My face never really rebelled and my friends weren’t mean (mostly because they were boys), so puberty wasn’t bad for me. Maybe that’s why I loved it when my seventh-grade teacher introduced us to classical mythology–I hadn’t known life and death could get that messy.
Our capstone assignment for the unit was open-ended: we were to create something to do with mythology. Since I loved best the myths that explained the origin of things, I decided to write my own about young lovers whose parents didn’t approve of the match (when do parents ever approve of such things?). To keep them apart, the parents banished the young lovers to opposite ends of the earth. Distraught, the lovers killed themselves. Of course I probably wrote, “They were really really mad because their parents wouldn’t let them see each other.” No matter, they were dead.
But in myths, spirits remained to carry out the “should-be.” So the two lovers became Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis–and “on winter nights,” I wrote, “the color of their spilled blood would flood the sky as they reached to touch each other one more time.”
The first funeral I assisted with was for an old judge. He lived in a small house, and for that I respected him. I was serving as an associate pastor at a newly-formed church, and I read my prayer when the time came, trying to instill courage or blessing into my voice for the widow who had great white hair. Then I sat back down and listened to the head pastor. He was a man who had come out of retirement to help this new church, and he scared me.
Several weeks earlier he had called me into his office and closed the door. He asked if I knew the rules of counseling and confidentiality.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good, then I want you to treat this as if you are counseling me,” he said.
“I am tempted by you,” he said. “Now, remember. You can’t tell anyone.”
After the funeral service for the judge we drove out to the cemetery for the committal. The day was appropriately sad and gray. A light rain breezed in and out of the tent where the family sat.
When dust had been declared dust once again, the head pastor looked to the funeral director who said, “And now we will release a dove into the air, to symbolize Tom’s spirit returning to heaven.” She nodded to a man who stood by an overgrown pine bush. The man opened his hands and a dove flew up into the dull sky, barely clearing the tent that housed the mourners before it came back down to the ground again. It pecked at something.
The first funeral I conducted on my own was for a woman who’d been the only person to sit on the left side of the small church where I have preached nearly every Sunday for the past six years. While there were never more than ten people on the right side, Margaret alone sat on the left on an embroidered blue pillow always five rows back.
“My mother said you were the best preacher she had ever heard,” her son said after we had been introduced in the parlor of the funeral home.
“Your mother was a great lady,” I said. “She reminded me of my grandma.” Shriveled in size but big in attitude.
The funeral director found me and guided me by the elbow to a quiet corner. He was missing three fingers, and I wondered if he had lost them to the screaming mouth of a person who wasn’t really dead, who woke up and found herself in a metal box with a lid that was about to close.
“After you read the scripture and before you do your sermon, Buddy would like to do a song,” he said as if I should know who Buddy was. The town was forty-five minutes away from where I lived, so I knew only the ten people in my congregation.
“Okay. He’ll sing a song,” I said, making a note in my bulletin.
“No, he’s going to whistle it.”
“He’s going to whistle it?”
“Yes,” the funeral director said.
Buddy was a large man and he had asthma. It was a rendition of “Amazing Grace” I will never forget.
When I started at the new church, it couldn’t afford its own building, so we met in a funeral home one of the members had just built.
Every Sunday my husband sat in back. Our son was only a few months old, and my husband wanted to be able to leave whenever the burbles turned to bellows.
One day when the service ended early I looked for the two of them in the hall and then in the office. I walked through the kitchen and into the next room. My beautiful baby was sleeping in a casket.
A week after the funeral where the dove decided earth was better than heaven, I called the funeral director. She had been forced to become the funeral director–it had been her husband’s job, but a couple of months earlier he had suffered from a massive stroke. He was in his early 50’s, and it was no secret they were in debt. I thought maybe she could use someone to talk to.
“How are things?” I asked.
“We moved him to a VA hospital,” she answered. “It’s nice. They’ll take good care of him.”
“I’m sure they will.” After an awkward pause, I thought to ask, “Have you had any more dove fiascos?”
She laughed. “We did a funeral this week, and the man who had been holding the dove at the judge’s funeral was really nervous. None of our birds had ever done that before. So this time, he wanted to make sure he got it right. I said the same thing, about the dove symbolizing the departed one’s spirit returning to heaven. Then I gave him a nod. He threw the bird up as high as he could, thinking he just needed to get it more airborne, but it came crashing back down to the ground. He had been so nervous, he suffocated it. The family took it very well.”
I didn’t like my mother’s mother. She ate soggy cereal and talked while everyone else was talking (she wasn’t trying to interrupt, she just liked to follow along). She served hamloaf every time we came, swearing it was my favorite even though the smell of it made me gag.
