Beep the Horn
We had a game for good-byes, my father and I, a ritual of leave-taking. He would be tossing his briefcase into his foreign sports-car while I, his youngest, would stand at the threshold of the garage, my small body wedging open the heavy door. I would peer into the dim chill, my back to our family’s big house. “Don’t forget to beep the horn!” I would say, my voice high above the clamor of the electric garage door rising. His car would rumble to life and he’d back it out.
Then I would wait, getting more nervous that this time he wouldn’t do it, that he would forget, his mind already turning out of the alley and onto the city streets of grown-up life. I’d see him reach to the visor where the garage door button was clipped. The door would begin to rattle down. And I’d watch the hood of his little car recede back toward the alley, then disappear. Still I’d wait, straining to hear. Finally, Beep-Beep, two sporty, reassuring, be-home-soon beeps would pierce through the garage and my doubt. And I would step back into the house.
Decades later, once he was dying and we were having our Big Conversations, he teased me about it, suggesting maybe I had grown too old for that game. But meanwhile, I had come to understand that ours wasn’t a family of I-love-you’s. We made up other means, private languages, of saying it. For my father and I, Beep the Horn was it.
My father died and the day came to put his ashes in the ground of a city cemetery. We parked cars on the street and walked in. His family had grown and changed over time. His two granddaughters each placed a rose on top of the wooden box that their dad made for the ashes. The youngest girl, named Alice, who loved her Grand Chop with special abandon, added her school photo into the hole. His wife and beloved cried and said that it all seemed so small–the box of his ashes and all that was left of him. Everyone cried their own sadness, and then, together, we made our way back down the cemetery lanes and through the gates, out onto the street.
So we are walking just across from what has now become his end of the cemetery. I am toward the front with a niece who minces barefoot down the city sidewalk when I notice a bicycle on its side, locked to a tree, a bike with a large, bulbous clown horn clamped to its handlebars. I only hesitate a moment, one half-step in the rag-tag, happy-sad processional, before reaching down and giving the rubber bulb two quick squeezes. It lets out a pair of loud, goofy honks, a cheerful, startling sound barked twice across the chill morning.
How silly of me to think that, this time, he might forget me. Or any of us. Or that there is any such thing as a final good-bye, some door so fully closed that nothing can pass through it. Or that there is an end to the beeps and squawks and murmurs of one life’s peculiar, made-up languages of love. When, of course, we are the horns those who are gone resound through.
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