The Personal Confessor
Graham Baldwin settles into the metal chair across from me outside the local coffee shop. We’ve discussed the process over the phone and ironed out many of the details, but meeting in person seals the deal and is our final method of contact. It’s where I’m provided with letters and compensation for my services. He looks nervous as he sits down, with his eyes darting back and forth between mine and the paper cup of black coffee on the table.
We’re outside, despite the crisp fall air that lingers around us. It isn’t ideal, but it is a suitable middle ground for a public meeting. Safe for myself and those who hire me. Witnesses are around, if necessary, but eavesdroppers remain limited.
He reaches into the inside of his coat, then extends his arms to pass me the thick envelope. His sleeve slips back with his reach, and I can see the fragility of his body. I know Graham is terminally ill and desperate to get his estate in order for when the inevitable strikes. It’s exactly what I will serve out for him by sharing his final words and lasting wishes on his behalf.
- - -
Mr. Baldwin was always a meticulous man. His attention to detail was what made him so successful in his business endeavors. He started his aviation company from the ground up, nearly investing every bit of money he had to create it. His tenacity was a skill he also worked hard to pass down to his children, yet he was only mildly successful. With two sons, and two daughters, the perseverance split itself up. His oldest son, Asher, took on his entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. A fond memory of his was in the early days of the business when he sat on the floor and combed through documents at the end of the year to report all of his income. Asher sat next to him, held the calculator, and typed in the numbers as his dad read them out.
Of course, Asher only played accountant and Graham followed behind to double-check the numbers. But it gave him a great sense of pride to see his son so interested in the operations of the business. It was tenfold when he took Asher to the hangars, only to find him roaming around and asking when it was his turn to help assemble a landing gear. It gave Graham hope that it truly could blossom into a family business in the future.
Sabrina was born three years after Asher and was his polar opposite. Graham couldn’t help but spoil her, especially as his wealth grew from the company. He felt it was his duty to make sure his family wasn’t only set up for success but had the opportunity to indulge. She preferred to cling to her mother, and Graham understood that she would always be a momma’s girl. However, that didn’t stop him from bringing her along to the hangars with him and Asher, despite her protest.
Next came the twins, not long after Sabrina. Graham and his wife Lyra were thrilled to add to the family and twins were quite the surprise. With Lyra being adopted, she had no idea there was a genetic possibility for twins on her side. But, due to complications, Jessica and James were born nine weeks prematurely. The stress of it all struck the foundation of the family. Graham scrambled with the two older kids while trying to tend to his wife and the newborns who were still in the hospital for weeks. Neither of them had much extended family to lean on. At least for anything other than a home-cooked meal or a load of laundry, so the kids had clothes for school. He always looked back on that time as the test of all tests – for himself, his marriage, and his family.
Jessica, James, and their mother recovered well and gained their strength quickly. Lyra and Graham brought the babies home on a chilly morning in February. Leap Day, 1996 – a day they’d never forget not only because of its significance but also because the NICU dressed the babies in frog-themed onesies. Lyra always called Graham a pack rat, but he couldn’t help but savor the tiny baby clothes and keep them in a box of keepsakes for the years to come. It was only when the divorce was finalized that he recovered them.
Lyra filed for divorce when the twins were ten. Graham wished he could’ve said he was surprised, but deep down, he knew it was inevitable. Their marriage was hard despite the picturesque exterior they portrayed. The beautiful Victorian-style home, luxury vehicles, and lavish vacations served as a façade. On the outside, they had it all. But on the inside, it lacked all of the healthy ingredients for a lasting relationship. Graham and Lyra started to live separate lives from one another as a result of the arguments and mistrust. He preferred to stay together for the kids, but Lyra had other plans.
Asher took it the hardest, as older children of the family often do. Graham did his best to ensure he didn’t take on any extra burdens simply because he was the oldest. However, the divorce did bring Asher and his youngest sister, Jessica, closer. In turn, Sabrina and James also became closer. It was interesting for Graham to see the kids’ relationships change due to the family dynamic shifts.
