|DISCLAIMER: The following story is a fictional account of young teenage boys who are in love. There are references and occasional graphic descriptions of gay sex involving minors, and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. With a few notable exceptions, all characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed in this story by known individuals are not necessarily intended to be representative of those of their real-life counterparts. Although the story takes place in actual locations and establishments, the author takes full responsibility for all events described and these are not in any way meant to reflect the activities of real individuals or institutions. The author retains full copyright of this story, and of stories based on these characters.|
|Please note that this is the twenty-eighth and final story in a series known collectively as Naptown Tales. The entire series can be found on my GayAuthors Page and on the Naptown Tales Page at Awesome Dude. Please see the Introduction for important background information.|
The Freshman Psychology class David and I were in was boring as a church sermon. It was taught mostly by the TAs, and none of them seemed to be interested in teaching. It was taking a supreme effort to stay awake.
Harvard, so far, was turning out to be a mixed bag. There was definitely something to be said for going to school with some of the best students in the world. On the other hand, a lot of them were outright snobs. I mean, we had money, but we never let that affect how we looked at people. My dad had clients who were worth billions, and he had clients who employed only themselves and had no assets other than the roof over their head, yet he treated them all the same. That's one thing he really impressed on me when I was growing up - regardless of their standing in the community or business world, they are your customer, and the customer always deserved your best because they put their best into their business. I respected Dad for that.
These students, however, looked down on anyone that wasn't like them. They looked down on David and me because we were gay. They looked down on us because we came from the Midwest. They looked down on us because I came from 'new money'. Somehow some of them even knew about David's father having been laid off, and they looked down on us for that, too.
On top of everything else, the professors didn't seem to care whether or not we learned anything. We were lowly freshmen, after all.
However soccer was going great guns. David and I had been placed as starters in our old 'midfielder' positions and although David wasn't made the team captain, mostly because he was a just freshman, the whole team treated him as if he were the captain. On the soccer field, David and I commanded respect.
Finally, the lecture ended and we were free to leave. David and I had been at it for three and a half hours straight. It felt like we barely had any energy left when we stood up.
As soon as we got out of the classroom, we took our phones out of the silent mode. I'd felt mine vibrate a few times while in class, but there'd been no time to check for messages. When I unlocked the phone, I saw that there were three - two from Brad and one from Mom.
"Hmmm, there's a message from someone back home, and one from Trevor," David said as we continued on our way.
"Brad sent me two messages, and Mom sent one," I related to my husband.
Tapping on the first message, I listened with trepidation. "Hey Jer," Brad began. "I'm calling you to give you a heads-up about Cliff. He had a seizure in class today, and was taken to the hospital. I'm at St. Vincent's right now, in Emergency, and I'll call you back as soon as we know anything."
The second message was even more ominous. "Jeremy, It's Brad again. They got Cliff stabilized, but he doesn't look good. He's being admitted. Your mom said she'll be calling you shortly to give you more info. I'll talk to you later, or when you get here. I love you, bro-in-law. Bye."
Finally, I played the message from Mom. "Honey, it's Mom. I guess you've heard from Brad that Cliff's in the hospital. I'm not going to sugarcoat this. He's in a coma and he may not wake up. Please give me a call as soon as you get this message. I've reserved tickets for you and David on a flight this evening out of Logan. I'll give you the details when you call. I love you, sweetheart. Give my best to David, and I'll see you when you get here."
Tears literally had filled my eyes and were overflowing as I heard David play his message. It was from Brad. "Hi Bro. I'm at school, waiting for Dad to pick me up. They're letting me use an office phone, 'cause of their cell phone scramblers and all, so I have to keep this brief. Cliff's had a seizure, and they're taking him to St. Vincent's. I'll give you or Jeremy a call when I get there. I'll talk to you later, and I love you, bro."
David wrapped his arms around me and we both cried our eyes out as we held each other tightly. After what seemed like several minutes, we pulled apart and David said, "You'd better call your mother back. Also, be sure to tell her to add a reservation on the flight for Trevor and Kurt. They'll insist on coming with us."
"Yeah, they will," I agreed with a hint of a smile on my face, even in my pain. Trevor and Kurt would drop everything for us. Of course, they thought of Cliff as their brother, too, so they would have wanted to travel back home in any case.
"Hi Mom," I said when she answered her phone. "Is there any more news about Cliff?"
"Oh thank God you finally called," she answered. "I was afraid you might miss your flight."
"Sorry, but we had a long afternoon of lectures," I responded, "and you know they don't let us use our cell phones in class."
"Hold on a minute, Dear, and I'm going to e-mail you the flight information." Her voice disappeared for just a minute, and then she came back on the phone and said, "There, I just sent it. Please let me know when you get it . . ."
"Speaking of that, Mom," I interrupted, "could you extend the reservation to include Trevor and Kurt? I know they'll want to be there, too."
"You should give me more credit than that," she admonished me. "I already purchased their tickets as well as yours. Lindsey Austin called Trevor and he and Kurt are aware of the situation."
"Thanks, Mom," I said gratefully. "And is there any more word on Cliff?"
"It's not good, Jeremy," she said. "He has multiple lesions in his brain. They're treating him empirically for toxoplasmosis . . . that's a parasitic infection that's common in AIDS . . . but they're only doing that because it's the only thing he might have that can be cured. So far, he's not responding. He's still in a coma. If he has what they think he has, it's just a matter of days."
