Portrait of a Boy


It was a beautiful funeral.

I was stunned by the sheer number of mourners who turned up. They were all very discreet and sympathetic. So many people, taking time out of their busy routines to show how much he was appreciated. They came from far and wide to pay their respects. They gathered in sullen silence, assembling eyes down in a decorous wordlessness to accompany him on his last journey. It was a heartwarming sight. It was also a day of strange paradoxes. On the one hand, an occasion of unimaginable sadness, and on the other, one of wonder and kindness. There were many sights that served to make that day one of memorable extremes. The sight of the blue, blue sky, which looked as beautiful as I had ever seen it, with glorious sunshine as though the weather had decided to remain on its best behavior in tribute to him. There was the sight of the gleaming cortege, the sparkling black motor cars that were polished to a deep showroom shine, which stood waiting in patient and somber symmetry, their engines humming with a quiet buzz and the merest puff of their exhaust. There was also the sight of the flowers. Flowers of all colors and descriptions and the most ornate and decorative wreaths you could think of, the increasingly elaborate and innovative designs contrived to convey the sense of sorrow invoked by his loss.

But perhaps the sight which affected me most of all was that of his little friends. There were boys and girls from his school, dressed in smart suits, showing their solidarity by turning up to pay their respects on this unwelcome and untimely event. There were boys and girls from all the myriad aspects of his life. There were boys from the school soccer team, the teammates who had often hugged him with glee for his goal scoring, and frequently lifted him aloft in victory. There were the twin brothers from the house behind us, who were in the habit of slipping through the gap in the hedge into our yard and spent long afternoons shooting basketball hoops with him on the back porch. All his fellow scouts were there too. The entire troop had turned up, with the scoutmaster in full scout regalia, sashes and badges, caps, and neckerchiefs, identifying themselves as his fellow warriors, like old soldiers who had fought with him, who had survived so many boyhood adventures together. His classmates from the karate club were there also, accompanied by Master Vinh, their karate teacher, who had patiently and painstakingly imparted to him the self-discipline that was implicit in all martial arts. It was one thing seeing those kids there. It was another seeing how they cried for him. The sight of those little kids shedding real tears, almost overcome with grief, was heartbreaking and frightening at the same time, for I never imagined, in all the time I knew his friends and schoolmates, that he was so popular, and that so many kids had such deep affection for him.

There was also the sight of the ordinary citizens of the town, the neighbors and other townsfolk who had been aware of his illness, and who had become familiar with his plight. They stood at their porches or by their garden gates as the cortege passed by, and hung their heads in respect. And most memorable of all, were the fire department. They had turned up in full dress uniform and stood by their gleaming crash tender, removing their badged caps as a mark of respect as they watched the cortege pass by. On that short journey, there must have been hundreds of people who had turned out to pay their respects, lining the very route that he used to travel to school. Lastly, the children at the school gates, with their teachers, all the people who had been involved in the campaign to raise the money for his treatment - effusing with kindness and generosity. They were all there. The sheer number of people who knew this little boy, and knew what happened to him, was staggering. I could never have envisaged that he was so well-loved and popular. Funny how in death we see so much that we are unaware of in life.

The other thing that really affected me was the child-sized casket. When you see a casket especially made for such a little person, it is like an inherent contradiction in terms. Children are not supposed to die. There is something very wrong about that.

His name was Joey. Contrary to most people's belief, it wasn't short for Joseph. It was simply Joey. It was an appropriate name, I thought, because it reflected his sunny disposition. It was a beautiful name that conjured up smiles and laughter - almost a contraction of the French joie de vivre - evoking images of happiness and memories of idyll and peacefulness which banished the overtones of his miserable former life.

I had rescued him from a life of certain poverty and deprivation. That was probably my greatest achievement. I still remember how beautiful Joey was the first time I set eyes on him in the children's home. He was a solitary, grubby, neglected little boy, and yet pretty beyond belief. So lithe, so perfectly formed. I knew straight away that he was going to be mine. I don't know why. I just knew instinctively. He was going to be mine and I was going to be the best father he could ever have. I was going to save him from this bleak, stolid, soulless environment, and replace it with one of love and stimulation. He was going to have a life of fun and laughter. I was going to nurture him and love him. And he was going to be the beautiful, fun-loving little boy that I never had. I would give him everything. I would protect him and comfort him and do all in my power to give him the best life possible. His future was secure, and he would never want for anything ever again. It was all going to be perfect. And for a while, it was just that. We had several good years together, blissful perfect years that couldn't have been happier. Despite the hardships of his early life, he was a happy boy. An easygoing, well-adjusted boy, always laughing and smiling, thus reflecting the aptness of his name. He was a healthy, thriving boy, with boundless energy and the propensity to get into mischief. He did all the things that boys normally do: football, karate, scouts, piano lessons, museum trips, weekends at the beach, meals out, birthday parties, sleepovers. He would pester me for all the things he wanted; the latest gadgets and fads; the fashion quirks, the clothes; hours spent texting friends on the phone; evenings when he couldn't sleep; the sports injuries I nurtured, the headaches and childhood illnesses I nursed; the tantrums I braved and the nagging I tolerated. That was my life. It was a good life. The life of a father doing what he should. All was well until the specter of tragedy reared its ugly head. It all happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly. The thought of losing him was almost too awful to contemplate. I never dreamed then that one day he would be gone from me.

I had endured the unenviable challenge of accepting the unacceptable. The worst thing in the world had happened. Joey was gone and I was left to face life without him. The scarring of that bottomless grief was so profound, and the hurt was so painful, that I decided once it was all over, I would bury the memory of him so deep inside of me that I would never talk of him again. It was not for anybody else. It was personal to me. A part of my life that I would keep alive, but never share. His memory was a valuable gem, to be safeguarded and never put on display. I would keep it within me, incubating the memory of him, never to be spoken of aloud. And that was how it remained.

Until I met Ben.