Graham quickly realized that when Lyra had the kids, she often badmouthed him to them. It fostered a deep resentment towards their father in some of the children. Sabrina and James began to pull away from him and preferred to stay with their mother more often. Occasionally, Jessica would follow, as she was the people-pleasure of the bunch.
“I don’t want anyone’s feelings hurt,” She’d say, as she tried to decide whether or not to go to her mother’s house with her siblings. Sometimes it felt that giving the children a choice in their visitation schedule was a bad decision and more stressful than it was supportive. Yet, Lyra still found a way to make it work in her favor.
As the kids grew older, all their relationships fluctuated. The twins had phases where they hardly spoke or clung to one another. There seemed to be no in-between, and Graham always theorized it had to be biological factors at play– they must’ve felt a deep sense of comfort within each other. Something one can only experience through sharing identical genes. Asher prepped for college despite the fact all he wanted to do with his life was help run the family business.
“It’s in my blood, dad.” He’d tell Graham as he nonchalantly thumbed through the pamphlets renowned universities sent to their home, encouraging him to apply.
“I just don’t want you missin’ out on anything better,” Graham would pat his son on the shoulder. He dreamt of the day that Asher could take over the business and make it even bigger and better. Yet it was only a reality he wanted if Asher did.
James hardly visited, and Sabrina stopped coming back home entirely in her teen years. She clung to her mother’s home, and what was left of her relationship with her dad or older brother fizzled away. One Christmas, when she did make an appearance, Graham overheard her telling her boyfriend they only visited to get the cash from the Christmas card. It broke his heart, but he swallowed his pain and pretended he had never heard it. He didn’t want to be such a pushover, but retaliating would only sever any potential of a relationship. Yet, his underlying disdain for Lyra for turning his kids against him would never fade.
Unlike the divorce, the diagnosis did serve as a surprise to Graham. He was devastated and fell into a brief period of denial. Sure, he was no spring chicken, but he’d naively assumed that a terminal diagnosis wasn’t in the cards for him so soon. The only silver lining that came to light was the potential of the tragedy bringing his family closer together. He wondered if the diagnosis would draw Sabrina and James back into his life, even if it was just out of pity. He still craved love from his children. He could be okay with pity.
Getting all the kids in one room seemed to be the hardest part. James and Sabrina narrowly refused, insisting that there was no need. Graham lost his temper at them and nearly spouted out his diagnosis over the phone. Once they finally agreed, he had a glimmer of hope that his children could gather together one day. Perhaps after his passing when things were less complicated.
He paced the living room nervously while all four of his children watched. Asher and Jessica with concern, and Sabrina and James with apathy. Graham slid his hand down the fireplace mantle, desperate to distract himself. He brushed away the collected dust on the surface where the family’s Christmas stocking once hung each year. Now the mantle remained empty, as Asher had moved out on his own and Jessica was a senior in college. A single stocking was too sad to look at.
“It’s pancreatic cancer. Stage three.” The words came out emotionless. “Terminal.”
There was a heavy silence that filled the room. So palpable that Graham felt like he might choke on his next inhale.
He looked past his children at the wall in the distance behind them. Looking them in the eye was too painful. But judging by Asher’s body language in his peripheral vision, the young man was on the verge of crumbling.
“You can ask me anything, kids.” He told them.
He wanted to comfort them, and he wanted to feel their comfort too. He desperately needed to know they would care for him in his dwindling days as his humility and autonomy slipped out of his grip. He needed to know his own flesh and blood could tend to him, despite the utter inconvenience he would soon become in their lives.
Asher broke. A messy, guttural sob fell out of him. Jessica followed, almost as if her brother’s loss of control granted the permission of her own.
