The Going Away Party

by

01/31/2004

The Lake in Central Park, 10024

Neighborhood: Central Park

Michael had long used us as a test audience for his trendy nihilism, togging up in punk, new wave and goth to suit his status as a Parsons grad student. We, his undergrad pals from Syracuse, continued to feign shock, through ten shades of hair color, safety pins inserted in various extremities, kilts, bondage pants and all-black wardrobes. But there was that day in 1992 when Michael really shocked us.

“Here’s how I want my funeral made,” he whispered, as we gathered around his bed at Beth Israel Hospital for what would be his 32nd and final birthday. We were proud of Michael’s sudden surge of pragmatacism. After all, when you’ve been wasting away for months, and lost the power even to shuffle off to the john, the timing is right. Besides, this was the Mesozoic Age of AIDS; no magic cocktails for four more years. But when he elaborated on his funeral arrangements, Michael really scared us, moreso than had any of his fashion-victim ensembles. “This is what I want,” he continued, “My ashes put into white balloons and let go over Central Park. This is how I want it to happen.”

We were novices in matters of Final Requests, and too dumbfounded by Michael’s Hallmark Card from Hell proposal to protest. This was a man who had always dismissed cheap sentiment with a snarl. So we merely nodded, presuming there’d be a later occasion to disabuse him of his fanciful notion.

But Michael had set life into fast motion with his final request, and three weeks after returning home to Syracuse, his wheelchair clearing the front stairs with an awkwardness noticed by every last neighbor who peeped from behind her curtains, Michael died.

Before departing, however, Michael had repeated his request to his mother Vicki, a pious Italian woman with an expansive middle ideally suited for her huge heart. Vicki had acquiesced to the Ritual; there was no way to convince her that the request sprang from the same dementia that once had Michael insisting that Bette Midler was perched on the hospital room clock.

I resigned myself to the ceremony, to be held on a Monday afternoon in September. The previous day, I visited my ex-boyfriend Theo, who was a balloon salesman, supplying giddy outer-borough couples with bouquets of undying love. He kept a helium tank in his West Village apartment, and we experimented with peat moss, an unworthy stand-in for the smudgy, bleached ash known in the funeral business as cremains. The balloons were burdened by even a handful of peat moss and barely rose off the living room floor. I called Vicki in Syracuse, wincing as I instructed her to empty each balloon by half.

Vicki and Michael’s father, Michelangelo, joined by an aunt and uncle, flew in the next day and met us at the entrance to Central Park across from the Dakota. Their faces were numb with grief, each searching ours for an indication of appropriate emotion for the Ritual. One final gracing touch: it was a raw, rainy day. “Here,” Vicki said, extended a plastic bag towards me. Inside a clear Tupperware container, laying side by side like sardines, were thirty balloons containing Michael. I imagined Vicki sitting at the kitchen table, recalling her son’s short life as she silently completed her absurd task. Not for the last time that day, I cursed my pal.

Twenty of us soon gathered. Jackie, a striking brown-haired woman with beestung lips, had rented a helium tank. We set up an assembly under a tree which offered little protection from the icy drizzle. We persuaded the family to stand around the bend, out of sight. One prudent soul suggested a trial balloon. Good thing; it inflated with a whoosh and immediately popped. We squelched our pained laughter long enough to send one person to reassure Vicki and Michelangelo that Michael was not part of the mishap.

Soon, we were getting the hang of the process. A gust of helium shot into the white globes would send the bone chips dancing in a mad circle. Then, we would quickly tie and affix it to three other balloons. Only once did we err, when Michael’s best friend Mike unhooked balloon from nozzle prematurely, sending it flail spastically through the air, finally sputtering onto the pavement.

George, a man in his mid-60s, with the insane look of a fakir, rubbed the tattoo of ashes into the ground before we could protest, prompting more nervous laughter at the surrealism of it all. Even with my eleventh-hour intervention, we discovered that the balloons were unable to bear their burden aloft. We tied extra helium-only balloons to each bouquet, just as Michelangelo appeared with his Instamatic camera, egging us on to smile and hold the balloons aloft. I eked out a grimace as the flash hit my eyes.

Leaden balloons in hand, we rejoined the others at Strawberry Fields. A crowd of twenty-five people had gathered. The air was silent, save for the staccato beat of icy rain on the leaves. Fakir George ordered everyone in a circle for the service, as I hoisted a boombox, offerering two songs by Michael’s favorite divas. Both numbers embodied Michael’s fervent but oftimes messy iconoclasm: Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” and Nina Hagen’s “My Way.”

At a signal, we released the blue twine holding each cluster of balloons and watched in dismay as they fell, one by one, to the ground. The group fell into silence. Thankfully, one single bouquet, a miraculous balance of

helium and bone chips, inched upwards . Its indecision was painful, but eventually it nudged its way towards heaven. As people stood awkwardly with their remaining earthbound bouquets, George suddenly announced, “A change of plans, folks. We will be releasing the balloons down by the pond. Come with me.”

Drenched, but still game, we followed the mad Fakir down the sloping path. Abandoning any pretense of grace, we burst the balloons over the mossy oval of water beneath a copse of trees. When Mike exploded his bouquet, an errant gust of wind suddenly stirred. Mike cried out and reeled back. I held his head between my hands as I tweezed small chips of bone from the corner of his eye.

A mourner who favored the traditional extracted a bottle of Dom Perignon from her raincoat and distributed plastic cups. Pia, a slim, young woman with Betty Boop eyes, whose faith embraced paganism, lit a bundle of sage and a candle to purify the clearing where we stood and sipped.

Suddenly, a black man in ragged clothes appeared, lugging a threadbare chaise lounge in his left hand. Sizing up the crowd, he launched into an a cappella version of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” in a falsetto flexible enough to require no apology. But when he finished his song and approached each mourner with outstretched palm, I took him aside to explain the situation. To hide his embarrassment, he fumed, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that if I knew what was going on. What kind of person do you think I am?”

It was only after Michelangelo coaxed him into posing for the camera that the man backed down, feeling the score had been settled.

Pia, Mike and I said our goodbyes to Michelangelo and Vicki, who had been sobbing silently. Walking back through Stawberry Fields, Pia produced a joint. Mike, Pia and I were nicely toasted by the time we arrived at a sushi bar on Avenue A, where we giggled and reminisced over sake the way you do when tears are not a proper send-off for a friend who has had the last loving laugh on the lot of you.

September, 1992

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