"My God!" I cried. "I mean, we all knew it was coming, but I always thought we'd have more time."
"It's human nature to always think we have more time than we have," Mom related. "I'm an oncologist. I deal with this sort of thing constantly, but it still doesn't make it any easier, particularly when it's your own child."
"It's too bad he really isn't your child," I said with a hint of bitterness.
"Jeremy, that's a terrible thing to say, especially now . . . although probably deserved," Mom responded. "In any case, Dad's going to court tomorrow morning to try to get the adoption finalized on an emergency basis. If nothing else, Cliff doesn't deserve to die an orphan."
"That's good to hear," I acknowledged. Just then, I saw that the e-mail from Mom had arrived, and I told her so.
"Listen, I know you and David need to pack, and there isn't much time," she said. "I'll call you if there's any more news. Otherwise, I'll see you and the boys at the airport. Bye, Jer . . . I love you."
"I love you too, Mom," I replied, and then hung up.
Opening up the mail, I saw that our flight left in just under two hours. "Shit!" I exclaimed. "Our flight leaves at 6:43! We need to make tracks!"
"Yeah, I know," David said, "but we have plenty of time now. While you were talking to your mom, I listened to the message from Trev, and then I called him. He and Kurt already packed our things, and they're on their way to pick us up to head to the airport.
"It might be a good idea to piss before they get here."
I laughed at that - I was usually the practical one, but David was clearly in charge during this time of crisis.
It was a tight fit in Trevor's Jetta, but we managed. When we got there and I opened the trunk, I burst into tears when I saw that Trevor and Kurt had packed two garment bags. They barely fit together in the trunk along with our carry-on luggage. The only reason to take our garment bags was if they'd packed our suits, and that could only mean that they expected us to be there for Cliff's funeral. It was almost too much to bear.
Putting his arm around my shoulders, Trevor said, "I know how it looks, but I just thought we needed to be prepared. Hopefully, those suits will act like umbrellas, keeping away the rain just because we have them with us."
Trevor really knew just how to cheer me up. In some ways I thought he'd make a much better counselor or a psychologist than a computer geek. Still, he was a geek at heart, and under David's and my influence, I had a feeling he'd end up in public service anyway. His people skills would serve him well in the world of politics.
Although I wasn't at all hungry, David insisted we grab a bite to eat at the airport while waiting for our flight to board. David and I hadn't had anything to eat since our late breakfast and I was almost weak from the lack of food.
A couple of hours later, we exited airport security back home to find David's mom as well as Lindsey Austin, Brad and Sam waiting for us. After tearful hugs all around, we headed down to baggage claim and retrieved our garment bags.
Trevor and Kurt of course rode with Lindsey and Sam, while David and I rode with David's mom and Brad.
"Cynthia was insisting on picking you up, Jeremy, but I told her she had enough on her mind without worrying about getting to the airport," David's mom explained on the ride home. "She's still with Cliff. I know you'll probably want to see Cliff as soon as possible, so we'll swing by the hospital on the way home and stop in before visiting hours are over. How's that sound?"
I was too distraught to speak, and so David answered, "That's great, Mom."
When we got there, we found that Cliff was in Intensive Care on the Pediatrics floor. We all went up to see him, and found my mom along with our friend Altaf's mother, who I guess had been on duty when Cliff came in.
Because he was in Intensive Care, they'd only let two of us see him at a time. As it was, they were pushing the rules in allowing us to see him so soon after each other.
David and I went in together. The poor kid had a breathing tube down his throat and was on oxygen, but at least he wasn't on a ventilator or anything. I grabbed hold of his hand and sat next to him and said, "Hey Cliffy. It's you're bro. I'm here with David. We love you, and our hearts are with you, and soon you'll get better and we'll have a party in your honor."
He was very weak, but I felt Cliff squeeze my hand!
"Whoa, bro, could you do that again?" I asked, and he did!
A huge smile split my face. I just knew he was gonna make it. Maybe I was grasping at straws, but now I had hope.
At that moment, Trevor and Kurt arrived and knocked on the window from the hallway. David and I left Cliff and walked out so that Trevor and Kurt could have their turn with our brother, who was their brother in a sense, too. Last to visit were Brad and Sam, and then visiting hours were over.
"He squeezed my hand," I told Mom while Brad and Sam were in the room with Cliff.
"Honey," Mom said, "I hate to burst your bubble, but the grasp reflex is one of the most primitive of all reflexes. Newborns will grab onto anything that's placed in their hand. Even people who are in a deep coma or brain dead often exhibit grasp."
"But I know what I felt," I countered. "I'd been holding his hand, and he squeezed mine twice, and on command. That's not a reflex."
"Well, I don't doubt you, honey," Mom replied. "I just don't want to see you read more into it than may be there."
I knew Mom meant well in being cautious, but I knew what I felt. I still had hope.
We all went back to see Cliff the next morning. By then, he'd been moved out of Intensive Care to a private room in the VIP wing. The room was large, so we could all stay with him, but we were cautioned not to wear him out. He was still hooked up to a monitor, but his breathing tube had been removed, and he looked so peaceful lying there with his eyes closed.