Graham’s eyes flickered between them and the other two children. They looked awkward and uncomfortable. But he didn’t judge them in their lack of emotion, as he’d always been a firm believer that grief strikes people differently. They were like their mother in that way, and the other two were like him. More sensitive. Feelers, as he liked to say.
Graham’s health declined rapidly. He’d thought six months was a ticking clock, but by the end of month two, he knew four more were out of the question. He was like an old toy with its batteries running down, seemingly by the hour. But Asher moved back home and cared for him, taking on the mother hen role, which made Graham chuckle even with his spreading pain. Jessica was there, too. Mainly on the weekends after making the commute back home from university. Graham would slip her money to cover the costs. But as his memory faded, he would give her too much at a time, and Jessica would slip it back into his wallet secretly.
Sabrina and James came over sparingly, usually only to sit at the foot of the bed and change the channels on the TV. But Graham was grateful they were there at all. They didn’t talk about his health or anything for that matter. It was superficial. Asher once lost his temper with them when he noticed his dad paying them the way he paid Jessica to make up for her commute. It wasn’t Graham’s fading cognition but Sabrina and James’ opportunistic ways on full display.
Graham cried when he heard his children fighting over his mistake. He demeaned himself for getting confused and couldn’t understand why the money mattered so much. It was paper in his wallet that meant nothing to him anymore. All he cared about was his children. He fell to his knees, sobbing to them that he didn’t want to deal with the finances anymore. Asher worried this day would come and went against his better judgment when it came to handling it. He had left it all alone, fearing that stepping in too soon may make his father feel even more helpless and childlike. But something needed to be done to take the stress off him. And to keep his siblings from weaseling in.
Graham had Asher help him put together all of the documentation and made an appointment with a probate attorney. It helped he was in good graces with the same bank over the years, so he would be in good hands. But as he left home to get everything squared away, he saw Lyra parked in his driveway. She still had that scowl on her face. He hadn’t seen her in over a decade, but her frown lines were more apparent than ever.
She stepped out and attempted to greet him warmly. But Graham could see right through it all.
“The kids told me there are issues with the finances. I think you need someone experienced to handle all of this.”
Graham clenched his teeth so hard that it made his jaw ache.
“I have a professional, Lyra.”
His body was weak, and time was limited. But it was the only way to get everything handled exactly how he wanted.
“Don’t forget I was your wife for all those years. The hard years, Graham.” Lyra said, trying to swindle her way into his assets by playing on the past.
It was all Graham could get out through his exhaustion. His energy during those days were a precious resource he tried to preserve.
He moved by Lyra, avoiding eye contact, and slipped into his pickup truck to head to the bank. There was an itching paranoia that she may follow him there, but he brushed away the fear and settled into his appointment with his trusted accountant and probate officer of the bank. It wasn’t easy, but he sprawled out his documents and laid everything out on the table. Literally and figuratively. He knew exactly what was going to his children, extended family and friends. Just as much as he knew who would be receiving nothing.
- - -
I sat in the safety of my vehicle, dressed in my usual funeral attire. A black dress shirt and blue jeans – enough to blend in slightly, but not enough for anyone to lose track of me either. The pattering raindrops fall from the dark sky and race down my windshield. It’s funny how much weather can dictate the mood of a funeral. Having been to so many and observing the interactions, I see the nuance. Funerals on sunny spring mornings garner more upbeat people, usually. More family members take the podium to speak on behalf of the deceased. Of course, they have tears welling in their eyes still, but I always seem to hear a hint of optimism. There’s more of an emphasis on things like better places and the person smiling down on them all.
But days like today that are dreary and dark bring out exactly that in the attendees. For Mr. Baldwin? I expect to be able the cut the tension with a knife once I’m inside. He gave me the details of his family right away, almost in the format of a warning. Like he thought I might be appalled by the roots of greed that wound tightly through his bloodline? Ha! Little did he know I’d seen it all before, even as far as looking a widow in the eye and calling her out on the theft of her grandchildren’s college funds. That was a degree of greed I’d still yet to fathom.
