Diego gave up any pretense of being able to fall asleep at around five Thursday morning. He had been tossing and turning all night, filled with dread at the thought of what the dawn would bring. The day he would have to say a final goodbye to his father.
He got out of bed, put on his glasses and began to head downstairs. If he still knew his mother after all the time away, she would be in her kitchen. Wide awake and no doubt already making breakfast for Diego and his sister. On his way down the hall he peeked into the guest room, which used to be Liz’s bedroom, only to discover that it was empty, the bed not even slept in.
When he arrived downstairs he heard the sound of crying coming from the living room and saw Judy, face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. Liz was sitting next to her, her own face streaked with tears, arms wrapped around their mother.
Diego felt tears beginning to well up in his own eyes as he realized just how much his father’s death was affecting all of them.
Deciding it was best to leave the two of them alone, he went into the kitchen and figured he might as well make some breakfast for everyone. He looked in the freezer, found some hash browns and then grabbed the eggs and an onion from the refrigerator. He heaved his mother’s cast iron skillet onto the stove, added some oil and got the hash browns frying while he made a pot of coffee.
He had just finished whisking the eggs in a bowl and was adding some spices when he looked up and saw both his mother and sister standing by the island, eyes puffy and red. Their mouths were hanging open and a look of utter disbelief was on both their faces.
â€œWhat …â€ Judy stammered. â€œWhat are you doing?â€
â€œMaking some breakfast for everyone. I thought that would be obvious.â€
â€œBut when the hell did you learn how to cook?â€ Liz asked
â€œC’mon. You don’t think I lived on the road for all those years and ate fast food the whole time, did you? I had to teach myself how to cook. It was way too expensive otherwise.â€
â€œWho taught you?â€
â€œI taught myself. I watched a ton of Rachael Ray videos on YouTube and just kinda figured out the rest. It wasn’t that hard really.â€
He walked over to the stove, flipped the hash browns and then poured in the eggs. â€œIf you guys want toast with this you can put it in the toaster. This will be ready in a few minutes. I made coffee too.â€
As his sister and mother looked at each other in stunned silence, Diego blanketed the hash browns and eggs with cheese and covered the skillet with a lid, letting the cheese melt. He then walked over to the coffee pot, poured himself a cup and began to put plates and silverware on the island.
After they had sat down, Diego grabbed a potholder, lifted the skillet and loaded up the three plates with breakfast. When he was done he sat down and began to eat, checking his email on his phone as he did. He was on his third forkful when he realized neither Judy nor Liz had taken a bite yet.
â€œWhat are you two waiting for, an engraved invitation?â€
The two of them picked up their forks and began to eat, hesitantly at first but with increasing enthusiasm the more they ate, especially Liz who all but devoured the meal.
â€œHoly crap Diego. This is really good. I can’t believe you made this.â€
â€œBelieve it. I think there’s some more in the skillet if you want it.â€
Liz looked at Judy, who motioned for Liz to help herself and then got up to refill her plate.
Judy glanced at her son as she said â€œThis is really very good Darren. Better than good. I’m so glad to see that at least one of my children picked up the cooking gene from me.â€
â€œHey!â€ Liz said with a mouthful of eggs. â€œI can cook.â€
â€œYes dear. Just not well.â€
â€œWow Mom. That hurts.â€
â€œNeed I remind you of the Christmas Fiasco of 2016?â€
â€œMom, I swear to you the directions I got online said to cook the bird at 450 degrees for six hours.â€
Judy visibly shuddered. â€œThank goodness the market was still open. Pastrami sandwiches might not have been the most traditional holiday meal, but it was better than nothing.â€
Diego was laughing out loud as he watched the exchange between the two of them. â€œI’m sorry I missed it.â€
â€œIf you had been there to see that turkey you wouldn’t be saying that. It was like the scene from that movie you two used to watch, Christmas Vacation.â€
â€œOkay Mom, enough. We get it. I can’t cook.â€
â€œI swear there was smoke billowing out of that poor bird when you took it out of the oven.â€
Judy smiled at her daughter as she patted her on the shoulder. â€œThank you for making breakfast Darren.â€
â€œNo problem Mom. So, um, how are you holding up?â€
Judy put down her fork and reached for her mug of coffee. â€œI take each moment as they come. This, right now, is a good moment. I’m with my children enjoying a pleasant meal. A few minutes from now, who can say?â€
Diego nodded as he took a sip from his own mug, the one with the large Batman Symbol on the side. It was the one he had used constantly when he lived at home and had been surprised to find it still in the cabinet all these years later.