Late in the morning, my dad arrived with his briefcase in tow. He went right up to Cliff and told him, "Cliff, it's Dad. I have a signed affidavit with me from the Marion County Superior Court. As of now, you are officially Clifford Lawrence Daniel Kimball-Roth. How about that?"
Cliff's eyes remained closed, but there was an unmistakable hint of a smile that took over his face. It almost looked like he was trying to say something - to get a message to us, and then he took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. It was only after watching him a full minute that I realized he hadn't taken another breath, and then I saw that the heart monitor on the wall showed nothing but a flat line.
There was no alarm going off - no sign that Cliff had left us. He looked so peaceful lying there, like he was just asleep. It looked like he might open his eyes at any moment. My eyes played tricks on me and for a brief moment, I thought he'd taken another breath, but he hadn't. Slowly, reality sunk in and I realized that my brother, Clifford Lawrence Daniel Kimball-Roth, was gone.
I heard someone scream out, "NOOO!" and then I realized it was me. David pulled me to him and we embraced as we cried our eyes out. I was vaguely aware of Paul and Sam hugging each other, and Trevor and Kurt, and my parents. Kurt's mom was hugging and consoling Linda, Cliff's girlfriend. Poor Carlotta, Cliff's nanny and our housekeeper, was by herself, crying her eyes out too. Brad and his girlfriend, Kayla, along with David's parents and Trevor's parents, were on their way to the hospital and would be there shortly.
Everything was a blur after that as I was only vaguely aware of what was happening. The nurse came in to check on us, and then the doctor came in, I guess to pronounce Cliff dead or something like that.
Mom and Dad had apparently already made arrangements with the Jewish mortuary in town for the funeral. It was kind of strange to think about it, 'cause Cliff was raised a Methodist, but with all that had gone on with Cliff, Mom had rediscovered her religion.
Having been raised in an essentially non-religious household, I didn't really have any beliefs of my own, but I sure needed them now. Like Mom, I was married to a Christian, but the Jewish faith still considered me to be a Jew, 'cause Mom was. I wasn't sure how I felt about that - perhaps I'd explore both faiths to try to find an outlet for my grief, and a connection with Cliff, and with God.
Tradition called for Cliff to be buried the next day, but because the next day was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the funeral was delayed one day until Sunday. It was just as well, as Cliff's death had come so suddenly, and we needed time for family and friends to come in from around the country.
I don't know how they did it, but my parents made hundreds of phone calls to let people know that their adopted son had died. For our part, David and I called most of our friends - people we knew would probably want to know. I was heartened that Will and Brian would be driving down from Chicago, as would Tim and Larry, even though they'd never met Cliff. As Will put it, funerals are for the living, and we were good friends of theirs in a time of need. What great friends we had!
Randy and Altaf, who did know Cliff, were coming in from New Haven as well. Even more amazingly, Altaf's sister, Zara, and her husband, Saleem, would be coming to pay their respects, too. Zara and Saleem had recently immigrated with their daughter to America and were now living with Altaf's mother. It said a lot about the kind of people they were that they not only accepted their gay brother and his Jewish husband, but would offer condolences to a Jewish friend they didn't even know. Needless to say, Randy's parents and Altaf's mother would also be making a visit. Somehow I sensed that Randy and Altaf would always be part of our lives.
I was amazed when Dad showed me Cliff's obituary on the front page of The Star the next morning. I hadn't been expecting that, but apparently Cliff's death was big news. He'd survived the church camp scandal of two years ago, only to have died of AIDS. The D.A. was even talking about adding a murder charge to Gary's long list of felonies.
As someone who was nominally Jewish, if that, I was totally unaware of Jewish traditions when it came to funerals and mourning. We all ended up at my house, which resembled more of a party scene than a place of grief. Not that the mood wasn't somber, but with so many people showing up to offer their condolences, bringing platter upon platter of food, it was hard to remember this was all for Cliff.
Actually, I guess it was really for us, Cliff's family, to help take our minds off our grief. There was a seven-day period of mourning, during which we stayed home and accepted visitors and their offers of food - lots and lots of food. A slow-burning candle in the entryway marked the passing of the seven-day period of Shiva, as it was called.
There were also daily and nightly prayer services called minyans, in which a minimum of ten people who'd been bar mitzvahed said traditional prayers in Hebrew. I attended them, too, although I had no idea what the words meant, and of course I didn't count toward the minyan. It was like suddenly being immersed in a foreign culture, but at the same time, it was part of my heritage - a part that I needed to learn more about.
At one point I felt overcome with all the relatives that had gathered in the great room - all of them talking about Cliff. I went to the kitchen to compose myself before I broke down and cried.
Carlotta was there, with a rather blank expression on her face as she prepared a salad that someone had brought. She glanced at me, put down the salad and walked over to me with her arms stretched wide. Right away, I fell into her embrace and hung on for dear life until my grief attack subsided.
Carlotta had always been there for us. Yes, she was 'just' our housekeeper. She was paid for doing her job and, all too often, we took her for granted. More than that, she was the silent eyes of our family, always watchful for our well-being, always ready to do what was necessary to make sure we were OK, always with her silent smile. I knew she loved Cliff as much as anyone and I realized in that embrace that I was giving her as much comfort as she was giving me. We separated and smiled just slightly.