Anyone outside my line of work was purely naïve to secrets hidden behind closed doors. It’s the hush-hush behaviors that families keep tucked behind their double doored entry ways and white picket fences. Greed, lies, deceit, infidelity… I’d even attended a funeral in which false paternity was proven through the letter I read. It’s far easier to play the role of one big happy family than to confront the cracks in the foundation of it all. Yet death doesn’t seem to mind exposing those cracks all the way down to the bone. No matter how messy and unrelenting it may be.
Taking a deep breath, I step out of the car and avoid as many puddles as I can as I approach the church where the service is being held. I take a seat in one of the lines of pews and begin scanning the room. It’s like a game piecing together the names and faces. I watch the distant relatives and friends and scan for the side-eye glare that shows who is resentful or envious of one another. The phony tones of voices that pass along condolences. Even the cheesy smiles that fade as soon as backs are turned. I don’t need a bullet-pointed list to tell me who the problem is. I can see it firsthand so long as I have a little bit of patience.
As I scan the room, I know who Asher is right away. He’s the young man surrounded by three other young adults. But he’s the most distraught. I see it in his posture and can hear the raspiness of his voice. He’s taking his father’s death the hardest. Next to him, is Sabrina. She doesn’t look happy to be here by any means, but she is not grief-stricken like her older brother. She looks inconvenienced as she twirls the locks of her long blond hair around her manicured finger. How someone looks while standing in a long line at the grocery store.
Behind them are the twins. They have Mr. Baldwin’s hook nose and resemble each other perfectly. Even in their stances, with their arms crossed and their left foot placed on top of the other. They are more frantic while they speak to their mother, and she appears to be reassuring them of something. Lyra is overdressed, with a fur scarf around her neck and a hefty diamond ring on her finger. I can’t help but wonder how much she thinks she’s entitled to from Graham. I can smell the grandiosity emitting from her and can guess she expects millions of dollars. After all, she’s likely much more aware of his level of wealth than her younger children.
I can see the cherry wood casket at the front of the room, but I don’t plan on going to view Mr. Baldwin. Instead, I pay my respects by doing what he’s hired me to do and following every one of his wishes down to the final detail. My actions will make enough of a mark. They are what will aid in his eternal rest.
I take notice Sabrina, Lyra, and the twins move to the pews behind me. They’re incessantly whispering, and then Sabrina casually says, “My inheritance will last me the rest of my life. It’s the only reason I still spoke to dad at all.”
Lyra laughs. James agrees, suggesting what his first few purchases will be, and carries on about how his father was a fool. His twin sister, Jessica, stays quiet. I can’t help but wonder if the greed in her family also repulses her. She’s supposed to be close with Tommy, yet it’s conflicting that she isn’t interacting with him much.
My blood pressure rises.
James chimes in again. “I won’t have to act like Asher anymore to get a quick buck out of him. Thank God.”
Lyra’s laugh is wicked and makes me wince. “That’s right, Tommy was an ass-kisser from the time he was a little boy. But he’ll never admit it.”
How could she say such a thing about her eldest son?
Graham knew two of his children sided with his ex-wife. He explained that he understood and never sought to make his children choose a parent. He even referred to it as cruel to do such a thing. Despite the wreckage of the divorce, he purposefully spoke highly of Lyra to his children to not taint their view of her. However, he knew she practically ran a professional smear campaign behind his back.
I continue listening to the oblivious family members behind me. A smile curls along my lips as I picture their faces every step of the way when I speak. They’ll first be confused about who I am and why I’m speaking. Hopefully they’ll realize I was in front of them as they boasted about the death of Graham. About a foot away from me, I notice an older woman glace at the row behind us a few times. The look on her face says it all. She’s feeling the same way I am, hearing the type of discourse that is going on. I have a deep feeling in my gut that we aren’t the only ones, and many people know of these tendencies without having to hear them in this moment.
