The funeral was huge. It was as if the entire project turned out, as well as anyone and everyone James and Florida had ever been in contact with, in their lives, turned out.
There was one major problem, though: James couldn't pay for it. The Social Security Death Benefit was absolute garbage, and couldn't even cover the funeral home use, much less the other costs. The children were like zombies and Lisa was clingier than ever. Now she'd lost two mothers in her young life.
Wilona was a trouper: She'd singlehandedly taken care of the baby, as well as started looking after Penny Gordon, the sweet but troubled abused little girl now in her care, while dealing with her own grief. While she played down things like her inability to cook, she took care of the Evans family best she could, and it's not as if she had to spend much time at the stove, as casseroles and cakes and all sorts of food, enough for months if stored right, had poured in from the mourners.
Howard Schwartz had been reading the day's paper and was lingering over his coffee and cigarette, when he came upon the obituary of Florida Evans. He choked on his coffee as the words sunk in; it was like a punch in the face. Rarely in his practice did he find people he actually cared about, and the Evans were in that select few. He knew that they had next to nothing, and discreetly contacted the funeral parlor, with the order for "The best of everything."
He also subpoenaed Florida Evans' medical records from the hospital; the obituary said "Died suddenly of complications following surgery." County Hospital was notorious for "complications," as the care was horrible at best, but there were little alternatives for those in the ghetto. Even though James had insurance, there was no time in the emergency to transfer Florida to a better place. County was their only option..and County, as far as Schwartz was concerned, killed her. That emotionally strong and physically sturdy woman didn't deserve to die like that. And he felt a duty to assist the Evans in this tragic time of need.
Schwartz attended Florida's wake and funeral, never letting on that he'd footed the bill. He'd sworn the funeral director to secrecy, much like James and Florida had done with tenants in the building that helped others with rent parties.
"How are you holding up," Schwartz asked James, quietly, shaking his hand and clasping his shoulder.
"I don't know what I'm gonna do, man," James confided. "Never, ever, did I see Florida..passin' away..I just.." And James began to break down, doing his damnedest not to, and sinking into a nearby chair.
"Now isn't the time for me to go into specifics, Mr. Evans, but let me assure you that things will, in time, get better."
"They can't get any worse, man," James said, wiping his eyes with his handkerchief.
"Will you please call me if I can do anything for you, Mr. Evans?" James nodded some.
The funeral director motioned for James to please step out of the viewing room to see him, and James grimly stood and followed him to the office.
"The bill has been taken care of, Mr. Evans, so there is one less worry." James blinked. "How can that be? Social Security only paid a little, and I only had 500 dollars.."
"Mr. Evans, your wife was a beloved woman in this community. Donations weren't solicited, and none gave for reasons other than wishing to. They didn't look upon you as a charity case or anything like that..Please, Mr. Evans, simply accept their love and let them take care of this." He also handed James an envelope with his $500.00 in it. "They covered the cost, as well as a repast."
James looked away, humbly. It was too much and he felt as if his heart would break further. He'd wondered why Florida was in the pretty white lacquered coffin with the white satin pillows, when he could barely afford the plain pine one, but hadn't been able to form the words to ask, out of shame. What man couldn't bury his own wife, he'd chastised himself..and now, she was being given a Queen's sendoff.
He choked out a thank you and returned to his seat. The funeral was beautiful, as far as funerals go, and after James both a red rose (meaning I love you) and a yellow rose (meaning I miss you) onto Florida's lowering coffin, the others followed, dropping their roses. The family had red, and the friends had white. JJ looked haunted, while Michael did his best to control his tears. Thelma weeped openly and Lisa buried her face in Wilona's neck the entire time.
The repast was held at a local restaurant, and was set up buffet-style. None went away hungry, and the bill must have been close to a thousand dollars, but was all paid for.