Looking at me with some intent in her eyes, she said, "My . . . my Cliffy very special to me from first I ever saw him.
"I grow up in poor part of Ecuador . . . Machala. It a bad place . . . outside of city . . . lots of drugs and people killing people. Mornings you see dead bodies on street going to school.
"My hermano . . . uh, brother, Jose . . . he a good boy . . . he twelve when he shot by drug man one day coming home from amigo's at suppertime. Jose . . . my little hermano. Bright sunshine . . . he dead on street. Jose beautiful boy . . . always smile . . . laugh . . . love . . . hug all the time. He love mama . . . papa . . . me . . . he like Cliffy . . . my Cliffy. He always smile . . . always say mucho gracias.
"Cliffy like everyone . . . but not Gary. He tell me all about that camp. Senora Roth . . . she tell me how sick Cliffy was, but I already knew. You love someone, you know . . . but Cliffy not too sad about it."
David came into the kitchen, slightly worried I supposed, and put his arm around my waist.
"Cliffy love his friends," Carlotta continued, " . . . you, David, Sammy, Brad, Trevor, Kurt, Paul . . . mostly Linda. I did not know Linda make him sicker until later. Cliffy told me. He say he still love Linda though.
"I sad . . . uh, worry, when my Cliffy go on trips with his friends, but when he come home, I knew how much he amor . . . uh, love me. He always bring me little present from his trips.
"My Cliffy still with me," she tapped her chest twice and rubbed her two fingers in a circle over her heart. She moved her two fingers to her temple and said, "Here too."
She touched the back of those two fingers to my chest. "Here and . . ." she moved her fingers to my temple, "Here too. Our Cliffy will always be with you . . . me.
"Know that Jeremy . . . know that and be happy for his love . . . be happy for the happiness Cliffy had with you . . . with me. Let the best part of Cliffy that is still with us make us happy." She smiled and nodded her head as she turned back to the tossing of the salad.
"Mucho gracias Carlotta," I said. David, with his arm still at my waist, said, "Me too Carlotta."
While I was sitting off by myself, Brad came up to me and said, "Jeremy, I need your help. Acting in my role as Freshman Class President as well as Cliff's best friend, I called the principal and asked him about holding some sort of memorial service for Cliff at school. He's gonna work out the details on Monday, but it looks like we'll be holding it on Friday.
"I really need some help organizing it and since you're gonna be here at least through Friday, would you be willing to help me make this thing happen?"
I knew what Brad was doing. He was perfectly capable of pulling something like this off on his own - hell, he'd organized a caravan of fifteen school buses to Washington in a show of support for us during the prostitution scandal - but he was using the memorial service as a way to keep me busy. It was an ingenious strategy, and I loved him for it.
"I'd love to help you with it, Brad," I agreed, and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. "What sorts of things do you have in mind for the service?" I asked.
"Well, I'd like to have people who knew Cliff well tell anecdotes about Cliff. I'll be the M.C., and I'll have plenty to say about Cliff myself. I thought I'd have Sam, Paul, Linda and Kayla each say a few words, and maybe some of his teachers. I thought perhaps you could organize presentations by you, David, Trevor and Kurt, and anyone else you can think of that might be important. There's also going to be music. Zach and Kevin from Carmel have agreed to play some music for piano and cello together. I thought we could have them open and close the program, but we should probably go on the Internet and choose musical selections that would be appropriate."
"Wow, it sounds like you have already given this a lot of thought, bro. Do you plan to hold it in the auditorium?" I asked
"That would probably work out best," he replied. "It only holds two thousand, but I doubt it'll be even half-full for this. After all, Cliff was only a freshman and the rest of the school won't know him at all."
"You might be surprised," I threw in, "but better a half-full Auditorium than an empty gymnasium." Then I added, "You know, you might want to include our middle school. Unlike the other two middle schools in the district, it's right there on the same campus as our school and only a five-minute walk away, and a lot of the seventh and eighth graders knew Cliff or at least knew of him."
"You know, that's a very good idea," Brad replied. "Ill look into doing that.
"Did you know that Cliff kept a photo album from when he was a little kid?" Brad asked rhetorically.
"Yeah, it was one of the few possessions he kept with him through all the group homes and the foster families," I answered. "It was his one keepsake from his biological parents."
"What I thought we might do is scan in a bunch of the photos from his childhood, and add some more recent ones from you and your family, and do a slideshow while the music plays at the beginning and the end of the service."
"That's a great idea, Brad!" I exclaimed. I really was getting enthusiastic about the program. Brad's strategy was definitely working.
God, Cliff's funeral was such a circus. The poor kid wouldn't have wanted that at all, but with parents who were prominent in the community, it was prolly inevitable.
The funeral home, which had been located on 86th Street at Ditch Road for generations, had recently moved to a much bigger place up in the northernmost part of Carmel. The place was designed so that multiple funeral chapels could be opened up to provide a large space for big funerals, and they certainly needed it for Cliff.
Of course I sat with the family in an alcove off the main parlor, but even that space was larger than most people would have had for their entire funeral. Along with my parents, Carlotta, my older brother and sister, my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all sat at the front. I don't know why, but my dad's closest business associates, the mayors of the city and of Carmel, the Governor, both of our state's U.S. Senators, and several of our state's U.S. Congressmen were in there with us.
