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It was one of those clear blue days that most people associate with childhood. The willow branches floated over us like little clouds. Each family had set up its own barbecue in the park. The air was filled with the sweet smell of cooked meat.
My dad was still around back then. My family had just moved here a few weeks earlier for his new job teaching philosophy. He was a really smart guy and always told me to ask why: “Son, never just accept what someone says because they say that’s how they feel, or that’s what they think—always ask why.”
The little children scampered about in the tall grass, but most of the big kids had already gone back to the barbecue pits where the grown-ups were making dinner. We had been invited by a really nice family who lived just a few houses down from where we moved.
Suddenly, I saw the image that would be forever burned into my brain. There was no avoiding it: a whole body, a human body, was roasting over the Stanley family’s barbecue pit.
My Dad ran up in a panic and yelled: “What the fuck are you doing? Have you lost your goddamned mind?”
The Stanleys just looked up, startled by what they probably considered my very rude dad.
Peter Stanley objected loudly: “Don’t you talk to my wife like that!”
Dad seemed frozen, as if he’d forgotten how to speak. Mom tried to help: “Sorry Mr. Stanley, is that an animal you’re roasting over your barbecue?”
Mr. Stanley spoke more calmly: “Oh my gosh. I’m sorry I yelled. I almost forgot for a moment that not everyone celebrates life like us folks.” He laughed. His wife said: “Oh dear! Don’t worry. It’s not like we’re cooking him alive. He already passed away. This was my brother, Tod. He died in a car accident a week ago.”
Dad was just staring, stuttering: “But why, why are you cooking him?”
I’d never seen my dad so upset. Mrs. Stanley told the hunch-backed grandma and the other kids that it was ok, and that they could go back to their seats. She explained: “This is what we call a Celebration of Life. Families here have a very unique way of celebrating our loved ones’ lives, once they’re deceased. Many cultures have different ways of celebrating death you know?”
“Really?” said Dad. “Even making your brother part of the menu?” He looked caught between revulsion and confusion.
“Indeed! In fact I’m a cultural anthropologist and study death and religion in cultures across the world. Did you know in Tana Torajo, in eastern Indonesia, funeral rites can take weeks and months after the person passes away? In the meantime, they just refer to that person as ‘asleep’ and leave them in their rooms, giving them food and water as a symbol that they’re still present. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Ok, sure. But this is crazy. How could you do this? That’s your brother!”
At this point Mr. Stanley interjected and tossed my Dad a beer: “Here’s a cold one, catch!”
My dad caught it, but he just held it in his hand and stared, frozen.
Through the side of her mouth, like a real good ventriloquist, Mom asked Dad: “So I guess we’re going to have to eat somewhere else.”
Dad just said: “Let’s go son.” He started to walk back to the car. Mom had a brief exchange with the Stanley couple and then caught up to us.
“Well, the Stanleys sure seem special!” she said.
Dad sounded disappointed: “I don’t even know how this is legal. I don’t want to have anything to do with these people.”
That day we went back home and Mom made supper for us, but Mom and I were the only ones who ate.
A week or so later, after first meeting the Stanleys, my Dad fought with the neighbors again. This time it was the Howards. He was a very argumentative and stubborn guy Mom said. I thought he was usually really cool, but I guess he felt left out.
I was just walking my dog Jake in the street since we didn’t have sidewalks and everyone had their own car with a parking garage. I saw my Dad talking to Mrs. Howard by our garbage can.
“We noticed you don’t recycle, is there a reason for that?” said Mrs. Howard.
“No, sorry, we just didn’t get our recycling bin yet.”
“Well, you know you folks have been here for almost a month now. You still haven’t bought a recycling bin? Sheesh. That should be a priority.”
My Dad seemed to just laugh it off: “Yeah coming from a cannibal, I’m really the one that doesn’t have my priorities straight.”
Mrs. Howard was offended: “The consumption of our loved ones isn’t hurting anyone! You’re hurting the whole planet, which we all live on. Selfish jerk!”
She walked away.
The whole time my mom had been in the background and overheard the little kerfuffle: “Dear, leave it alone, she has a point.” Mom yelled over to Mrs. Stanley before she made it into her house and said: “Don’t worry Mrs. Stanley, we’ll get a recycling bin tomorrow!” Mrs. Howard smiled with her bright red lipstick and big hoop earrings.
Dad turned to Mom and sighed: “Great, now you’re taking their side? Why do you want to fit in with these people so badly, anyway?” Mom said: “Well it’s true; they’re not hurting anyone. They’re already passed away. What am I supposed to say?”
Dad said: “Well, you really think human beings are just a piece of meat?”
Mom told me to just go on ahead inside. They started to argue, but I don’t know what they talked about.
Over the next few months it looked like Mom really felt the pressure to fit in while Dad said he didn’t care. He said he didn’t want to fit in with people like that. Mom had also always been someone very open to other cultures. She had studied human anthropology for five years and said that they do have a valid argument: “Although it’s weird, we can’t really say burying people in dirt is really much smarter.” She mentioned something about one of her old university professors and “societal norms.”
A few weeks later Mom went to get the mail and seemed excited. She had an open letter in her hand and was reading under her breath. It was from the Stanleys: their grandma had passed away—the one who was there at the last picnic. They were having another barbecue.
When Mom told us, Dad said: “I think I’m going to be sick.”
He puked all over the floor.
Mom said: “It’s ok! It’s ok! I’ll clean it up, you boys go relax.”
