To a six year old boy, few things in life can match the joy of skipping a day of school. So much so that I never noticed the red rimmed eyes of my Mama as she handed me the folded note excusing me from class. I didn’t pay attention when Mrs. Hurwood read the note, nodded solemnly, and told me she was sorry for my loss. I didn’t even find it odd that my father, the hardest working man I’ve ever known, stayed home that day.
It should have registered when I came downstairs that morning to find my good khaki shorts, short sleeved white dress shirt, dark blue blazer and matching tie waiting for me, but it didn't then either.
All I knew was I was skipping school for the day.
“My Easter clothes Mama?”
“Yes, sweetie. Go take a bath and then get dressed. Your father will help you with the tie when you’re ready.”
It wasn't until I heard the voice that I realized something was wrong.
My mother had three distinct tones. One was her usual voice, soft and sweet, melodic to a fault. She used this one almost all the time, especially when talking to my brother or me.
The other two were stronger, forceful, meant what she said was non-negotiable. The first was angry, raised and pitched and full of hurtful venom. I to this day have only seen her use it a handful of times.
Looking back, in each case it was warranted.
The third was every bit as rare, an effort at flat and monotone, a vain attempt to hide a slight cracking. She used it when I was in a car accident in college and almost lost my life. She used it the day she found out about the
cancer that would eventually take hers.
And she used it that morning.
I knew better than to argue.
I took a bath, got dressed as ordered, and came down to find my father in his own dark blue suit. He helped me with my tie and together we stood in the living room, tugging at our collars and fighting to ignore the wool that itched against our skin.
The car ride was short, terse and silent, ending at a place I had never been before. It was a stately building with thick white columns stretched around the entire structure and a large carpeted ramp leading up to the front door. Enormous bouquets of flowers were piled everywhere and subdued music hummed over the grounds.
Where it was coming from, I had no idea.
Women in dark blues and blacks huddled and spoke in soft whispers. Many wore short veils down over their faces and clutched handkerchiefs in their gloved hands. Men stood off to the side trying to avoid the awkward displays of
emotion, hands thrust deep in their pockets, nodding occasionally to one another.
Some smoked cigarettes, others feigned interest in a dog that had wandered onto the lot.
All looked supremely uncomfortable.
Mixed amongst the crowd were a handful of veterans in full dress uniform. It was my first encounter with military dress and I stood in awe as they milled about. Green trousers and jackets. Tan shirts and ties beneath them. Rows of ribbons and medals displayed on their chests, hats in their hands.
I had no idea who they were, where they came from, or why they were there, but I couldn’t shake my gaze from
My brother was not yet old enough to join us and I was completely alone in a world of adults. I kept myself pressed to my father’s side as we stood against the building and waited while Mama spoke with other women in hushed whispers. Every so often one of them offered a furtive glance towards the door, but for the longest time nobody moved.
We just stood outside, counting minutes in our heads, wondering if it would ever end.
For the briefest of moments, I almost wished I was back in school.
After the better part of an hour, the oak doors swung open and a pastor in black robes stepped forth, hands clasped before him. The crowd fell silent and watched as he walked forward and spread his arms wide.
“Please join me.”
Like animals at feed time, the crowd funneled inside. With much jostling, the silent mass made its way into a large room with matching chairs lined into every available inch. The pastor stood by and waited until the room was full before he took his place behind an oversized wooden podium. More flowers were lined three deep behind him and the same low music played throughout the room.
The scents of a thousand fresh flowers hung in the air. Mixed with the perfumes of over a hundred women, making for a concoction that stung in the nose and eyes.
I knew better than to say a word.
It was the first funeral I had ever attended and I still wasn’t sure what was going on. I had no idea why over half of the room was crying, why they weren’t their usual cheerful selves. I didn’t even know that the gleaming wooden box beside him was a coffin.
Despite all that, it was clear that my role was to sit still and be quiet.
“Dear family, friends and loved ones," the pastor began in a deep baritone the moment the music fell away. "It is with mixed emotions that I stand here before you today. I stand with a heavy heart at the loss of a near and dear friend. I am saddened by the loss of a great man from a world that could use more like him.
“At the same time, I am overjoyed to be here. I am happy to celebrate with you the culmination of a truly special person. To honor a life that exemplified what it means to be a man. To be happy in knowing my friend has gone to Heaven and taken his place with the good Lord above.”