Fortunately, David sat by my side as my husband, and the rest of the Reynolds clan, including Brad, were in the family section as well, as they should have been. The Austins and the DeWitts sat with us too, as did Will Kramer and Brian Philips and their parents, Warren, Ellie, Danny and Jenny.
The main section of the parlor was absolutely packed. A lot of Cliff's friends and even acquaintances were there, not to mention just about anyone and everyone who wanted to curry favor with my father, or with the city, or the state. There were a number of reporters there, too. This was not how Cliff would have wanted it. Hopefully Brad and I would have a chance to restore some dignity to our remembrance of Cliff at the school service.
As per Jewish traditions, Cliff was in a closed wooden coffin. There were no metal fittings, hinges or even nails used in its construction. I guess the Orthodox would have used a plain pine box, but my parents opted for a beautifully finished solid cherry coffin.
I felt strongly that I should have been one of the pallbearers, along with Brad and close family and friends, but Dad insisted on using the funeral to curry political favor. The pallbearers were therefore going to be our elite political leaders - our U.S. Senators, our Congressman, the mayor of the city, and two of my dad's closest business associates. What a crock!
Following a traditional funeral service, the eulogy was delivered by a rabbi I'd never met before. He spoke of Cliff's courage in facing up to the struggle of AIDS, but he clearly did not know Cliff. He didn't even mention Cliff losing both his parents at an early age, or being abused at summer camp.
The one saving grace was at the end, when the Rabbi introduced Brad by saying, "And now one of young Clifford's best friends has asked to say a few words." I'd had no idea that Brad was going to speak at Cliff's funeral.
That got a chuckle from everyone. Brad then continued speaking.
Wow! What an amazing speech. As far as I was concerned, Brad's was the real eulogy. He was every bit as good at public speaking as his older brother, and David's the best speaker and debater I've ever met.
Just as Brad was returning to his seat, Trevor made his way to the front of the room, his guitar in hand. I'd had no idea that Trevor was going to sing at the funeral. The song he sang was so beautiful - From Where You Are, by Lifehouse (℗ 2009 Geffin Records) - and he sang it with such emotion. There wasn't a dry eye in the house as we made our way to our cars.
The funeral procession went on for miles. If it had been a weekday, we'd have snarled traffic for hours. As it was, we created a major impediment to Sunday travel throughout Carmel and the north side of the city as we made our way down from the funeral home all the way to Crown Hill Cemetery on 38th Street.
Although we were 'new money', Dad used his political influence to secure a family plot in a prominent location on a hillside with a spectacular view of the city skyline. It must have cost an absolute fortune.
And so on a bright, sunny fall day, Clifford Lawrence Daniel Kimball-Roth was laid to rest among the likes of James Whitcomb Riley and President Benjamin Harrison.
Watching his coffin being lowered into the ground was difficult enough, but taking my turn with close friends and family members in shoveling dirt onto it - a Jewish tradition - was almost more than I could bear.
The subsequent days went by in a blur and people came and went, bringing more and more food. Brad and I worked on the program for the memorial service to be held at the end of the week, and slowly the details began to fall into place.
During this time, of course, the phone was constantly ringing with people calling to express their condolences, so I didn't even notice when the phone rang on Tuesday in the early afternoon until Mom entered the room and asked, "Brad or Jeremy, could one of you come to the phone?"
Brad and I looked at each other, and when Brad shrugged his shoulders, I got up to take the call.
"Hello," I answered, and then added, "This is Jeremy Kimball," remembering that the person on the other end had asked for either Brad or me.
"Jeremy, this is Elton John," the person at the other end replied. I think my jaw just about fell to the floor when I heard that. "Listen, I got word of Cliff's passing from the usual channels," he continued, and I wondered just what those channels were, "and I called to express my condolences, when your mother mentioned that you boys are planning a memorial for Cliff at your school this Friday."
My mind was having trouble wrapping around the fact that I was talking to Elton John on the phone, just like I would a regular person - not that he wasn't a regular person - but he was Elton John. Finally, I engaged my brain and answered, "Yes, that's right."
"Excellent! It just so happens that I am free this Friday, and I was wondering if you could accommodate me in the service."
"Accommodate you in the service?" Obviously I was having significant difficulty comprehending what he was requesting.
"Yes, would it be possible for me to perform during the memorial?" He reiterated.
As realization dawned on me, I answered, "My God, yes! We'd be delighted to have you." And then I asked, "How much time do you need . . . or maybe I should ask how long are you prepared to perform?"
"I don't want to take away from what you'd already planned, and I don't want this to become all about me instead of being about Cliff. Let's plan on a half-hour, but I would be willing to perform for up to an hour if you wish."
"We'll take the hour!" I practically shouted into the phone. "We'll definitely take the hour."
"Very well," he replied. "The only thing I need is a piano and a microphone . . . preferably a grand piano. Also, you and your family, and your closest friends and their families should plan on going out with me to dinner afterwards. I'll have my agent call you this evening with all the details."
"Wow! I can't thank you enough Sir Elton." I said, remembering his knighthood.
"Believe me, it's my honor. I'll see you on Friday. Bye for now." The line went dead. I wondered how many funerals he had attended since Princess Diana's funeral, and before that, Ryan White's. I'd heard my grandparents talk about those funerals, but I was just an infant when the princess died.
