While Billy was lying in the county morgue, waiting for his autopsy and being treated with less respect than a C.S.I. prop, I had an entire week to plan the funeral. I dove into the production of it, reaching into my bag of tricks from my career, and lining up the crew to help me pull off what would be the most important day of my life. Thankfully, I was surrounded by people who were all all too numb and crushed to do anything else.
One of Billy’s friends, Phil, was a brilliant graphic designer. I asked him to assemble a book for friends and family. I called out to those closest to Billy to write a short essay. I sifted through pictures. Phil created a beautiful volume filled with words of love and photos of the man we cherished so much.
Russell and I drove out to Rose Hills to shop for a plot, and everything else. We were taken into the office of Tommy Chan, a man of limited English skills and a penchant for the hard sell. We drove around the park’s endless acreage, looking at one site after another. I’d stand there, dumbly looking around me, and hoping for some sort of sense in the choice. We finally found a spot that overlooked all of Los Angeles, to the ocean, high atop a grassy hill with a tree nearby. One decision down but more painful ones waited.
We went into a showroom of caskets and Tommy steered me toward the most expensive choice – white enamel with gold trim. I thought of all of Billy’s years in the limo business and how he viewed white limos as amateurish or as he put it, “prom night.” I went with a classic wood, the kind of which I couldn’t possibly tell you now or even five minutes after the decision was made. I ran my hand along the white satin interior, pushing down to feel the padding, and praying that it would be comfortable.
Back in Tommy’s office, I made choices about the chapel, the minister, the organist, the flowers, and a host of other production elements. We went to the monument garden and I was disappointed that this park did not allow above-ground markers but only those that lay flush with the grass. An alternative was a bench along with the marker but those could only be constructed under a tree. Luckily, I had the tree.
After determinedly working his calculator, Tommy presented me with a bill for well over cost of my car. I pulled out two credit cards and handed them over. Russell pulled out his checkbook and handed me a check for $1,000.00. I looked at him and lost my composure, and cried. Russell drove me back home. It was time to pick up Billy’s family at the airport.
I saw Dixie first coming into baggage claim, and I hugged her as if she were Billy right then. Amie came up around behind me, and then Chris and finally Matt. We hugged and cried in front of their fellow travelers, and then made small talk until their bags came down the belt. I drove them to a hotel nearby our home and checked them in. This was on Wednesday. Billy wouldn’t be released by the county until Friday and the first visitation was on Saturday. There was a lot of work to be done on the production.
I had contacted Bill, an old Navy buddy of Billy’s. Billy had always wanted me to meet Bill but every time Billy would drive out to Riverside to see Bill and his family, I begged off. Bill swung into his roll of corralling the Navy to give Billy full honors. Many months later, I was looking through Billy’s Navy yearbook, something I had never done before, and found a press clipping touting some accomplishment of his friend, Bill.
Our friend, Bob who now lived in Austin, flew in, and together with Ricky and Tommy, they set up the post-funeral reception at a nearby hotel ballroom. I made a CD of background music for the two visitation days, songs that meant the world to Billy and a few that meant a great deal to us, and I organized the sequence of the funeral. I called Sandra and had her hunt down a copy of her version of Dream On which she FedExed to me. I only wanted one other piece of music for the funeral, If I Should Fall Behind. I wanted to begin the service with Bruce’s plaintive ballad and end with Sandra’s defiant cover of Aerosmith.
I had to choose what Billy would wear. Insanity had taken up permanent residence by then and I went into his closet and stood there, staring. I wanted to do what he wanted me to do except I couldn’t ask him. A lifelong t-shirt and jeans guy would look out of place in a suit even though he looked so cute in his suit. I chose one his favorite pair of Levis and a shirt I had given him a few years back. It was a white corduroy shirt with tiny navy blue stars covering it. I chose his favorite pair of Doc Martens and his favorite socks. I made sure he had his favorite underwear. A Diesel belt that we spent the month of November running around looking for completed the outfit.
Like the good producer I am, everything seemed to be going like clockwork. I tried to force myself not to think of the physical indignities my Billy was suffering at the hands of the county or the horrors I had only seen on Six Feet Under. I couldn’t will those thoughts to the cornfield no matter how many drugs I took. Sometimes I still can’t.
Billy’s company, which he had left five months prior, had given us complete access to limousines and town cars to shuttle around everyone. On the first evening of visitation, the skies violently cried. I collected a few things I wanted Billy to keep and a boom box for the music. A black stretch limo pulled up to the house, and Bob and I piled in. We drove to pick up Dixie and the kids, and then we took the long ride out to Rose Hills. I was nervous. I hadn’t seen Billy in six days.
We walked in and I almost ran to Billy. The small chapel was covered in flowers, and there he was. Everything looked okay; he looked good except for his mouth. It was wrong. His mouth was pulled wide, not in a smile but in a way someone had decided his mouth should look. I kissed his lips and put my head on his chest. To say I was crying hysterically is to call 9/11 a plane crash. I stood back and let his family have some time while I set up the boom box and started the music. I needed to hear the music, his music that would carry him to another place when times were hard for him.
I unpacked the things I wanted him to have, forever. There was the porcelain angel he painted. He had put a little necklace on it and it sat on his bed stand for the past few years. I draped another little necklace we had just bought from the Rose Parade float concession stand a few weeks ago around his neck. I had the Swatch that I wanted him to keep and my wedding ring he had given me. I went to the front desk and asked for help. I couldn’t put on the watch or ring myself because I was afraid I would break something. A man came in, slid the ring on his finger, and lifted his wrist to slide on the watch. Then he saw Bob. He told me Bob could not be there. I told him Bob wasn't leaving. We argued, loudly, until he saw it was pointless, and the man quietly left. Bob stayed.