â€œIf you don’t mind me asking Mom, but why are you having both a viewing and a funeral for Dad? We were never that religious so it seemed a bit odd.â€
â€œThe viewing is for the people who worked with your father and his friends, the ones who might not be able to come to a funeral on a Friday morning. This way everyone who wants to can pay their respects to your father.â€
â€œWell, if it’s okay with you I’m going to skip the funeral tomorrow.â€
Liz looked at her brother like he had just spit in her food and insulted her children. â€œWhat are you saying Diego? That going to Dad’s funeral would be too much for you? That you can’t be bothered?â€
Diego glared at Liz, trying to keep himself from saying something hurtful. â€œNo. It’s going to be hard enough for me to say goodbye to Dad tonight. At least you and Mom got some kind of closure with him, a chance to tell him how you feel. I didn’t get that opportunity. And that will eat at me for the rest of my life.
â€œI don’t want to have to feel like that twice. I don’t want to have to sit there and look at him and think about how much I’m going to miss him and never be able to tell him I love him ever again. I can’t do that two days in a row. It might kill me.â€
Diego felt tears beginning to roll down his face and he grabbed a napkin to wipe them away. Liz was opening her mouth to say something when their mother stopped her.
â€œLiz, stop. It’s okay. Darren doesn’t have to go to the funeral if he isn’t up for it. It will be mostly family anyway and Dad would understand. Lord knows he wasn’t a religious man. He would probably think the fact we’re even having a funeral mass said for him was ironic to the extreme.â€
â€œAre you sure it’s okay Mom? If you really want me there, I’ll go.â€
Judy held Diego’s hand firmly and gave it a squeeze. â€œIt’s fine. All I ask is that you come for the lunch we’re having afterward at Bernie’s Restaurant. I know all the family will want to see you.â€
Diego smiled â€œSure thing Mom. Thanks.â€
Liz frowned at Diego while she took the plates and silverware and put them all in the sink. â€œWhatever. I have to take a shower and get the basement ready. Eric and the kids will be here this afternoon.â€
Diego watched as his sister walked off and started to realize just how far they still had to go before things returned to some kind of normal between them.
One of the best parts of the house, other than the backyard, was the huge basement. Their father had it finished while Diego was still a baby and had a bathroom put in, drywall and insulation as well as carpeting.
When it was too cold to have a sleepover outside, Diego and his friends would take over the basement, covering the floor with sleeping bags and playing video games until the sun rose. They would use it to have Star Wars movie marathons or just hang out and talk about comics and gaming.
Once Diego moved into Philadelphia, his father had always intended to turn it into a man cave of his very own. Somewhere he could watch Flyers hockey games and have the occasional beer in peace. That all changed when Liz had the twins in October of 2013. Judy really wanted them to take the space and turn it into a kind of apartment for Liz, Eric and their family. Her thinking was that it might mean her daughter would visit more and Judy could see her beloved grandchildren more than twice a year.
And it had worked like a charm. Once it was remodeled to include a bed and even a small refrigerator, Liz would bring Max and David to visit at least once every couple months. As they got older the twins would stay in the guest room upstairs while Liz would enjoy the solitude and quiet of the basement.
Diego walked down the steps to the basement to find Liz replacing the sheets on the bed. The room hadn’t changed much in the time he was gone. A new lamp, an antique desk against the one wall but overall, still the same. It always amazed him how a basement could be so warm and inviting every time he came down here.
â€œHey sis.â€ he said to Liz’s back as she pulled the fresh sheet tight against the mattress.
â€œHow come you’re staying upstairs instead of down here? I would have thought you would have loved the chance to be down here by yourself.â€
Liz still didn’t turn around as she spoke. â€œI wanted to be closer to Mom. Plus sleeping in my old room felt kind of, I don’t know, comforting.â€
â€œYeah. I can understand that.â€
â€œDid you know growing up Dad used to come into my room every night to say good night to me and kiss my forehead? Didn’t matter how late it was when he got home. Every night without fail I could count on that.â€
â€œI didn’t know that.â€
â€œI do the same thing now with the twins.â€
Liz finally turned around to look at her brother. â€œI’m sorry I snapped at you okay? I’m just really tense and not looking forward to tonight. I get why you don’t want to go to the funeral, really I do.â€
â€œThanks Liz.â€ Diego then outstretched his arms, giving his sister a playful expression.
Liz looked at him. â€œWhat?â€
â€œC’mon. Time for a hug.â€
â€œI’m not hugging you.â€
â€œI’ve got all day. You need a hug.â€
Liz let out a sigh and hung her head in defeat. â€œFine.â€
Diego was surprised by just how long and how tightly his sister held onto him before letting go and heading upstairs.
