The night before the wake I lay in bed. My girlfriend was already asleep next to me. I was replaying the scenes from that past weekend. I spent that Saturday with my best friend Steven having a great time, and the next I got that phone call from my mom that they were rushing my father to the hospital. I remember breaking down when I saw my dad hooked up to all those machines. I don’t know why I broke down. I was 25 years old at the time, hardly a child. I guess it was the site of seeing him like that that got to me. Seeing him so small in that bed, with this black liquid bile coming out of his mouth. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I remember his eyes. How sad and pained he looked. I wonder if he knew. If he knew he was at his end. And just like that, now he’s gone. So many questions left unanswered.
I must have fallen asleep because the sun came out, my girlfriend woke me up and it was time to get ready. A limo came and took my family, myself and my girlfriend to the funeral home.
I really didn’t have too much experience going to funeral homes. It’s a bit surreal. Family, friends coming in, all saying the same thing. “I’m sorry.” What does one say to that? I am supposed to say thank you? Either that or you get asked if you’re doing ok. I was as ok as I could be.
I remember not really wanting to stand in front of the casket. I let my family go ahead of me. The sounds of my mom, brothers and family crying in the background. I really didn’t know what to do with myself.
I got soon got a phone call from Steve saying that he was nearby and he was coming. I excused myself from everyone and made my way outside. It was nice to see a friend. He actually brought his parents (Actually only until recently was I reminded that his father was actually there as well – I always remembered that it was just his mother). I lead them in, and introduced them to my family. Then I pointed at the casket and said “And there’s my dad”. After Steven and his folks paid their respects I made my way to the casket.
I was alone, staring at this body, this figure in the casket. There was a marker on the side with my dad’s name. “Charles Ruperto”. I recognized the name, but something in my mind refused to recognize the body in it. I closed my eyes and opened them again, and realized that my dad was in the full traditional FDNY formal wear. His hat was laid next to him. “Looking good old man” I thought.
It was then that my girlfriend placed a hand on my arm and told me that someone was looking for me.
I turned around and saw a sea of blue. Some of my dad’s fellow EMT’s from the FDNY were there. They showed up dressed head to toe in the FDNY Formal wear. I think my mom caught wind of who was around as she gave a nod of approval and looked at me.
One of my dad’s partners handed me a large envelope. Inside the envelope was an official notice from the FDNY stating that an active member had passed. In the top center of notice, was a picture of my dad. That’s the guy I remember. Not that figure that was in the casket.
I don’t remember much about the wake. Who spoke, who said what. It was all a blur. The only thing I do remember, was thinking how absurd it was for my mom to take pictures and my brother with a camcorder recording the service.
The next day, there was a small service followed by the burial. Once again, it was a sea of family and family friends saying sorry and asking if we were OK.
What grabbed me was the sea of FDNY blue in attendance. It was there we learned that they were going to give him a proper FDNY funeral and burial.
Before that, it occurred to me that this would be the last time I would see my dad. I wanted to see him one last time before they closed the casket. I stood over him. Looking at him and gave him one last kiss on his for head. I guess my brother had the same idea as he was right behind me. I later found out that he grabbed my dad’s FDNY hat and took it for his own. I guess he wanted something to remind him of my old man. I couldn’t blame him really, but got really upset once I found out he lost it a few years later.
I went back to the hallway to stand with my family as they carried the casket out. The FDNY bag-pipers started to play “Amazing Grace” and the rest of the FDNY members around saluted my father. As the casket was carried by me, I was suddenly hit with a wave of emotion.
I cried and muttered “daddy”. I buried my head into the arms of my aunt and sobbed. I quickly came to and was lead outside the funeral home. More bag-pipers, a few fire trucks and an ambulance were outside. My dad finally managed to stop traffic at Queens Boulevard. My girlfriend, my mom, brothers and sisters without saying a word knew that finally we saw the respect my dad tried so hard to tight for and achieve.
During the ride to the cemetery, I couldn’t help to but to wonder what my father would have thought of all the fuss being made for him. I was finally able to crack a smile when I figured out that my dad would have probably would have joked around and told everyone to stop making a fuss over him and that he wasn’t a big deal.
