“Alex, turn that thing off and come here right now!’’ The sternness in Mother’s voice was enough to warrant an immediate response from me. I quickly paused the game on my PS3 and with a sigh dragged myself to face whatever reprimand Mom had for me this time around.
I found her pacing the living room, phone in had in a pensive mood. I knew right away that something was wrong.
“Mr. Clement passed away early this morning.’’ She said even before I could ask her anything. “Such a nice fellow, an excellent teacher, so suddenly gone. It’s really hard to believe. You know Alex, he was my junior at college.... His family must be devastated.’’
I nodded sagely. There wasn’t anything much I could say. For starters, I wasn’t even vaguely familiar with Mr. Clement, Mom’s colleague at the college. Moreover, ‘War of the Planets’, which I had paused midway on my PS3 demanded immediate attention. So to be very honest, I wasn’t affected by this piece of news, callous as I might sound. I wished Mom would quickly make her point about life and its uncertainties so I could get back to my game.
“Anyway, I’m about to leave for his place in a few minutes and I want you to come along.’’ She concluded.
‘’What? No way Ma, I hardly knew him. I haven’t met him even once!’’ I protested. I couldn’t imagine leaving my game mid way for anything less than a tsunami or an air-raid. “Plus what would I do at a funeral? It’s too gloomy a thing for me to be a part off.’’ I said crossly.
All hell broke loose after that. “I can’t believe you just said that! How insensitive of you, Alex? Did I raise you all these 16 years to speak in such a manner?! You are coming along with me right now. And change into something decent, we’re leaving in ten minutes, young man.’’
I was fuming but there wasn’t much I could do. I might get grounded for another week if I locked horns with her again. My playing truant from church last Sunday had already earned me an entire week of ‘staying-indoors’, I didn’t want to do anything wrong again and get it extended.
Ten minutes later I was back downstairs, in a clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt, face scrubbed and shaved, hair neatly combed back. Mom apprised me with a critical eye and nodded in a satisfied manner.
She took the car keys and I followed. I was still mad at her.
“Where’s his place?’’ I asked her a tad rudely.
“Quite close by. Two streets to the left from the church.’’
“You go by car. I’ll come on my bike.’’ I said sullenly. It was my way of expressing resentment at having been grounded for a week and made to attend the funeral of a complete stranger.
Surprisingly Mom gave up. She was much too upset at the news of the sudden demise of her colleague to pick up another fight with her teenage son. But I was pretty sure a lengthy lecture awaited me much later.
“Call me if you aren’t able to find the right house!’’ she yelled as she drove past me. As if, I was too dumb to even locate an address without getting lost. All I had to do was to look for the house where there was a crowd of people outside. It had to be as simple as that.
I was right about the crowd. No sooner did I turn into the street, I was greeted by a throng of vehicles parked on either side of the road, and a huge gathering of people outside the gate. An ambulance stood nearby. But I couldn’t spot Mom’s car anywhere. I got off my bike and tried calling her and got a busy tone. Probably she’d stopped her car to attend a call. There was nothing much to do but wait until she reached. I surveyed the grim scene before me awhile. Tearful women clad in white, heads covered and solemn looking men gathered in small clusters, speaking in hushed tones. Loss and pain had an uncanny way of bringing people together. How ironic.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was an elderly gentleman. “Son, why are you standing here?’’ He asked gently. “Please step inside.’’
‘’Oh, no no, Uncle, it’s alright, I’m waiting for my Mom to arrive.’’ I said quickly, alarmed at the very thought of stepping inside without Mom.
He stared at me questioningly.
“I’m the professor’s son. You know Mrs..’’ I started introducing myself.
He interrupted me midway saying, ‘’Oh yes of course, you’re the professor’s son. Please do go inside. It’s not nice to simply stand outside like this at a funeral. You must go in and pay your respects to the departed. I’m sure the professor will join you in a few minutes.’’ His hand firmly placed on my shoulders, he ushered me inside.
A strong smell of incense greeted me as I entered and I found myself in a hazy room full of people in various stages of grief. A few were sobbing uncontrollably, others consoling them. Despondency and gloom reigned. At the centre of it all lay the coffin with Mr Clement – I could see that he was a much-loved soul who was missed sorely by family and friends alike.
I felt oddly out of place in the crowd and justly so as I was probably the only person devoid of any genuine grief. My hands grew cold and clammy. I fervently wished Mom would hurry up and get here. Mom always knew the right etiquette for every occasion and the right words to speak in every situation.
I tried making myself as inconspicuous as possible by moving to a corner of the room. I was notoriously shy in any social situation leave alone a funeral. I was getting fidgety. Where was Mom? I couldn’t possibly call her from within that room. There were a couple of aunties at the doorway hugging each other and weeping copiously. How would I get past them outside? I was in a terrible fix. Surreptitiously I unlocked my phone and typed out a message to Mom – “WHERE ARE YOU?’’.
I heard someone clear their throat behind me and turned to see a guy give me a nasty, reproachful look. I realised it was disrespectful of me to be on the phone at a solemn affair as this. I went red in the face.
I edged away to another end of the room where a guy closer to my age stood forlornly. He gave me a slight nod of acknowledgement. A couple of minutes later he asked me in hushed tones, “How do you know my grandfather?” I gaped at him without answering. What did he mean by his “grandfather” – didn’t Mom say that Mr Clement was her junior?
I felt the phone vibrate in my hand. It was Mom’s message – “I’m at the funeral. Where are YOU? This better not be some kind of joke.’’
I slowly walked over to the coffin and gazed at the stranger who lay peacefully inside. I decided it wasn’t fair to leave without paying my respects to whoever this old gentleman was.... I folded my hands in respect, closed my eyes and sent up a silent prayer for his dear departed soul. And slipped out.
A couple of houses down the same street, I spotted Mom’s car parked in front of yet another house where death had visited that morning. It was déjà vu all over again. Grieving crowds, weeping women, smell of incense, flowers strewn all over. Death apparently had a modus operandi – it cast the same pall of gloom and despair wherever it visited.
As soon as she saw me, Mom grabbed me by my hand and led me outside.
“You better convince me quick why I shouldn’t ground you for yet another week. Where did you disappear?’’ She glowered at me.
“Just finished saying my last goodbye to an old friend of mine.’’ I said cryptically.
Mom gave me a furious look. I gestured in the direction of the other house where the ambulance was leaving with the late gentleman inside, weeping relatives trailing behind. Mom’s jaw dropped as realization slowly dawned on her.
We stood in staring at each other in silence for a few minutes. All of a sudden, the hilarity of the whole situation struck us and we broke into peals of laughter as the grieving folk stared at the crazy mother-son duo with undisguised disapproval.