It was an early winter afternoon when I lay in my recliner, reading the newspaper, back in the days when they were at least half worth buying, when I reached the second last page. The world weather had long interested me, to see the minimum and maximum temperatures of cities around the world, as well as rainfall. On this day, however, I happened to see the funeral notices and wouldn't have given them a second glance had a surname with a familiar set of initials not caught my attention.
I ran an eye down the relevant column until I found the notice I was looking for. "O'Neill, Barry Edwin," could it be? "Dearly loved partner of Leslie Chang. Dearly loved and loving Father and Father-In-Law of Melissa and Thomas Woodruff, Robert and Sarah-Ann, Louise and Daniel and fondly loved friend of Margaret." I knew he had four kids, and his faith was strong, so I was surprised to think he had separated, or even divorced. "Relatives and friends are respectfully invited to attend Barry's funeral, to be held," now, here was the shocker, at a funeral parlour, not in a church. Something must have happened.
Mr O'Neill had been a high school teacher of mine, and while some may say he was a hard man, he rewarded effort and I had gotten along quite well with him.
As he had been such a good man, I decided that the least I could do would be attend his funeral, and on the day, I was not surprised to find the parlour packed and among mourners were several of my contemporaries from high school. I took a seat at the rear of the parlour, something I did anywhere I went, as I could escape more easily if I wanted to and because I didn't want anybody beside me. On the chair, I noticed a leaflet with a picture of him, looking somewhat different to how I remembered him, his hair greyer and he was somewhat gaunt. He had been 73 years old when he died.
To my surprise, as I looked at the darkly varnished coffin on the stage, a tall man dressed in a black suit, a pressed white shirt and a black tie stood before us. He introduced himself, and stated that he was the funeral director. This is unusual, I thought, Mr O'Neill had been a man of faith, and here he was having his funeral conducted by a secular director.
"Family and friends, we have come today to celebrate the life of Barry O'Neill, a father, a partner and a teacher to many of his former students." To my further surprise, there were no hymns that had been requested, nor were there any in the brochure. "Who passed away, following a long illness, surrounded by his family."
The director called upon Melissa, who delivered the first eulogy, saying how her father had been a loving, caring man and had been there for her through difficulties she'd faced in her life, and how, in the end, she had been the one to support him as he'd had to grapple with revealing an important truth about himself. She said that although her parents were now divorced, they had remained very much a family, and had been supportive of each other.
His partner was too upset to speak but the director read out the eulogy of how they had met at a seminar and how they had developed a friendship, that Mr O'Neill had kept secret until he felt the time was right. Lesley, however, was unmarried. The director spoke of how their friendship had turned to something more.
As the service came to its conclusion and the curtains were drawn taking Mr O'Neill's coffin away, two middle aged Asian people made their way to the back of the room. I remained seated in my place, as I usually did, allowing those from the seats ahead of me to leave first. The Asian lady, with her hair dyed black, to cover the grey, her eyes shielded by plastic rimmed spectacles, extended a white gloved hand to some of the mourners, as beside her stood an Asian man, who I guessed was related to her. His light tan coloured face was streaked with white tears and I guessed that Mr O'Neill must have meant a great deal to her.
As I stepped up to shake her hand, I assumed that she was his partner, and said, "I remember Mr O'Neill fondly from my schooldays. He was a teacher who defended and believed in me, and was one of the best."
"Thank you," she whispered in a barely audible voice.
"I'm guessing that you were his partner, then, Ms Chang."
"No, no," she said, "please allow me to introduce Leslie."
The man standing beside her shook my hand. "I am Leslie. Pleased to meet one of Barry's former students."
My heart almost skipped a beat as I thought of the double life Mr O'Neill had led.