Asher is in the front row, with his elbows on his knees. Clearly, the poor man is hanging on by a thread, and it’s very telling that he is in the front row all alone. Where immediate family is supposed to sit. Ahead of him and adjacent to the casket is a makeshift poster with photos of Graham on it and several flower arrangements. I decide to take a stroll towards the front to look at the collage.
Right away, I see a young Graham with his firstborn in his arms, followed by black and white photos of him as a child and teenager. There’s a photo of him sitting on the edge of a bridge with a fishing rod in his grip, grinning from ear to ear with three of his pals. I find myself smiling at the nostalgia of it all. Then, I hear Asher mumbling something to someone. I turn to see Jessica sitting next to him with somber eyes.
The siblings are quiet, but Jessica’s hand winds around her older brother’s back in comforting circles. I’m at ease witnessing them coming together and showing the contrast of the other family members. However, I don’t look for too long and move alone to blend in with the crowd. I know some individuals may be skeptical of me, but it helps that Graham was a popular man. There are likely many prior colleagues who may attend the funeral to show their respect. That makes it far easier to blend into his funeral than ones who lead quiet lives.
I sit in the pew again as I see the preacher approaching the podium by the casket. He opens with a prayer, and I bow my head to blend in with the crowd. Then, I’m interrupted by the snickering of Sabrina and James behind me.
Normally, I’m the first to step up to the microphone to deliver my speech when the crowd is asked to share their thoughts. But it’s not always the case, as I often take the lead and butt in as someone else is called up. It’s not necessarily to be rude, but I have a job to do, and I’ve learned tiptoeing any more than needed is an easy way to get cast to the side or be left speaking to a dwindling crowd. It’s a nightmare and makes my message far less effective.
The preacher finishes his speech after touching on the details of Mr. Baldwin’s life and all the good he brought into the world. He’s described as a successful businessman with a big heart that he tended to wear on his sleeve. The snickering and complaining that is going on behind me are nagging at me. They’re even discussing the estimated time the inheritance will need to clear the bank.
My stomach twists into a knot. I need to get away from it and serve the necessary justice to these people. I silently hope I’m not the only one sick of their attitudes and that many other people who were near and dear to Mr. Baldwin notice that Asher and Jessica are the only ones in the front row.
I rise to my feet and clear my throat. It’s quiet, yet only a few people glance in my direction. I tap my silver dollar thumb ring on the pew, and the tinging sound catches the attention of nearly everyone in the room. With all eyes on me, I approach the podium. My large stature is intimidating, as I sit at a towering 6’4” with broad shoulders. My thin frame makes me look even taller, serving as another benefit. So solemnly would any disgruntled family members feel the need to approach me. I was not only the confessor but the intimidator.
I stand at the podium, giving the crowd a moment to look at me before I begin to speak. In the front row, Asher’s tired eyes watch me with curiosity, and Jessica’s mirror them. My line of vision narrows in towards the far right side of the room, where Lyra, James, and Sabrina still sit. The prolonged silence makes them eventually look up at me. Had I fallen right into my speech, they may not have noticed at all.
I get straight to business and pull out the envelope with the prepared letter. I know they don’t expect me to jump into this sort of thing right away, but that’s part of the shock factor that comes with this situation and what I’m hired to carry out. I begin to inform the crowd of a few things they already know – Graham’s success in the airline industry, his unrelenting dedication to his family, and the fortune he leaves behind.
“It’s imperative to Graham that this inheritance is in the right hands,” I say and try to pry my scour off of the three in the back. But it’s impossible. I glare into their eyes, seeing only emptiness behind them. They don't have a conscience or empathy, so my words don’t weigh on them as they would on compassionate people. There is no guilt or remorse for their treatment of Graham.
I continue. “A large portion of the funds will be donated to Harper Children’s Hospital.”