The burial itself was beautiful. As beautiful as a burial can be. The FDNY bag-pipers played “TAPS” (Even to this day I cannot hear that being played without both hating it, and being reduced to tears”. Once my fathers body was lowed into the grave, I grabbed a handful of dirt, and sprinkled it over his body.
To this day I still miss that voice. Booming as it was. My dad was my superman. From cop, to cab driver, to electrician, to EMT… He wore many capes, he was my superhero. The way he would pick me up with one arm, hold me tight and called me his “little mister”, made me feel like I was so safe in this world.
The cancer destroyed that 350 lb man with the booming voice and personality to much to a withering 185lb. shell of a man who could barely speak a whisper on his last day on earth.
As I left the cemetery I thought how I will never see my father again. Never hear his voice. Never again to hang out with him. All I knew for sure was that my life would never be the same.
Life does manage to go on. I had to life my life. In the subsequent years that passed, I moved out on my own to life with my girlfriend, got engaged and married. Got an office job, brought my first car, and became a home owner. Sadly the years didn’t pass without any tragedy as my mother passed away a few years later.
Yet as the days and years went by, I couldn’t help but to think about how much I miss talking to my dad. How much I needed and yearned to hear his advice about countless things. I also thought about what I would say or do if I could have just one more day.
On February 8th 2014, 10 years after my father’s death, I took it upon myself to walk around the neighborhood once known as ground zero. My mind raced to the images I saw on TV, and the countless stories I was told. But selfishly, my thoughts turned to my dad, who spent two weeks assisting in the rescue mission.
I could only imagine what he saw. He told me stories of how they pulled parts of bodies in the rubble. Told me if the stench and heat. How the rubber soles of boots would melt. It was quite overwhelming. The more I thought of it, the more I thought of him.
I went to nearby Battery Park. Walked along the water’s edge. Couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to have him here again. My legs tired from standing and walking, begged for a break. Found an empty park bench and sat. I took in the scenery around me. The water over looking Jersey. The statue of liberty in the distance. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind blow past me, the kids running, yelling, playing. I took a deep breath in…
I opened my eyes again, and got back up, determined to continue my walk. It was getting dark and colder by the minute, but as my father’s son, it didn’t affect me. My dad always walked around with his jacket opened in the cold. I did the same. I started my walk back. My legs started thinking for me and passed by ground zero yet again. Wasn’t really sure why, but I stood yet again in front of what is now known as the reflection pools. I bowed my head and said a silent prayer.
“It really was a horrible day.” The voice was coming from behind me.
“I could only imagine.” I said, not turning around.
“I never thought the towers would fall.”
I gave a sarcastic chuckle. “Funny, neither did my dad”.
With my back still towards this man I started reading all the names etched in the marble.
“I’m sorry I was wrong.”
I heard footsteps that signified he was walking away from me.
I wonder why he apologized for I turned around and saw a gentleman with salt and pepper hair, wearing what looked to be the Formal FDNY uniform I was ever too familiar with. I took a few steps towards the figure and asked, “Where you there?”
“I helped during the rescue efforts. The sounds, smells, the cries.”
“I can imagine that sort of thing would haunt anyone.”
The only man stopped walking. He put his head down, “Yes it does, my boy.”
Thinking him only to be polite and possible overcome with emotion I bid him a good night. I turned in the opposite direction and started walking.
“I am sorry little mister.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. My spine stiff as a board, the breathe out of my lungs; I felt nothing but a sharp chill that the cold air wouldn’t have caused. I tried to swallow hard…
“What did you just say?”
“I said, I’m sorry little mister.”
With my back toward him, choking back tears, “My father used to call me that.”
It took every ounce of strength to tell my body to spin around. It felt like forever but I finally managed it. What stood before me was the shape of a man out of focus. As I stepped closer, my eyes looked directly at the name tag on his chest. I stopped when the name came to focus.
“RUPERTO” it read.
“How’s my little mister?”