Recently, whilst procrastinating, I found a folder of my Uncle Frank's writing. Hashtag: pumped.
Uncle Frank was my great-uncle who told me I'd be a writer. He wrote as a hobby, and I love hearing my voice in his. It's like a hug. Or at least a high five.
Anyway, my whole life I thought this story was a giant allusion to his fear of dying of the cancer that eventually took him, and that he wrote it to ease our anxiety about his leaving us.
I called my dad tonight to confirm this, but it turns out, he was actually afraid of coconuts.
Leathems ruin everything emotional.
Let's work with the former. Death is scary. The news that someone we love is sick is scarier. May this story help you see that there can be humor in in the face of something so ugly:
by Frank Leathem
DEFINITION: a morbid fear of the coconut, which is a husky fruit of the cocopalm tree. The Spanish call it "Uglyface".
My name is Frank. Some people call me Frankie. In sixty-six years, I survived polio, grammar school nuns, four years in the Air Force, fast foods, Irish whiskey, and cancer. Now, I face old age, where life's hazards become magnified by clouding eyes, fading ears, and muddled mind.
And I am afraid.
Could my fear be of dying? I think not. My consternation rises not from thoughts of death, for long life has hardened me to accept the inevitable. My fear lies in how I die. What will be the agent of my demise? Please let me die quickly of a failed heart, or slowly from creeping malignancy, or under the wheels of a screeching truck as I step carelessly from a curb. But let it not be death by coconut, a humiliating end that comes plain and silent, like a thief in the night.
Coconuts in upstate New York, where I Spring, Summer, and Fall, are not life threatening. They're found in supermarkets, safely stacked and stripped of their outer shells. Here in Puerto Rico, where I Winter, these deadly projectiles hang from palm trees, hiding from the picker's bolo. They ripen in anticipation of a final plunge onto the head of some unsuspecting victim. During my morning walk I see evidence of their attempts to kill people: a coconut on the sidewalk; a coconut at the curb; a suicidal coconut in the center of the road. Since I see no bodies or blood, I assume they missed their targets.
I don't know the statistics on injuries or deaths from falling coconuts. The odds are probably a billion to one that I will be harmed, and it's silly to be afraid. But my fear remains, like a giant red gorilla that I've been commanded not to think about. There crouches my crimson specter. He's not likely to harm me, but I must guard agains such a possibility.
My melancholy state breeds flashbacks to some of life's blessings and disappointments. I'm thankful for my loving wife, surviving siblings, countless relatives, step-children, and a dwindling number of crotchety old barroom buddies - survivors of a group that sang a million songs and drank a billion beers. I regret that I never wrote a book, never won a medal, never got a hole-in-one, and never played quarterback for the New York Giants.
In retrospect, I feel that I have had the good life, but I ask from it one last request. I wish to die with dignity and grace, and with a sense of propriety. But what dignity and grace is there in being crowned dead by a coconut? And what sense of propriety would survive the lashing Irish wit of my relatives and friends who, with all the compassion of children at play, would find humor in such a bizarre accident?
**Puerto Rico to New York telephone dialogue:
"Hi! I'm afraid I have some bad news. Frankie is dead."
"Oh my God, no! How'd it happen?"
"He got hit by a coconut."
"A what? Say again?"
"A coconut, from a tree. It fell on his head."
"A coconut? [smothered snicker] You gotta be kidding me. [pause] Did you save it?"
"The coconut. Any chance of bringing it home when you come with the body?"
My poor wife, trying to do the right thing, would acquiesce, and I'd end up in my coffin with the offending coconut perched high on my chest, steadied by my stiffened hands. Ah, what a grand wake it will be!
"He looks great! The trip to the islands done him good. What a nice tan!
"You're lookin' at the coconut, you idjit!"
Then you'd hear: "Well, nutsy Frankie finally came up against somethin' with a thicker skull than his!"
And again: "Can I have that coconut before you close the casket? I want to make a pina colada."
Finally, some bookish friend, after staring intently at my corpse, would remark: "I've read somewhere that 'coconut' means 'ugly-face' in Spanish."
Such fun would not be limited to the wake. I can hear the copy editor at the local newspaper snickering to himself as he puts his wit to words in this flaming headline:
COCONUT CRACKS CARELESS CURMUDGEON'S CRANIUM
And surely such a delightful story would be picked up by the television networks. I can hear Dan Rather, "And now for a look at the lighter side of this evening's news. Here's an amusing little item from Puerto Rico titled 'The Old Man and the Coconut'..."
I see the final blow falling with the stonemason's chisel, as he carves on my headstone this lasting memorial:
HERE LIES FRANK
IN DIRT SO DEEP AND DANK
HE'D STILL BE LIVING, BUT
FOR AN UGLY COCONUT.
IT FELL ON HIS HEAD
AND KILLED HIM DEAD
The fear that I will be subjugated to such satire caused me to take action far removed from my mighty ethical lifestyle: I decided to lie. I'd make up a story to be told to my friends back home in the event that I should fall victim to the palm tree's fatal fruit.
In my original fabrication, I wrote of being fatally bludgeoned during a car-jacking on the way home from the local bank. Evidence at the crime scene showed that I put up a ferocious struggle. I decided that this story was a little too provocative. It might trigger a revenge seeking trip to Puerto Rico by some of my tipsy stateside friends, and my cover would certainly be blown.
My final attempt at writing a believable story has me walking the beach with my wife. We see a young girl swept off a rocky outcropping by a gigantic wave. Without hesitation, I leap into the roaring surf and grasp the drowning child. Struggling against the relentless undertow, I reach the base of the ledge, and, with a last surge of adrenaline, thrust the youngster up to the reaching arms of my wife. Just then, another huge wave thunders ashore, dashing my poor head against the rocks. With the child safe, my wife struggles to pull my lifeless body from the water.
I can hear them now, relatives and friends back home, their eyes and chests puffed with tears and pride as they recount the daring deed of their darlin' dead hero, Frankie.
My "cover-up" is written, but I don't see it as a true lie, for if the same opportunity occurred in real life, I'm sure I'd do exactly what I said I did in my story.
Yes, my plan is complete, but in order for it to succeed, two things must happen:
Step one: I need to get killed by a coconut.
Step two: my wife must agree to be the messenger of my lie.
This could challenge the discipline of her Methodist upbringing, so I've implemented a clever contingency plan to ensure that "step one" doesn't happen before "step two" is in place.
So come visit me if you're curious. I'm down in Villa Palmira, on the east coast of this lovely island of Puerto Rico. I usually hang out in the park by the beach.
I'll be sitting under a palm tree. You can't miss me. I'm the tall Americano with the purple sun glasses and the yellow hard-hat.