to the river. We’ll need light. At the hardware store, I bought 6 LED mini flashlights in bright metallic colors, a bag of 50 votive candles, and kitchen matches. I texted and private messaged the specific details to my brother’s colleagues and friends. Johnny would’ve loved that I was gathering his whole tribe, from his professional and personal life.

The day of December 2, 2016, dawned bright and clear, as promised. That evening, I made my way to my brother’s stoop with all my supplies, plus three bouquets of roses and a hot cup of coffee. There were an abundance of stars. One of my brother’s coworkers arrived first; the two of them had shared an office for 10 years. Soon, others arrived, including Joey, who said, getting out of a cab, “I got a download from Johnny. He said not to worry about him. He’s fine.” We hugged, and I held on tight. I know how much Johnny had loved Joey; he’d called him his brother. Seeing Joey, in some strange way, made Johnny’s loss more real.

When the group was complete, we walked one short block east to the park. Inside, I chose a bench close to the river. My friend draped a long gold scarf over the seat, creating a temporary altar. Another of John’s coworkers secured the fabric with rubber bands, and we lit one row of votive candles. Still another friend, a visual artist, set up photographs of my brother, then we stood in a circle, around the altar and the flickering candles, the dark expanse of the river and the lights from the Queensboro Bridge as our backdrop. Everyone looked at me, waiting for a cue.

“Who wants to go first?” I asked, after I’d passed around the LED flashlights. A childhood friend of John’s recited the lyrics to Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby,” one of my brother’s favorites. Someone read a letter from John’s still beloved ex-girlfriend, who now lived in Seoul. Everyone had a story to tell, and though I couldn’t say much—I was still in a state of shock, barely able to absorb it all—I didn’t feel quite so alone.

When it was my turn to speak, I read from my copy of the Bhagavad Gita: Behold the gods of the natural world, and many more wonders never revealed before. When I finished, everyone threw a rose into the river, while making a wish. Afterward, the air felt lighter somehow. Finally, we gathered for a group photo, and walked back to the avenue, some of us smiling, to go our separate ways.

This isn’t how I thought things would end—the 23 years of visits to Carnegie Hall, the dinners at our favorite Polish restaurants in the East Village; the long walks beside the East River and the trips to go hiking up north in the Catskills. But when we are faced with impossible circumstances, when we’re called upon to act and there seems to be no way forward, it’s best, I learned, to trust your intuition. I seriously wondered if anyone would show up to a memorial on a cold December night. However, they did. Even without a liturgy, or a minister, we still felt compelled to come together and celebrate my brother, to mark his passing through this communal act. We may not have followed any rules or traditions, making it up as we went along, but the result was beautiful, transformative, and somehow, exactly what John would have wanted.  

Lillian Slugocki‘s work has been published in Longreads, The Nervous Breakdown, the Daily Beast, BUST Magazine, Salon, Volume 1:Brooklyn, Entropy and many others. She been nominated twice for Best of the Web, and a Pushcart. She ran a reading series, BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, at @KGB Lit Bar in the East Village, and has an MA from NYU.

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