A Funeral for the Living
Tim wants to attend his own funeral while he’s still living. At 64 years old, he has no plans to die anytime soon, but he doesn’t want to take the gamble that we’ll still have the ability to listen in on earthly conversations after we die, and he finds it ridiculous that we wait until after someone is gone to reminisce and share our love and appreciation for them. So when it seems like the end is looming, he will orchestrate a commemoration of his own life and then he will show up.
He has his funeral playlist chosen (Lee Oskar, Alicia Keys, Amy Winehouse and that new Lorde album) and as he hates suits, he’s planned to wear to his funeral what he’s worn to his life: “the blood that he lived with”, without formaldehyde pumped into it, and the vests and moccasins he wears daily, without pretense. This tintype portrait he’s come to the Pfister to sit for will be the one front and center at his funeral, the one his loved ones will gaze at as they remember his very full life.
And his life has been full, so full of stories that they trip over one another, one seemingly completed for the time it takes to tell five more, then suddenly resurfacing again. Some of the story arcs of his life weave together and some don’t. It’s dizzying to follow. I take notes as fast as I can but I miss a lot.
In sixth grade, another boy stole Tim’s bike. His dad figured out who it was and went to the boy’s house to confront him, but when he saw that the boy’s father was a man the neighborhood knew to be abusive, he spoke kindly to him and let it go, bewildering the boy and making a lasting impression on Tim.
The next year, Tim got his first girlfriend. After kissing her, he found out too late that a local gang called Hell’s Heroes did not approve. Seven gang members came to fight him after school, while all his friends watched unhelpfully from the nearby Mr. Donut parking lot. Before he knew it, a choke chain was around his neck and his teeth were protruding through his lip. The only reason he wasn’t hurt even more severely was that one other person jumped in to defend him—the boy who had stolen his bike the year before.
He was a hippie turned Marine Corps Vietnam vet. Believing, as his father did, that war is never justified, Tim saw a disproportionate number of minorities and low-income men being drafted, found this unjust, and enlisted without telling his parents. He aced an IQ test to be an officer, shaved his head in the bathroom, and ended up in the Airwing in Hawaii, where he boxed every week without losing a fight.
Today, Tim’s “wing man” is his nephew who has cerebral palsy and loves jazz. The two of them often go the Jazz Estate and Blu at the Pfister together to listen to music, or they attend the ballet or a symphony, or wander through the zoo.
In college, he was a bartender at the Stone Toad on Broadway Street, where he met Willie Nelson, B.B. King, and Emmylou Harris, and the ballerina who would remain his wife for 27 years. She sat at the bar with five other dancers and Tim set single roses in front of each of them. His wife would go on to dance in Milwaukee for nine years in principal roles.
For a season, he was an ambulance driver, several times delivering healthy babies in dire situations.
Other babies were momentous in his life too: he and his wife fostered four infants for six months each, until Christmas Eve 1990, when his son Max was born and they were able to adopt him. He was writing poems during those fostering years, in the evenings while he drove a newborn withdrawing from cocaine around and around the block to soothe him to sleep. He wrote a letter and a particular poem that moved Max’s birth mother so much that she chose them to raise her baby.
Tim and his girlfriend Nicole have been together for 14 years. She recently underwent a liver and kidney transplant and continues to be a stable source of love and optimism.
Tim tells me that through all this living, he’s still 30 in his mind. He plans to continue writing a life with zeal until he can’t anymore. Then he’ll just turn on the Amy Winehouse, gather all the people he’s known through a lifetime of stories, and celebrate.