A Sports Coat is Worth a Thousand Words

by

08/18/2019

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Jamaica, Long Island


My dad reached inside the closet for his new jacket, single breasted, two button, and straight off the rack. It was pencil gray with flecks of black in it and may have had those professorial looking patches on the sleeves, but I’m not sure. He didn’t care much about clothes and the jacket was nothing special. “See this baby?” he said, holding it by its hanger. “This is the coat I’ll be buried in.” He gave it a quick once-over before putting it back. “A little tight in the chest though.”

I told him not to worry. Once he was in the ground he was bound to drop a few pounds. “Pretty soon, it’ll be hanging off your shoulders.” We had a good laugh. The man was only two decades older than me. He wasn’t going anywhere. But still, he didn’t like getting older and was referencing his mortality way too often. “Your mom’s ninety-four,” I assured him. “You’ll cruise straight through your eighties.” He’d smile back and shake his head.

In my classroom I keep a calendar that my students use to track time, field trips, vacations, and birthdays, marking off the days until something special arrives. For the past three months I’ve been doing it, too, counting up while they counted down, penciling in a number at the top of every box. On January 2nd, I’d rushed from my classroom in Jamaica, Queens to Brookdale Hospital. When I returned, the calendar and blackboard still read January 2nd, as if my classroom had frozen until I returned. As of right now, my father’s been dead for ninety days.

There’s no reason to mark time when the final number is forever, but I do it anyway, a tiny stab of pain every time the pencil touches paper. My dad suffered an unexpected, massive heart attack at work. I’ve heard people call this the widow-maker and that’s exactly what it did.

My father had looked good at his wake, his casket flanked by flowered wreaths. A tight band of matriarchs, aunts, cousins, and godmothers, had come forward to make sure that every detail was perfect. He was laid out in his new sports jacket, black tie, and the crisp, white oxford shirt I’d purchased at a nearby mall. The beard he’d worn since he left the military was neatly trimmed, a set of rosary beads draped across his hands.

There was one other detail that stood out, something that set off a wave of magical thinking that’s often needed at times like these. Somehow the right side of my father’s sealed lips had been curved into a smile, something one might find on a sly, cartoon fox or rascally rabbit, a guy who was pleased with things, a man who knew that everything would be alright. I watched loved ones approach his casket, gesture to his face, and smile back. There was no smile, of course, just some happy accident that brought us comfort or perhaps the latest fad in mortuary science. Maybe some hotshot embalmer was leaving wry grins as a trademark to show off his skills. It made my mother happy, though, so we’ll call it a smile.

We’d always been affectionate, but had never really touched. Those barriers fell away the moment he’d died. In the hospital I’d peppered his forehead with kisses, wiped some blood from his lips, and cried into his already pale face. I continued touching him throughout his wake, stroking his beard and rubbing his chest.

Conversation swirled about the room as I tended to the casket. Oddly enough, the surreal, cocktail party atmosphere of a traditional Catholic wake can be comforting. The place had a good buzz, family and friends catching up, making sure my mother was never alone. Amidst the scattered assemblies stood a large, older man with powerful looking shoulders and a stoic face I recalled from the eighties. We tend to forget how young these athletes are when they retire from their sport. This guy could’ve cleared the room with a raised eyebrow. I didn’t know him, but he looked intelligent and kind, placid as he stood just a few feet away.

No one in my immediate family had ever met Marty Lyons, former New York Jets great and noted humanitarian. He was a friend of my aunt’s family and was here to pay his respects to them. Lyons was a key member of the New York Jets Sack Exchange, along with Abdul Salaam, Mark Gastineau, and Joe Klecko, a defensive line so fierce it caused the NFL to start counting quarterback sacks as a statistic. As I stole glances his way, I realized he was the only member I’d never met. His presence at the wake flooded me again with boyhood memories of sports and my dad.

An eighties childhood on Long Island was idyllic, although somewhat limiting for kids not yet old enough to drive. I’d often come home from team practice just to play more sports until dark. We kept hearing about some idiocy called fireball, a demented version of dodgeball where every player was already a loser, and was compelled to try it. Simply dip some tennis balls in gas, light them on fire, and let the fun begin. During the hysteria of swatting and kicking explosives at my best pals, a ball stuck to the top of my right sneaker, singeing quickly through its mesh and leaving a gaping hole. I got so panicked I ended up burying it in the backyard without a second pair. The next day at Little League, all eyes were on the kid digging into the mound in a pair of brown loafers.

My father arrived from work to see his son pitching in church shoes. When irritated, the Long Island accent would get thicker. “Bryan, what-da-hell-iz-is? Where’s da sneakas we jus’ ga-choo..?”

My father rooted for me to succeed until the moment his heart stopped beating. I am the proverbial fortunate son.

I eventually went over to Marty Lyons and introduced myself. We shook hands and I thanked him for coming. He left having no clue what an important family circle he’d helped me complete. All it took was one retired, defensive lineman to kick start a wave of emotions I hadn’t considered in years. I was very pleased that he’d been here. Later, I smoothed the lapels of my father’s suit and spoke to him for the last time. “You see that? A Jet was here. Ninety-three from the Sack Exchange…” My dad smiled.

He continued to smile as the lid of his casket was closed and then transported to Calverton National Cemetery, where my mother was presented with the American flag. Then my father’s body would be placed into the Long Island soil, wearing his new sports jacket forever.

***

J. Bryan McGeever’s essay collection, “Small Rooms and Others,” will be published this fall by Unsolicited Press.

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