A soft wail went up from the front row, a stifled moan that swept through the tiny space. From my seat, I craned my neck to see my great-grandmother sitting in a large green chair, a handful of tissues pressed to her face. Her thin and frail body shook with each sniffle as she bit down on her hand and let the tears roll down her cheeks.
The pastor paused and let the moment pass before he began to speak again. As he did, I sat and wondered how I had missed seeing her outside. For the first time I noticed the people on either side of her. Sitting in a line on the front row were my grandmother, my two great aunts, and my great uncle, all in matching green chairs.
Most of them were holding hands as the others wiped away tears.
Mama was soon to follow suit as most of the women in attendance had opened their purses and were digging for more tissues. By the time the pastor called for the Lord’s Prayer, there wasn’t a bit of mascara left in the room.
The entire time, I pressed the palms of my hands flat on the chair beneath me. I sat on my hands and stared upward, counting the lines in the ceiling, willing myself not to follow suit and let a teardrop fall.
If Pop could stay strong, so could I.
When at last the pastor stopped, I watched as the crowd rose. One by one the rows filed past the large wooden box at the front of the room, my wide-eyed youth still not sure what was occurring around me.
Not even as our row stood and moved forward did realization set in for me.
Not until I put my fingers on the edge of the box and stood on my toes to peer inside did I grasp what was happening.
There, dressed in a military uniform, his white hair parted to the side, lay my great-uncle Jack.
To a child weaned on cartoons and Dr. Seuss books, death was not something that came along often or was easily comprehended. My father asked me three times if I was alright and each time I nodded without actually saying anything.
I understood without really understanding.
The ride to the cemetery took just a few minutes and I spent the entire time staring out the front window. Focused on the small purple flag with the white cross affixed to the front of our car, my mind honed in on the cloth fluttering in the wind, shutting out even the voices of my parents.
Just minutes after departing, we climbed from the car and joined the same mass of people moving in the same slow saunter. Much like the moments before the service, women dabbed at their noses and spoke in low voices, men nodded at one
another and paced about.
After a few moments the now familiar voice of the Pastor called out, summoning everyone into a loose circle around him. In the center of it sat the same row of aging family members comprised of my great-grandmother, great aunts and uncle.
Just inches away from them, close enough to reach out and touch, was the polished wooden box holding my uncle. An arrangement of flowers rested on the top of it and a large marble headstone stood to the side.
All I could do was stand and stare in wide eyed wonder at it all.
The pastor raised his hands to quiet the crowd and again launched into verse. He held a Bible in his hands and spoke from it,
pausing in tune with the loud sniffles and wails from the women around us.
He spoke for a long time. I stood with the late fall sun on my face and could feel sweat forming on my lip and along my
forehead. Around us, leaves of brilliant gold and orange rattled in the trees and floated lazily through the air. They stood in large piles and collected as the breeze pushed them back and forth across the ground.
I wish I could remember exactly what he was saying that afternoon. I wish I could say it was beautiful and eloquent and
everything a proper eulogy should be.
Truth is, I don’t remember.
What I do remember is the look of anguish on the faces of my family as they sat in those chairs. I remember my legs growing tired from standing in one place for so long but thinking that I would never sit again if it meant I had to be as sad as they were. I remember my great-grandmother’s body shuddering so hard it lifted her from her chair as she cried.
I remember the pastor saying the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” holding his arms to his side, then bringing them together and bowing his head.
I remember watching in awe as my great-grandmother willed herself to stand without the aid of her walker. With no
regard for where she was or who was watching she pressed her body flat against the box and cried with everything she
I wish I could have walked up to her and hugged her, told her I loved her, that everything would be alright.
I wish somebody would have, even if I couldn’t.
Nobody did though. Over one hundred people stood and watched as she poured her soul out, their own emotions sliding down their cheeks thick and fast.
She stayed that way until it became apparent she had no intention of leaving, until at long last my two great aunts ambled to
their feet and peeled her frail body away. She made no effort to fight them as she went, her fingertips sliding along the smooth veneer, longing obvious in her movements.
Not until she was seated again did the crowd part to reveal the same men I had seen before in full military dress. Arranged in
straight lines, each one carried a matching rifle and marched in time, stopping just feet away from the crowd.
Then, without warning, they raised the rifles to their shoulders and fired.