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In life, Cliff was the generous ringleader of the regulars at a hole in the wall called
The Expansion. Was it possible to honor him in death while the casket was open?
 
A friend of mine died last week. His heart simply stopped and he was dead before he hit the floor.

Cliff was not a young man -- he was 62 years old and had spent many years drinking too much hard booze and smoking too many Marlboros. Still, he was a lovely, caring human being -- softspoken and always smiling pleasantly. He owned his own bar in San Francisco called The Expansion -- a dark, old bar filled with old, eccentric alcoholics who have been going there for 35 years.

I literally stumbled across it 10 years ago, pulled up a stool, and didn't leave for couple of years. It was a safe place where everyone talked to everyone, or yelled at everyone -- a place where people acted themselves. No hip, black clothes. No blank stares. No contrived sneers. No bands. No Haight Ashbury pretensions. These people didn't judge me or rate me like those my own age did. And so I left people my own age for them. For a bunch of old, cantankerous, sweet, funny, serious, smart and stupid drunks who accepted me, cared about me and genuinely liked me under any circumstances.

A few years ago, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine noticed this almost invisible hole-in-the-wall and wrote it up in an article about the best bars to go to as "Home of the true alcoholic." Cliff was so proud of that. It hangs framed on the wall unashamed and admired.

What wasn't in that article was the generosity of spirit that lit up that dark little hovel. Cliff helped anyone who needed help. There was this one old lady named Marilyn who once attacked the juke box with her walker because she didn't like the song that was playing. A frightening, frail, little woman with a vicious, truth-piercing tongue of a caliber I had never before witnessed. I fell victim to it once when I tried to sit next to her and chat. Stupid me. Then one day I whispered a filthy joke in her ear. She loved it and was kind to me thereafter, even inviting me to sit next to her when she was in the mood. One day she fell in her home. It was Cliff who took notice of the fact that she had not been into the bar in a few days and became concerned. He went to her home where he found her unconscious. He rushed her to the hospital. When she was ready to be released, the hospital asked him and his wife, Betty, if her family could come get her. She had no family, she said. Cliff and Betty took her home. Six years later, she stills lives in their home.

Twelve years ago, as a girl of 21 carrying around a giant sack of issues that I really had no business having, I sat in his bar for hours complaining that I couldn't find a job -- as I sipped on my sixth scotch and water. I found $20 in my jacket pocket when I got home. He was worried for me. The next day, my effusive splutterings of gratitude made him visibly embarrassed, but I knew that it genuinely made him happy to help me.

Two years later, my aunt died and left my family a little cottage on Cape Cod. Drifting around San Francisco with my only occupation being extremely popular as the youngest drunk at The Expansion, my parents suggested I move away to the Cape.

And so I did.

A year later, in the middle of winter, having lost my job and living in the cold loneliness of a small town of people who thought I was very weird, I called up the bar one night, crying drunkenly and shouting with happiness to talk to all these old -- and I really mean old -- friends of mine. One week later, I received an airplane ticket from Cliff. He had taken a collection -- and then used the rest of his own money -- to fly me back to San Francisco, telling me that I should come back and return to college.

OK, I said. I promise.

I came back. And I broke my promise.

I never paid him back the money and I did not return to college.

I stopped going to the bar, which was good, but I never said anything. I simply disappeared and started taking golf lessons and drinking fruit smoothies. How could I tell them that?

Two years later, a friend of mine called and told me that Cliff had died that morning. The wake was scheduled for the following day from morning until 8 at night.

I'm not that old -- 33. Old enough to have known a few dead people, but not so close as to have been formally invited to the funeral (I don't attend funerals unless I've been formally invited. That's my rule.). Not that any specific age defines when one is to become intimately familiar with death. People my age lose family and friends every day. But I have been one of the fortunate, boring, middle-of-the-road 33-year-olds who so far have only suffered from the fear of that inevitability.

And here it was. I was formally invited.

As the hours passed at work I became more and more stressful. So reluctant was I to go see Cliff-as-dead-body that every time I sniffled, I hoped I was sick -- too sick to go. But it always turned out to be just a need to sniffle a little at that moment. And then, of course, I felt guilty wishing I was unhealthy because, after all, if I should have learned anything from Cliff's death it's that your health is all you really have.

I really needed to talk about it. I told my boss.

Boss, I said, my friend died and after work I have to go look at his dead body and I'm scared.

My boss, Kay, was very sympathetic about it as she had been through it herself before.

Why do they have to do it this way? I asked. Why can't they just do this without the body being there?

Leslie, she said, I think people do that because it's your chance to really say goodbye. And you won't be scared when you see his body. You'll realize he's not even in it.

What if I have to kiss him? I wondered aloud in terror.

Kay laughed. Sorry, she said, I know it's not funny. This is your friend.

But I had laughed too at that moment. In spite of my deep sadness at the loss of this dear friend, and in spite of the reality of these fears. Perhaps that is why I laughed. It was all so very uncomfortable. But it wasn't a lack of reverence that the images in my head were so ridiculously comical. Images of Cliff's painted mouth smiling like the Joker only for me to see. Images of Cliff winking at me and I freak out in the church, screaming and pointing and ruining the wake for his suffering family. It was real fear for a real thing mixed with the real childhood fears you have about impossible things -- like your doll coming to life, or a monster grabbing at your toes as you crawl into bed.

I continued my barrage of insecurities to my boss as if she were my mother and I was five.

But isn't kissing them on the forehead what they do at these things? What do I know? We would never put our dead bodies on display in my family. I would feel really weird being dead and everyone looking at me.

You wouldn't notice, Leslie -- you would be dead, Kay said.

Yeah, well....I still wouldn't want it.

But this was Cliff's moment, not mine, and I wanted to do the right thing in the right way.

   
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