I stood there, looking at Billy, talking to him, and rubbing his hair. I kissed him on the lips over and over again. Soon our friends started to show up, each one hugging me, and each one wanting to be anywhere else but there. I’d walk out side and smoke a cigarette, watching the rain pour while standing under the overhang. Then I’d come back in and hear Looking At You by Sunscreem and I’d start crying again. Back outside, another cigarette and then back in to hear Tracy Ullman singing They Don’t Know. It was a cycle that repeated itself for the rest of the night and the entire following day.
Over the last few days I had been writing my eulogy. Speaking in front of a group of people of more than ten terrified me, even more than dentistry, but well below the level of fear I had been experiencing the entire week. I rehearsed my speech repeatedly, both out loud and to myself as if preparing for a performance. I almost knew it by heart.
On the day of the funeral, the sky had cleared and left a cold, harsh wind in its wake. The large chapel was a modern A-frame of glass and wood. The amount of flowers had grown to almost overtake the building. I had a large board designed covered with green leaves and in white roses, it spelled out My Guyster. The funeral director guided me through the procedures and asked me to choose the pallbearers. Chris and Matt, his nephews, along with three of his best friends and myself were given white gloves to wear.
I huddled with the chaplain who asked me for personal details about Billy so he could personaize the service, and I came up with some things about his love of music and dancing, and how he gave more than he took. The chaplain rested his hands on my shoulder and gave me a nod that it was about to start. Action.
I wanted If I Should Fall Behind to play while people were entering and as a prelude to the service. When I reached for the CDs I brought, I found the Springsteen case empty. I looked to Chris in panic and we debated whether to try to find a nearby record store but the time was too late. I chided my poor performance as a producer. The chaplain did a nice job of cobbling together my few phrases although he hardly captured the essence of the man about whom he was speaking. Then it was my turn.
I stood on the stage and looked out at the three hundred or so people in front of me. I looked behind me to see Billy. I looked back to the crowd and to Russell who gave me the tiniest of nods. I read the eulogy. I didn’t cry. Not once. I was just doing a production, after all. In hindsight, I found my eulogy no more effective than the chaplain’s speech. I kept thinking of Cher at Sonny’s funeral and how much better she did at it.
Amie stood after I had sat down and took the stage. She was crying and talking about how much her uncle meant to her. She had the room crying. She spoke from her heart with no paper in front of her. She did it right. Next up was Chris, who again, just spoke of the admiration he had for his uncle. Dixie was too shy to say anything and after a long pause in between speakers, Kurt came to the front and spoke of Billy’s penchant for “giving the shirt off his back” for his friends. The sobbing was loud and there was a collective exhaustion in the room. Before the chaplain’s final words, I stood back up and told the background story of Sandra’s version of Dream On, and how much Sandra loved Billy. I quoted Billy from our prescient December conversation when he said, "I want Sandra to sing live. I don't want any of that taped shit and I'll know!" I realized I had said the word "shit" in church. The chaplain ended the service and then Sandra’s voice filled the chapel as people filed out to their cars to drive the short distance to the site.
When everyone was gone, it was just me and Billy for a moment. Someone from Rose Hills was standing in the back, waiting for me to leave so he could finish his business of closing the lid. I stood and held his hand and talked. I kissed him again and crumpled to my knees, holding onto the railing of the casket. I begged him to please not let this happen. I stood again and gave him one last kiss. I called him my honey bunny.
After the Rose Hills guy was done, the pallbearers were called into the chapel and we carried Billy to the hearse. I slid into the limo with the rest of his family and we arrived at the site first. I could see the three Navy sailors in dress whites standing with their rifles in position. I went over to one of them and tearfully thanked them for coming.
We sat in the front row with the hill filled with Billy’s and my friends behind us. I held Dixie’s hand, cutting off any circulation she may have had. She didn’t seem to mind one bit. One of the sailors bent to a little boom box that played Taps. During the song, they raised their rifles and shot, seven times each, in unison. One of the sailors explained that because of the wind, they would have to hold the flag over the casket. They started to fold it in precise movement until it was the familiar triangle. Before it was completed, one of them bent to the ground, gathered up the shell casings, and put them inside the final fold.
He walked over to Dixie and handed her the flag. She immediately turned to me and handed it to me. I hugged it as if it were Billy and bent at my waist, sobbing harder than I had ever cried in my life. I’ve since broken that record. We stood in the reception line and hugged the red-eyed people who witnessed the worst day in the history of my world. For many of them, it was their worst day as well.
I spent the next two months designing the headstone and the bench. I asked his friends and family for a single word that would describe Billy as I wanted those words to line the sides of the bench. On one leg of the bench, I decided to put music notes; on the other leg, a Navy insignia. For the top, I chose to have engraved the chorus of Dream On.
We gathered in the small ballroom of the hotel, drinking margaritas and trying to pretend it was all just another party, albeit an odd one. Billy's best friend, Gene, came over to me while I was sitting with Mickey and handed me an envelope. Inside was a card signed by six of his friends and a check for $2,000.00. It was a lot of money for those guys. I stood and hugged Gene, and went over to those friends who were huddled in a mass of sorrow.
People started to leave and we followed them closely behind. His family and I retreated back to our home where fun stories were told about Billy. But it all was so fucked up and impossible. It couldn't be true and this had all been some morbid dry run of the real thing. Billy couldn't be there. He was Billy, not some abstract memory or random anecdote. He was flesh and blood and alive and happy and silly and dancing. He is Billy.
Sing with me, sing for the year
Sing for the laughter and sing for the tear
Sing it with me if it's just for today
Maybe tomorrow the good Lord will take you away