"Let us not look at this as a time of sorrow," the reverend reiterated at the restaurant, as he blessed the meal, "But as a celebration of the life of Florida Evans." He went on in some detail about the type of woman that she was, beloved and loving, one of God's children, whom God decided to give an early reward. "Let us not let our grief consume us, but know that we carry Florida, and keep her alive, in our hearts." This brought a fresh round of tears, with nary a dry eye in the house. The repast went on for almost two hours, and people began to file out.
The family went back to the Evans apartment, and it was very, very quiet and somber. The occasional caller still came, with more food, and more words of comfort, until finally it was late in the evening and there, they sat alone: Three biological children and one never-anticipated toddler, a widower, a best friend and another unfortunate child.
"Daddy, what are we gonna do without Ma," JJ asked.
"I don't know, Son. I just don't know."
A week or so went by, and JJ, Thelma and Michael returned to school. James had to return to work, as his unfeeling employer told him in no uncertain terms that immediate deaths in the family warranted a five-day absence and no more. James, emotionally, was in no condition to return to work and his boss's words infuriated him, but he couldn't follow his heart and knock the man cold..he needed the job. He couldn't afford to quit, no matter how satisfying it would have been to watch his employer reel backward, spitting a broken tooth or two from a bloody mouth.
It was as if they were walking in a fog, all of them, until the 31st day after her death. James stopped to get the mail from the building's lobby, and blinked; there were checks from the Social Security administration. One for each of Florida's survivors. He brought the mail up and looked at it in shock; he remembered he'd never gotten around to filing for the benefits. He couldn't understand how they'd come in. It dawned on him that there could be trouble if he cashed these..after all, he didn't sign any paperwork. He didn't want to be charged with fraud. It almost happened to Gertie downstairs after she made an honest mistake.
He picked up the phone and called Schwartz; while on hold he mentally added the checks together..it was more than he brought home from his job every month.
"Hello, Mr. Evans," Schwartz said. "I'm glad you called"
"Yes, Mr. Evans..I went ahead and filed the claims with Social Security. I could understand why you and Mrs. Evans didn't want me to do that for Lisa, but this was your entitlement. It takes some pressure off of you"
"Man, it sure do..thank you, Mr. Schwartz"
"That's not all, Mr. Evans...look, I'd rather not discuss this on the phone. Could you come to my office?"
James glanced around the apartment. Lisa was nursing a cold, the ironing basket was overflowing, and the apartment was in a bit of shambles. None had Florida's touch with the place.
"I..well, Lisa's a little sick and I don't want to take her out in the cold, could we make it another day?"
"Well, James, if I might call you that..I've been around plenty a sick baby in my life. My own daughter has the sniffles, as we speak. Could I drop by for a few minutes?"
James looked around again, and sighed, not wanting Mr. Schwartz to see the state of the house, but not wanting to deny the kind man, either. Obviously there was something to discuss.
"Long as you don't mind a mess"
"James, if my wife died unexpectedly, I doubt I'd be able to hold up as well as you. A little mess in an apartment isn't going to faze me, I promise you."
After a moment, they hung up. Schwartz got his coat and briefcase, and hailed a cab. James was moving around the apartment with another laundry basket, cleaning off the couch and chairs, making places to sit. He was swooping dirty dishes off of all of the surfaces and placing them in the sink, and before he knew it, Mr. Schwartz was there.
"C'mon in," he said and offered him something to drink.
"No thanks..I had lunch right before I called you. James, listen. You know as well as I do that Florida's death was untimely"
"Of course it was, and I can't tell you how much it still hurts, man. I don't know how we is goin' on without her."
"James, let me be honest...you look like hell," he said quietly. "You're trying to fill the void she left, and you're a father, not a mother. You're trying to deal with your pain, and your children's pain, and still maintain some normalcy. Things won't be normal for a very long time, and I want to help you."
"What..you goin' to put on an apron?" James smirked, shaking his head. Grief was still very thick and his sense of humor was sorely lacking.