Eric and the twins arrived at the house a little after one later that afternoon. He had texted when he got off the Pennsylvania Turnpike that he was on his way so both Judy and Liz were waiting for them in the driveway when he pulled up.
Diego watched from the window as his mother squealed in delight as her grandchildren got out of the minivan Eric was driving. Both Max and David ran toward their grandmother, huge smiles on both their faces. Judy Murdock may have been difficult to deal with as a mother sometimes, but she adored being a grandmother and was shockingly good at it.
While Judy showered the twins with attention, Liz walked around to the other side to greet her husband with a kiss and a brief hug. Eric Bowman was a monster of a man, six-and-a-half feet tall, broad chested with a shaved head and arms the size of most people’s thighs. He was a star athlete in college until an injury shredded his knee beyond repair, causing him to walk with a slight limp. Luckily he was in school on an academic scholarship on his way to an architecture degree when it happened, so it didn’t derail his plans in the least.
The fact Eric was African American was the cause of much conversation when he was first introduced to the rest of the family. While Edward was fine with it and didn’t see what all the fuss was about, Judy was less than thrilled. When the subject would come up, she always said that she wasn’t prejudiced but that she worried about what they would have to deal with as a couple. The result was a subtle awkwardness every time Liz and Eric came to visit.
Liz finally had to sit her mother down and explain that yes, they were in love and no, they didn’t care what anyone else thought. She told Judy in no uncertain terms that if she wanted to have Liz in her life, Eric was part of the deal. After that things quickly improved and then once Liz announced she was pregnant with twins, Judy thought he could do no wrong.
As Eric got the bags out of the back of the minivan, Judy brought the boys inside, promising to make them each one of her famous grilled cheese sandwiches. When they saw Diego, they both hid behind their grandmother, not sure what to make of this new presence in the house.
Judy got down on one knee and looked at each of them in turn. â€œNow boys, don’t you remember your Uncle Darren? This is your mother’s little brother. The last time you saw him you were both so little. Say hi.â€
Max, the braver of the two, walked over to Diego and looked up at him. â€œHi.â€
Diego bent over and reached out his hand. â€œHello.â€
Max shook it and then looked over his shoulder at his brother, telling him to come say hi. David slowly walked toward Diego, sticking his hand out and shyly saying â€œHi.â€
Diego shook it as he said â€œHello.â€
The two brothers, seemingly forgetting all about the person standing in front of them, then ran back toward their grandmother, who had taken out her cast iron skillet to get started making a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches.
â€œThat went better than I thought it would.â€
Diego turned to see Liz standing there, arms folded with Eric just behind her, putting the bags down in the hallway.
â€œHoly crap. It’s been forever since I last saw you Diego. How have you been?â€ Eric reached out and shook Diego’s hand, a bit more vigorously than he was prepared for.
â€œI’ve been good. Hanging in there. So I hear you and Liz finally went and got married.â€
Eric smiled. â€œYeah. I would have done a long time ago but Liz wasn’t having it.â€
Liz elbowed her husband in the ribs. â€œLiar.â€
â€œSo how’s your family been?â€
â€œGood, good. Oh, that reminds me.â€ Eric looked over to where Judy was standing at the stove. â€œMy parents said to tell you they really wish they could have been here for the funeral. They send their best and said if you need anything, just call.â€
â€œThank you Eric. Please tell them I appreciate it the next time you talk to them.â€
â€œI will.â€ Eric then turned his attention back to Diego. â€œWe’ll need to catch up later after the funeral and all that. I’d love to hear all about your adventures out there in the world.â€
Eric put his hand on Liz’s shoulder. â€œHon, when is the viewing tonight?â€
â€œSeven o’clock. The people at the funeral home said we should be there about a half hour early to make sure everything is to our satisfaction.â€
â€œCool. I’m bushed after all that driving so I’m going to head downstairs to get a quick nap in, if that’s okay.â€
â€œSounds good. Maybe I’ll join you. Mom, can you watch the boys for an hour or so?â€
â€œOf course. Would you two like to spend some time with your grandmother?â€ Both boys giggled and yelled yes.
Once Eric and Liz had gone downstairs, Diego walked over to the island and sat next to David. The boy looked over at him and held half of his sandwich out, offering it to Diego.
Diego took the sandwich saying â€œThank you.â€ while mussing David’s hair and took a bite. As he chewed he thought to himself Wow. These really are good.