It was no surprise when Graham explained his reasoning to me for his choice. He was eternally grateful for the care his wife and children received that saved their lives.
I notice that Sabrina yawns, and I nearly snicker out loud at her dismissal. How exciting her life must be to be so bored during a funeral!
“I have a few things to share with the direct family,” I announce. I pull the stack of envelopes from my pocket and see Asher’s name on top. I only have to reach a few feet ahead to give it to him. I know he will be satisfied with his letter, as Graham gave him exclusive rights to the airline company. Not just a portion of ownership but the entire business was to fall into his hands.
I flip through the envelopes for Jessica's name and immediately pass her the envelope. She is cautious as she pulls it out of my grip and won’t look at the paper. Her eyes are locked on mine. Hesitant but curious. I remain emotionless, despite wanting to flash them each a sympathetic smile but I keep it hidden. It’s not my place to intervene any more than what is requested of me. I’m just the messenger.
There’s a bit of chatter going on in the crowd, as expected. What I’ve delivered to them is far from ordinary in terms of funeral proceedings, so I take no offense to it. The three in the back see me coming for them, and they stare with confusion. I don’t believe they are the slightest bit prepared for the rude awakening inside each of their envelopes. If they’re looking at me with gratitude or as the newfound source of a promising inheritance, they will soon be proven entirely wrong. Their assumptions are quite a stretch from reality.
They take the letters from my grip, and I can feel their emotions in how they pull them. James is quick, indicating his nervousness. Sabrina pulls hard, which solidifies her irritability even in though she thinks this has to do with her fortune. And finally, Lyra is a mix of the two. She seems to be more intrigued with who I am and why I’m speaking on Graham’s behalf than she is about the letter's contents.
It’s evident the preacher is confused by my actions, too. He looks like he’s ready to step in and intervene or at least call up someone else to speak. But, as our eyes meet, he knows I’m not finished yet. So he backs off.
I still have the original letter in my grip, so I run my thumb down the thick crease that runs halfway through the paper and delicately place it on the top of the coffin. I have an audience trying to hypothesize the method to my assumed madness, but only the family members who received letters will be able to fully understand.
I turn to exit the church in a confident stride, but then a gasp catches the attention of everyone. It’s from Lyra.
“What is this about?! You are a fraud?” Her pitchy voice hurdles accusations my way, and she adjusts her gaudy fur scarf that’s come slightly loose from her neck.
Each envelope holds a letter that informs the family member of what they will receive from Graham’s estate and how to obtain it. Asher received the business and a lump sum of money. Jessica received the family mansion, vehicles, and another sum of cash. But the others? There is nothing listed out for them. The balance to be inherited sits at whopping zero dollars and zero cents. The letters close's with a handwritten signature from Graham C. Baldwin himself, followed by a date and stamp of approval by a notary. Case closed.
“This isn’t what my dad would’ve wanted!” Sabrina joins her mother, and then James stands but stays quiet.
It’s a paradox to hear them refute his wishes, as I heard the words fall directly from his mouth. Sabrina, Lyra, and James were to receive nothing.
“I can assure you it’s exactly what his dying wishes were.” I say coldly and continue to walk out of the building.
The surrounding chatter grows louder, and the preacher attempts to calm everyone by calling out, “Ladies and gentlemen, please!”
However, it doesn’t tame the theatrics.
“You won’t get away with this!” James finally yells over the commotion. I wonder if it is a stunt to show his alliance with his mother and sister.
I keep moving forward, leaving all of the chaos to implode inside the walls of the church. Everything is set in stone and distributed precisely how Mr. Baldwin wished. I don’t mind doing the dirty work for him, as the results were well deserved. I saw it and heard it for myself by the ways in which his family members conducted themselves. They lack any semblance of respect for the man who was supposed to continue being their source of money.
I have no hesitation as I light the match and close the door behind me, leaving it all behind to implode amongst itself while I walk away unscathed.