"Not exactly, but I want to let you know that I've filed suit against the hospital..wrongful death..on your family's behalf. It won't bring Florida back, but no jury will side with them. James..I've scoured the hospital records, and their errors are glaring. They've done everything except shout from a rooftop that they killed her accidentally. And I want to make them pay, James. They deserve to be punished for what they did to you, and your family."
James looked up after a long while. "That's blood money, man. I don't know."
"No, James, it isn't. I promise you it isn't. The only way to help make sure they don't do this to someone else's wife and mother is to hit them where it hurts..in the wallet. And don't tell me you wouldn't want to be able to send your children to college, and not have to worry so much."
"Howard," James said, "Why you so willing to go after them, man?" James was wondering just what Howard's motives might be. Howard's been a good man, but he was hesitant to think of him as a 'friend'. They were too different, with little in common.
"James," Howard said, quietly, looking directly at him. "Since the day we met, I have felt somewhat responsible for causing your family trouble. Candy retained me and I thought I was going after someone in her normal crowd. Maybe a drug pusher or a pimp who had money to spare. As I did my homework on you, I saw you were not the man Candy said you were..she painted a horrible portrait of you, and you deserved, rather, you still deserve, better. And your wife...she was the one who cinched my opinion, and why I knew it would be best if your daughter was here, rather than foster care. A pusher or pimp wouldn't have wanted to be bothered, nor would I have considered them fit. And if you think I'm in this for money, you're wrong. I'm waiving my normal percentage. The only thing I'll take from the settlement is the court fees, which are minimal."
"I could make it on the Social Security," James said, but only because he didn't want to burden Schwartz.
"You could, but it would be tight. Please, just say yes and I'll continue with the case. Say no and I'll withdraw it from the court."
"You think this is best?" James asked, acquiescing to counsel.
"If I didn't, I wouldn't have done it"
The suit went ahead, and while it took almost 2 years to settle..the hospital wanted to avoid trial, but didn't want to admit guilt; Schwartz wasn't having it. He negotiated a settlement where the hospital did admit fault, and the grand total, for James and the children was slightly under $750,000.
James, Schwartz and the other side's attorney appeared before the judge, and the proceeding was rather swift. James was asked if he wished to state anything for the record, and holding his hat in his hands, he nodded, said "Yes your honor," and walked to the podium.
"While the hospital and this lawyer of theirs might look at this as another court case, and some money, this was my wife. The mother of my children. I loved this woman. Still do, always will. And they took somethin' away from me that no amount of money will ever bring back. Only reason I let this come to court is so they think twice before bein' so negligent with somebody else's wife and mother."
He turned to the hospital's attorney. "Your people..they ripped a hole in my heart, in my life, that ain't nothin' ever gonna fill. Maybe you can't understand that, but I got to live with it every day. That's all."
As they left the courthouse together, Schwartz told James that it might be best for him to start looking for somewhere else to live.
"I'm not ready, man," James said. He didn't know if he could leave the home he'd shared with Florida for so many years..Michael was just a baby when they'd moved in. That was their 'nest', and for better or worse, they were happy there.
"The problem is, James, once you deposit that check, the Housing Authority will evict you once they see you have assets like that. I'll hold the check for 60 days if you like..after that, it's void and we'd have to go through the process of having their attorney issue another. And they could hold it up, and it could be yet another long process. I want you to have closure, and your family..you'd all be better off leaving the projects. Isn't that what you eventually hoped to do?"
"Nobody wants to be in the projects, man, but we..Florida and I..always dreamed that when we finally got out, we'd do it together."
James looked skyward, shook his head and said, "Baby, it's you alone gettin' us out. I'm sorry you ain't here to see it..you'd be so happy, you'd say, 'oh, honey, we did it!'...and..." He lowered his head, averting his eyes, and entered a waiting cab.
(To be continued..and feedback most certainly welcome. :)