Mike stood alone in front of a waterfall of marigolds. Early in the day, the sun cast a shadow over the mourners, but as the day went on, it would bring out the translucent stunning-orange brilliance of the floral display one petal at a time. In the late afternoon the effect would be blinding. Live marigolds surrounded the seating area like a halo, nearly glowing against the blue-grey San Myshuno backdrop.
A number of sims swayed idly as the last stragglers took their seats. Some looked toward Mike, whose stage expertise allowed him to appear poised despite his grief. At last, he spoke.
“Uh, I think that’s everyone. It’s 10 A.M., let’s get this started. We’re going to be hosting a reception afterward with food and drink, so we hope to see you all inside.”
The members in the audience who could bear to watch saw Mike take out Claudia’s urn and place it on the table beside him. Next to the urn, someone had set up a recent photograph, and the presence of that photograph made it seem like Claudia was joyfully overseeing her own eulogy.
“Alright. So. We are gathered here today to honor Claudia Espinosa Castillo. Now, for all of us here, Claudia’s been a central presence in our lives. If I tried to list the number of times she’s brightened someone’s day, the times she’s been a shoulder to cry on, the times we’ve been enriched by her drive and optimism, I’d be up here until the sun sets.” He gestured to the audience. “And I should give someone else a chance to speak.”
“Claudia has lived a full life, and I’m going to try to do it justice. She was born in 1963 in Simpeche to Marcio Espinosa Gutiérrez and Inés Castillo Reyes. Now I’m not sure what happened to Marcio—she never told me—but Inés was as heroic as a mother could get. For years, she raised Claudia alone, never letting it show how tired she was, reminding her daughter that she was always by her side. Every second of her life, Claudia felt love. And it is from Inés she inherited a spirit that could never be broken, no matter what challenges she faced.”
“Unfortunately, Inés’s untimely death would be the first major challenge of Claudia’s life. Finding that she could no longer stay in Simpeche, the home she loved, Claudia restarted her life in Newcrest. As a young adult, Claudia dabbled in gardening, using her home-grown vegetables in the recipes her mother taught her, but her main passion was in fitness. She excelled in bodybuilding, so much so that her dedication and deep anatomical knowledge earned her the title of Miss Universe. If you knew her back then, you probably knew her from the gym. She practically lived there. So it’s no surprise that the next chapter of her life started when she met some jerk at the Movers & Shakers Gym.”
“I’ll save the details for later, but to run things along, we were married 30 years ago in 1988. Our first son, Charles Jeong-Espinosa, arrived not much later in 1990. We have always been very proud of our boy, and miss him very much, even though we have not given up hope on finding him.”
He gestured to Charlie’s portrait, which occupied a front-row seat next to his other siblings. Mike sat on the other side of the aisle, next to Xiyuan—or he would if he weren’t at the podium—and the Jeong-Espinosas sat on the right side, by no prior organizational rule, with the Lius on the left. Mike was the exception.
“Eight years later, we welcomed a second child into the world: Charlie’s sister, Kendra. And then Hector was born five years after that in 2003. Now you might consider parenting to be Claudia’s next big challenge, but Claudia’s children were the light of her life. All the struggles we went through were worth it to raise these three wonderful children.”
“She is also survived by her grandson Jasper Jeong-Espinosa, and, of course, her husband,”—he pointed to himself before deciding to clarify for formality’s sake—“Michael Jeong.”
“But Claudia’s achievements weren’t limited to her family. Whatever path Claudia chose for herself, she would find amazing success. First, as I said, she was recognized as the best female bodybuilder in the world. I know Claudia, and she wasn’t concerned with competition or the title. What she took from that experience was a group of lifelong friends. I know she treasured each and every one of you more than the contests she’d won. After achieving her initial goal, Claudia used her talent as a great chef and mixologist to achieve international recognition for her cooking, and revived interest in Mexican cuisine through the almost-a-dozen cookbooks she’d published.” He flipped to the next index card single-handedly, using his thumb, and stared at the card for an uncomfortably long time. “I’m not going to list them now.”
“And just like with the title of Miss Universe, Claudia never let the fame get to her head. Those of us lucky enough to know her would be hard-pressed to name any bad qualities she had, and we completely agree on her good qualities. She was a force of nature: loyal, dedicated, inspiring, pleasant, sunny, and above all, full of love.”
“But she was so much more than all of those qualities combined. She was as perfect a wife as anyone could hope for and a true friend. They’ll get a chance to speak later, but I want to acknowledge Claudia’s two best friends outside of her family: Aileen Jensen and Xiyuan Shallot-Liu. I know how happy both of you made Claudia while she was alive, and I hope you’ll continue to carry the influence she had on you.”
“In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who came into contact with Claudia and wasn’t drawn in by her infectious kindness. Claudia was empathetic to everyone she met. In the time I’ve been by her side, I’ve never heard her say a bad word about anyone. No matter how she felt, no matter what happened, her positive spirit won out every time.”
“And she was also genuine. Some people might have turned a blind eye to suffering, but Claudia was always able to maintain her joy in tough times. She was always there when people needed her most. That’s what made Claudia special to me—I hope, to all of us. We think of optimists as the silly idealist type, but Claudia was never ignorant or naïve. It was that she saw pain, and acknowledged it, but nothing was ever enough to dim her brilliance. She was the kind of person you meet and you want to build your whole life around.”
“That’s why so many of us are probably feeling lost after her tragic, accidental death.”
Mike hadn’t stopped speaking, but Kendra found herself unable to focus after Hector’s outburst. His seething had been distracting her since near the beginning of the monologue. No one seated behind him would notice anything odd, but the clenched fists and teeth were hard to miss if you were next to him or speaking on the podium.
Right now he was staring into space, not bothering to meet his sister’s gaze when she turned to him. “It wasn’t an accident.”
Leaning in closer, with a quick sideways glance to confirm that her father hadn’t noticed the uxoricide accusation and continued to drone on, Kendra asked, “What do you mean?”
“She died of hysteria. He’s a Joke Star. He did it on purpose.”
“What motivation could he have possibly had?”
“I don’t know. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s responsible.”
“Right.” The sudden change in sharpness snapped both siblings’ attention back to the stage. “I’m going to tell a few more stories and then pass the mic off to someone else.”
With a nod to Aileen, given that Xiyuan seemed to be inconsolable, Mike returned to his seat. Hector hadn’t looked up. He wasn’t going to, after such a performance. The word he spoke to himself during Aileen’s shuffle to the front was too quiet for anyone but Kendra to hear.