Mom said that we were lucky the Stanleys weren’t holding a grudge. Everyone had heard about how Dad freaked out last time at the barbecue. They were all saying how we must be such a closed-minded family. In fact, many of the families from our neighborhood had also been out enjoying the nice weather and saw what happened between my Dad and the Stanleys.
Mom said we should at least go to be polite: “He doesn’t have to eat if he doesn’t want to.”
She recalled how once on a field trip in her anthropology class they went to a museum where they talked about “green funerals.” She said how there was something called a “reef ball” where a company called Eternal Reefs here in the US squeezes people’s remains into a ball and attaches it to a coral reef in the ocean so that it becomes a habitat for animal life.
“Isn’t that cool!” she said.
I said it was weird.
The next weekend, Mom, Dad and I were all getting ready for the Stanley family’s funeral—or barbecue—whatever they call it—a “Celebration of Life.”
We were in the living room and Dad was just standing by the door in the hallway staring at a painting. I asked: “What are you doing Dad?”
He said: “I’m just looking at this etching.”
It was dark and grey; there was a person sleeping with his head down on his desk, and around him were swarming all sorts of wild creatures, but the man in the picture didn’t seem to notice.
“What is it about?” I asked.
He said: “This is an etching by Goya.”
I asked him why there were all those flying creatures around.
He just said: “You see what’s written on the side of that sleeping man’s desk?”
— “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos” —
“What does it say?” I asked.
It says: “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
Then my mom walked into the room and said: “Alright everyone, let’s go!” She was very excited, but Dad looked upset. He didn’t say anything. Mom just told him no one has a gun to his head and then said: “You’re a philosophy teacher for crying out loud, you’d think you’d be a little more open!”
Dad answered back: “So because I don’t think humans are just slabs of beef I’m close minded?”
Mom just said: “Well they’re very special slabs of beef for some people!” We all just walked over to the Stanley’s five houses down.
When we arrived, there was the same familiar smell from the park: it smelled like the duck we once ate at a Chinese restaurant when we lived in Pekin, China.
There was something like fifteen other people there.
Mrs. Stanley made an announcement: “Alright everyone, we’re so happy you came to join us! We have some appetizers here; we’ll all have supper and share a special slice of life very shortly. Enjoy!”
I was hanging out with the other kids, watching TV.
My Dad and mom were talking with the other couples, and I heard them speaking with a Mrs. Joyce. She seemed very excited and was saying: “You know in Africa they don’t have starving children anymore because they started to celebrate the lives of their loved ones. Finally, we don’t have to hear about the starving kids in Africa anymore. Isn’t that great?”
This time Dad did the ventriloquist thing, saying: “These people are animals.”
Mom said: “Honey, that’s offensive to animals! You need to be more careful.”
Dad didn’t say anything.
The grandma was done being cooked, and she was laid out over the table on one of those red table cloths with white polka dots. It looked just like the ones people use for picnics.
Mr. and Mrs. Stanley were serving each guest their slice of that grandma’s life and graciously thanked each person as they took their plate. Only my dad didn’t eat any. He just took yams and drank martinis. I tried the grandma since it reminded me of that Pekin duck. It tasted like duck too.
Everyone was talking at the table when my Dad said: “I don’t know how you can do this—your own mother for Christ’s sake.”
Mrs. Stanley got up from the table: “That’s my mother you’re talking about!” and then walked off crying.
Mr. Stanley got up and told my Dad: “Maybe you should leave.” Dad said: “Yeah, I think I should.”
He walked off.
“Oh dear, I’m very sorry about my husband, he’s not the most open person… All that philosophy stuff you know? It usually confuses people more than anything else,” explained mom.
She and I got up and went to find Dad waiting inside by the door. Before leaving he said: “Not even animals eat their own kind.”
Some skinny old man from the table said: “That’s not true, Orangutans do! They caught an Orangutan eating its deceased baby in 2009. Just be thankful you’re not married to an Orangutan, or a Mantis.”
My Dad said: “Great, so we were having supper with Orangutans.”
Another lady yelled: “It would be an honor to have supper with the Orangutans! They’re beautiful!” As we were leaving, one of the aunts chimed in: “You know the feisty ones always taste better.” They all laughed.
We went back home and Dad just ate cold shrimp cocktails with a Martini, like he usually did on weekends.
Mom was upset and so I made her a card with a poem I wrote:
“The momma frog digs her hole,
The swallow mom builds her nest,
Without you the house isn’t whole
Because of all the moms, you’re best!”
She seemed to cheer up and said: “Thanks sweetie.”
From then on everyone was pretty normal. Mom and Dad had some old friends over who happened to move into the neighborhood. They were happy to have some familiar people around.
I wish things would have stayed that way.
A few weeks later, Dad experienced a terrible car accident on the highway on his way to work. It was devastating.
He really was the best Dad and I’ll never forget him. Mom and I cried a lot in the first few days. After about a week though, some of the neighbors came around and started talking with her and managed to cheer her up. They said: “There’s still time to celebrate.”
We had our first Celebration of Life with the Stanleys that summer. The Stanleys, the Howards, they were all there and everyone got along just fine. My mom apologized to them for how things had turned out in the past. She said: “Let bygones be bygones.”
I still don’t know what a “bygone” is.
We all sat down and Mom thanked everyone for taking a slice of life.
“This means a lot to me” she said.
Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Mom and I were eating and she said: “Hmm... you know the duck I once had in Pekin,” then kept chewing.
She joked: “I hope I taste this good when I die.”
“Ha!” Everyone laughed.
“Wait till you try the baby” said Mr. Stanley. “It’s Heaven.”