Wow! Oh man, wow. Elton friggin' John was going to perform at Cliff's memorial!
I found Brad and said excitedly, "You'll never believe who that was on the phone!"
"Elton John?" came his deadpan reply.
"How the fuck did you know that?" I asked.
"Your mom told me," he said with a grin. "So he's gonna perform at the memorial?"
"You bet he is," I answered. "He offered to sing for a half-hour to an hour, and I told him to definitely plan on a full hour."
"Damn right," Brad agreed.
"And he said he's taking us out to dinner afterwards," I added.
"No shit!" Brad exclaimed.
"No shit, bro," I confirmed.
"You know, with Elton John performing, maybe we'd better move the memorial to the gymnasium," Brad suggested. "There's a good chance the whole damn school will show up, and maybe the whole middle school, too."
"Yeah, you're right about that," I agreed. "He may be from my parents' and your grandparents' generation, but he's still way popular."
"Yeah, he's cool for an older guy," Brad concurred.
Over the coming days, Brad and I kept busy working out the final details for the memorial and for Elton John's performance. In the meantime I prayed along with my mother every day in the minyan services in our home.
The Hebrew started to come back to me, and I was even getting so I could recite the prayers by heart, although I still didn't understand enough Hebrew to know the full meaning of the prayers. Praying was a way to remember Cliff without obsessing over him, which was just what I needed. In many ways, I still couldn't believe - I didn't want to believe - he was gone.
"Think you want to become Jewish?" David asked me after services one day.
"I honestly don't know," I replied. "Would it make a difference to you?"
"You know it wouldn't," he answered me with a kiss on the lips. "I married you because of the wonderful person you are, and that certainly doesn't depend on how you pray to God."
"The thing is, I've never been religious," I explained. "Neither had Mom or Dad, but Mom's sure taken a new interest in her roots, now that Cliff's gone.
"I do believe in God, but I don't really accept traditional religious doctrine. I certainly don't believe that there's any one, clear-cut, righteous path."
"You think of maybe going back to Hebrew school and getting your bar mitzvah?" David asked. "It wouldn't necessarily commit you to being Jewish, but it might be a nice way to connect with your roots."
"You know," I acknowledged, "that's not a half-bad idea. I certainly don't have time for it right now, but maybe after the Olympic trials next summer, or after the 2012 Olympics in the unlikely event that I make the team."
I truly was fortunate to have such a wonderful, understanding husband.
It felt incredibly weird on Friday to enter the high school once again, hand in hand with my husband. Trevor and Kurt were right behind us. Had we not taken early graduation, we'd still be going there - in fact, technically, we still were. Early graduation in our state amounted to a governor's pardon that allowed us to attend university during our senior year. The reality, however, was that we were college students, and it felt like eons since we had been in high school.
To accommodate the memorial service, classes had been shortened to twenty-five minutes each - half their normal length - leaving an extra two and a half hours free at the end of the day for those that wished to attend. For those that didn't, or couldn't, extra study halls were set up, during which students could tackle the extra assignments teachers seemed to be handing out because the day had been shortened.
Of course the juniors and seniors who had their own transportation could leave as soon as they finished their classes for the day. This was particularly appealing to those who were already on an early schedule, but then we didn't really expect many upperclassmen to attend, anyway. Still, the draw of seeing Elton John in person would be hard for anyone to ignore.
We arrived extra early to ensure that everything was set up and ready to go. The stage crew had done their job and a grand piano was already in place on a raised platform that served as a stage in the center of the gym. Additional chairs were arrayed on the main floor of the gym, around the raised platform, so that we could accommodate all the students who wanted to attend, or so we hoped.
Placed in front of the scoreboard was a large screen onto which a PowerPoint slideshow would be projected during the early part of the program. Brad and I had literally spent hours and hours selecting, scanning and arranging the photos to be used in the slideshow.
A large podium was also situated on the stage. A large pitcher of ice water was set on top of the lectern, hidden from view of the audience by a bezel that wrapped around the podium. A stack of disposable cups sat on the lectern as well.
Noticing that Brad didn't seem to have any notes with him, I asked him about it and he replied, "I don't need any notes. As much time as I've spent on this thing, I know exactly who's speaking, and when."
"But what about your own prepared remarks?" I asked him.
"Jer, I never use notes when I speak. I never have. I know exactly what I want to say, the order in which I want to say it, the points I want to highlight, and even the humorous anecdotes I want to tell. When I'm on the stage, all I'll have to do is play back the sequence in my head, and the words will come to me. I don't need to memorize them . . . they just assemble themselves as I need them."
"You have a true gift, Brad," I said earnestly.
"So does David," Brad added, "and so do you Jeremy. I've heard you speak, and you do the same thing. You may not be as 'off-the-cuff' as we are, but you still speak very well, and spontaneously. You're a natural."
"Thanks, Brad," I responded. "That means a lot to me."
Just then, Zach Taylor and his boyfriend, Kevin Williams, entered the gym and after saying hello to us, began to get set up. They'd be performing a few classical pieces while students filed into the gym and during the start of the program. Kevin tuned his cello to the piano while the two of them went over the music they'd be performing.
