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“When Tanner was born, my wife and I were overjoyed,” Judge Blakely said. “We held high hopes for this bright and cheerful baby. But as he grew, it took him forever to learn to crawl, to talk, to walk. It became apparent he was developmentally delayed. At school Tanner struggled with reading and mathematics. He lacked coordination and was a total failure at sports. The other boys didn't play with him and he let the girls tease him.”
Several people muttered to their neighbours and shook their heads.
“In short,” said Judge Blakely, “Tanner proved to be a great disappointment to his mother and me.”
I glanced over at Mother Blakely in the front row and she was nodding in agreement.
“In high school, Tanner failed to succeed in anything. He joined no clubs and avoided social functions. When he graduated with low grades, we thought a trade might smarten him up. I don't mean trading him to another family” — here Judge Blakely paused for laughter, which came in waves as the joke sank in — “I got him a job in the tannery, but he showed little initiative. His work was careless and substandard. His constant low spirits made him unattractive to girls and there was never any hope he'd provide us with grandchildren. In short, Tanner failed at everything he tried and never gave his mother and me anything to be proud of. He was a great disappointment.”
Judge Blakely removed and pocketed his glasses, folded his notes and strode back to his seat. His wife looked at him and smiled. I imagined her patting his hand.
“The poor parents,” my mother whispered to me.
The next speaker was Digger Buford, who I also remembered from school. He had been bigger than most of us, the inevitable school bully. He had grown overweight and out of shape since graduation.
“I recall Tanner Blakely,” Digger told the congregation, “as a spineless coward and whiner. Never would stand up for himself, not once. He let me pound on him, stick his head in the toilet, and give him a swirly whenever I felt like it.”
“The kid was a worm and a pea-brain and when he grew up, he was just the same.”
Buford left the lectern amid generous applause.
The third speaker surprised me: Teachy Siegfried.
The mousy young woman walked to the front of the chapel with her head down as if trying not to be seen. She wore a high-buttoned sweater over an unshapely dress. When she faced the crowd, I realized she was not unattractive.
“I first met Tanner in the town library one evening. We both had an interest in medieval history. We discussed the Plantagenets in great length and I found him easy to talk to. We began meeting regularly. Sometimes we would go out for coffee. He was a good listener. I grew fond of Tanner and hoped he felt the same way. I decided that if I made myself less available he would pursue me. I told him I had too much schoolwork to do and couldn't meet him. Tanner took this as a rejection. He never called me again. I had such hopes. He dashed them all to pieces.”
Teachy took out a tissue, wiped her nose, and dabbed at her eyes. “Thank you,” she said.
The assembly clapped respectfully.
“The poor girl — to be let down like that,” Mother said. “Such a shame.”
The organ trod out an introduction and the choir launched into their version of Now is the Time to Leave Us.
The gathering chattered and fussed in anticipation for the moment they'd all come for.
As the music ended, Mortician Jacobsen stepped to the microphone once again. “And now ladies and gentlemen, I call on Doctor Ender Merriman to enact the passing.”
Enthusiastic cheering erupted as the eminent doctor, dressed completely in white, strode in from the wings. The whiteness of his thick, wavy hair suited his role perfectly. He walked with exuberant humbleness, bobbing his head and holding his arms out, palms upward. When the adulation had gone on long enough, he quieted the crowd with a gesture.
“Friends,” he said in his rich voice, “we have heard of the useless attempts this boy, this man, Tanner Blakely, has made to be a successful human being, a suitable member of this community. I am deeply honoured to be called upon to perform the Dignified Release. So without further delay, I call Tanner Blakely to come forward.”