When the bell rang, signaling the end of the last period of the day, I had Zach and Kevin start the musical program, so the students would arrive to the sound of beautiful music playing in the background. I also started the slideshow, which would run continuously through the musical portion and during Brad's and my opening remarks.
The first piece Zack and Kevin played was Franz List's beautiful Liebestraum, followed by Claude Debussy's Clair de Lune and, finally, Astor Piazzolla's Oblivion. Although not the typical music of teenagers, Zach and Kevin played it so well and with heartfelt emotion, and together with the slideshow in the background, the students couldn't help but be moved. The music set just the right tone for the memorial - somewhat somber, but uplifting at the same time.
Finally after everyone was seated, we began the official program. Brad walked up to the podium and began to speak.
At that point, Brad had to stop speaking, as the applause from the audience was deafening. When the applause died down, he resumed speaking.
As Brad and the entire auditorium clapped in approval, if not overwhelming approval, I couldn't help but marvel that Brad was pulling up all this information from memory. He could talk all he wanted about not memorizing his remarks, but he still had amazing recall. He continued his speech:
I was stunned when the students gave me a freakin' standing ovation, and I had yet to even open my mouth. Finally, the applause died down and I was able to begin my prepared remarks. I placed a sheet of notes in front of me on the lectern as a backup, but Brad was right, I knew what I wanted to say, and the notes were more of a crutch - something to fall back on if I forgot anything.
The whole room broke into applause in response, and I again had to wait until it died down before I could continue.
At my cue, the segment was projected onto the screen in front of the scoreboard, and everyone present heard Cliff talk about how having unprotected sex resulted in him ending up with a drug-resistant hybrid strain of HIV. The audience was completely silent when the segment finished. I then continued, having the audience's full attention.
There was general laughter at that point, and then I continued.
The whole room broke into applause and gave Brad a standing ovation. When the crowd settled down, he shouted out to me, "I'm still gonna get back at you for embarrassing me in front of the whole school, bro." Which made everyone laugh.
I responded by saying, "I'll be looking forward to it," and then I resumed my speech.
The room was completely silent as Brad returned to the podium. He began speaking again:
As the audience applauded, someone shouted out, "Yo Sam!" and Sam took the stage along with his best friend, Paul. Sam blushed on hearing his name called out. He was really cute! Paul took it all in stride.
No sooner had Sam started speaking than I noticed a large group comprised primarily of men in dark suits, descending upon us. There were several of them all around the gymnasium, and a bunch of them had congregated by the entrance to the boys' locker room. I decided I'd better see what was going on, so I hopped down from the stage and headed to the group in front of the locker room.
One of the men asked me, "Are you Jeremy Kimball?" When I indicated that I was, he asked me for identification, and so I showed him my driver's license. After speaking into a two-way radio, he said, "OK, Mr. Kimball, you may go on in."
As I pushed my way through the doors to the boys' locker room, I wondered what in hell was going on. It was then that I noticed the imposing figure of President Obama approaching me.
When he reached me, he squeezed my shoulder and very quietly said, "I was very saddened to hear the news of your brother, Jeremy. I didn't know him well, but he seemed like such a spirited young man, and I know he meant a lot to you."
"You have no idea, Mr. President," I replied. "I loved him no less than if he were my flesh and blood."
Smiling warmly at me, he added, "It's that wonderful empathy you have that makes you such a wonderful person, Jeremy. No matter what body-blows life may send your way, don't ever lose that."
"I'll try, Mr. President," I responded.
Shifting his weight on his feet, he asked, "Listen, I've prepared some remarks, and if you can work me into the program, I'd really appreciate the opportunity to talk a bit about young Clifford."
"That's an offer I can't refuse," I replied. "The schedule's tight, but we'll work you in. How much time do you need?" I asked the President.
"I'm prepared to speak for fifteen minutes, but I can shorten that if necessary."
"We'll find fifteen minutes for you at the end of the program, before Elton John goes on," I assured the president.
"Elton John is here?" the President asked.
"We're expecting him to arrive within the hour," I answered, "and he'll be performing for an hour."
"I think I'd like to stay around for that," the President said with his trademark smile.
Upon returning to the gym, I turned my attention back to Sam's and Paul's remarks, which were coming to a conclusion.
Brad returned to the podium and introduced the next pair of speakers:
As Brad walked away from the podium, I caught up with him and said, "President Obama's here." Brad's eyes practically flew out of their sockets when he heard that. "He'd like to say a few words at the end of the program," I added. "He asked for fifteen minutes, and of course I assured him that we'd find the time."
"Of course we will," Brad agreed.
I noticed that David had approached the secret service agents in front of the locker room door, and so I went to join him. Knowing David, he'd probably already figured out who was there.
Once we were allowed to enter, David went up to the President and shook his hand, saying, "Mr. President, it's such an honor to have you here."
"It's a pleasure to see you again, David. I'm just sorry it's under these circumstances."
"Me too, Mr. President," David agreed.
"By the way," Obama continued, "I'd like to congratulate both of you on your marriage."
"Thank you very much, Mr. President," David responded, but then added, "Now if we could only make the marriage legal in all fifty states."
"Always the activist," Obama said with a hint of a laugh and a smile. "Actually, I'm going to work on having the federal government recognize same sex marriages in all U.S. territories. If we can get that much, it will bring us one step closer to full gay marriage in the territories and that, plus the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' will send a powerful message that we stand for full equality."
"Mr. President," David countered, "with all due respect, that still amounts to little more than giving lip service to an issue that should be cut and dry."
Laughing, the President said, "You aren't going to give an inch on this, are you David?"
"It's so frustrating, Mr. President. I know it's pushing it, and I want things to change now and not twenty years from now, but damn it, we're talking basic human rights here.
"When many people in his own party spoke of compromise, limiting the spread of slavery, or of letting the Confederacy stand and maybe even expanding our territory by invading Canada and Mexico instead, Lincoln didn't waver. He stood firm on the integrity of the Union, even to the point of engaging in a bloody civil war. He stood firm on the issue of slavery too, ending it once the South came under his control.
"Mr. President, some things really are a matter of right and wrong, and no matter what some conservative religious leaders may claim, homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice, it is not wrong and it is not evil. My right to live as a gay man and to love and marry the one I want is no different than is your right to have equal rights as an African American, or your right to write with your left hand. You didn't choose to be black and you didn't choose to be left-handed.
"Denying gay and lesbian citizens the same rights that are shared by all Americans is as ridiculous as it was to have separate rest rooms and drinking fountains in the south, or to force children to write with their right hands. Mr. President, it's time for you to lead rather than to follow. It's time for you to stand up for what's right."
"David," the President replied, "Much as I would like to focus on gay rights as an issue, I have a lot of other issues that require my full attention, including healthcare, the economy and the environment to name but a few. Our work is not done, and there are people, even in my own party, who would not hesitate to undo everything we have done for their own personal gain, no matter how bad the consequences for the nation.
"You're absolutely right David, but pushing gay rights now would doom us to failure. Even in Europe, which is considerably more liberal than the U.S., gay marriage is legal in only a few countries. Your time will come David, just as it did for African Americans, Hispanics and women. It's just not going to come all at once."
It was then that I realized that back in the gym, Trevor and Kurt were speaking. David was supposed to have been the next speaker and, sure enough, Brad entered the locker room at that moment and interrupted us.
"I took the liberty of dropping you from the program, bro. I'm sorry about that, but I decided that there was a lot less that could go wrong by dropping speakers to accommodate the President than by trying to get everyone to shorten their remarks, or asking Elton John to shorten his part of the program. It's when people try to make changes that Murphy's Law comes into play.
"I'm sorry bro, but if it's any consolation, I'll have you come up to the podium with me at the end. For what it's worth, I dropped Will and Brian from the program, too. After all, the students here don't even know them, and we were just accommodating them 'cause they took the time to drive down for the day. Between you and Will, that should take care of the fifteen minutes. It was actually Will who suggested the changes. He understands the need for flexibility in these situations better than anyone."
"Will's a smart guy," the President responded, "and his father's a long-time friend and ally. It's too bad Will got caught up in that scandal with his girlfriend . . ."
"If we had gay rights," David countered, "he would never have even felt compelled to have a girlfriend in the first place." Man, did my husband ever give up?
"I can't argue with that, David," the President agreed, "but many a political career has been destroyed by sex, and not just gay sex." For once, David didn't have a reply. At long last, he'd been out-maneuvered.
Shortly after that, I glanced at my watch and noticed that we were over an hour into the program. The last of the planned speakers was at the podium and, as their remarks came to a close, I noticed that a separate podium was being prepared to be hoisted onto the stage. It had the Presidential Seal in front, and there was a glass extension that was undoubtedly bulletproof in the front and on the sides.
Brad then returned to the podium - the school's regular podium - to introduce the President of the United States.
At that moment, Secret Service agents hoisted the President's podium onto the platform, to the gasps and murmurs of the audience.
That brought about a sustained round of laughter from the audience, and more than a few boos.
The entire room was filled with thunderous applause as everyone rose to their feet to give the President a standing ovation. Many if not the majority of the students likely opposed the president - this was the Bible Belt, after all - but he was the president, and he had a presence like no one else, with the possible exception of my husband.
The president indeed spoke for fifteen minutes, almost to the second. I guess experienced politicians develop a knack for keeping their remarks on time. By the time he finished, he had me in tears. He spoke of courage and fortitude, and living one's life to the fullest, even in the face of great adversity. The President captured Cliff to a tee. Even in the end, Cliff was happy, and he still brought great joy to all of us.
The President's remarks were so beautiful, you could have heard a pin drop at the end of his talk. There was no applause, nor should there have been. This was Cliff's moment - not the President's, nor anyone else's. Before leaving the stage, he shook hands with everyone - except Paul of course. He and the president embraced. It felt so natural this time, not like the surprise it was in Washington.
After President Obama had exited the stage, Brad returned to the podium to conclude the program:
Man, what an awesome performance! He sang song after song, including such favorites as Daniel, Your Song, Sacrifice, Levon, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Don't let the Sun Go Down, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, I'm Still Standing and, of course his last song, Candle in the Wind.
As the program was coming to an end, suddenly I felt what could only be described as a feeling of incredible joy, and I knew that Cliff was right there with all of us that day. It made me smile.
The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing and Alastair in proofreading my stories, as well as Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Nifty for hosting them.