One night I stood before my grandmother, my freshly-washed hair making a dark stain on the back of my nightgown. I was waiting to kiss her cheek, but she chose to inspect me for a moment through her black and rhinestone glasses. “You know we love you even though you’re adopted, don’t you?”
When I finally quit crying and told my mother what had happened, my mother said, “I’m sure she meant it as a compliment.”
Because of our history, it surprised me when I broke down at my grandmother’s funeral. I was a freshman in college, and my mother had asked me to read a poem. When I got to a line in the poem about losing a mother, I thought about losing my mother, having her in a casket less than ten feet away. I started to cry. I could hardly make it through the rest of the poem, but I did, and I sat down in the pew next to my brother who ignored me as he always did.
Downstairs the ladies of the church had a luncheon prepared for us. An old family friend approached me as I was eating my third pimento-cheese sandwich.
“It was good to see you cry,” he said.
“What?” I asked, my mouth half-full.
“It was good to see you cry. Shows you’re human.”
It’s hard to be a girl and not get the pink dream stuck in your head, the one where you want to be a princess and fall asleep when bad stuff starts to happen. Then after everyone is tired of mourning, a man rides in on a horse, kisses you once and you wake up to happily ever after.
A man I knew took eight times the amount of pills he needed to kill himself.
A boy I grew up with who could never really grow right used a shotgun.
A girl I was confirmed with climbed into an old green Ford in her garage, timing it so her father would discover her before it was too late. He had a meeting she didn’t know about.
The organist was a favorite. She sent me cards, even when it wasn’t my birthday. She gave my children Easter baskets. She snuck bags full of corn, tomatoes, and squash into my car each summer.
One morning her husband called. I was gone, so my husband took the message. The organist’s brother, sister-in-law, and nephew had died the night before in a car accident. Her family had already known its share of tragedies–another brother had died, the father had barely survived a heart attack, and a silo full of corn had gone up in flames.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t call her back.
Earlier that month I had met another man. Tall in a way my husband isn’t, he quoted poetry to me. There was suddenly light and movement in my dark places.
He touched. I kissed.
“We can’t. My kids. I wouldn’t be able to look at them.”
I had sinned and I wished I had sinned more.
When I got home, I told my husband.
“Why in the hell did you tell me?” he asked, and I wondered what he’d do with those fists.
I told him I didn’t know if I had ever loved him, because how could I fall in love with another man if I really had?
He slammed the door and tore out of the garage. When he got back home that night, he showed me his wedding ring. “I wanted to throw it out the fucking window.”
We didn’t talk much the next few weeks. Whenever he came home, I went out–the market, the office, away. Finally, I asked my husband to move into an apartment. He said I could leave if I wanted, but he wasn’t going anywhere.
I went to the visitation, saw the organist standing next to the casket of her nephew. He was ten-years old and holding a fishing pole.
She hugged me.
All the way home, I wept.
The heat that summer wouldn’t leave my body alone. The house that had previously been small now seemed suffocating. The children who had always been loving now felt clingy. Almost every night I would wake up sweaty, wanting relief. Escape.
One night when I didn’t think I’d be able to stand it a minute more, I crawled out of bed. In the suck of longing and guilt, I went to the closet. The pills were blue. And there were plenty.
I sat in a rocking chair in the dark holding the bottle. I tried to imagine my funeral, who would be there (would he come?), would people be sad or would they be whispering to each other?
I found a number in the phone book and called a woman I did not know. We talked for an hour.
The next morning my husband held up the bottle of pills sitting on the kitchen counter. “Why are these out?”
It was as much as he had said to me in a month, and the first time he had looked me in the eye. I thought about saying something vague, like “I didn’t feel well last night,” but I needed to talk and it hit me that I wanted to talk to him. I had missed his solid presence in my life, and suddenly I found I wanted it back.
We sat at the kitchen table for a long time.
After I had finished talking, he was quiet. Then he whispered, “I couldn’t bear losing you,” and put his hand over mine.
It means something when a man cries.
This summer I preached at a funeral for a woman I didn’t know and nobody liked. Her son was in my congregation, and he asked me the day before the funeral if I could do it. In the flurry of phone calls and e-mails the night before the sermon, I learned this woman who was almost ninety-years old when she died had never been happy, had never told her son she loved him. In fact, all she had ever told him was how much she wished he had been a girl. He sounded sad at feeling relieved to have her gone.
Her funeral lasted for fifteen minutes.
Once while we were in graduate school, my husband and I decided to take our dog to the park. Before we knew what was happening, a boy came running and threw both arms around our dog’s neck, wrestling her to the ground.
“You might want to be careful of doing that. Another dog might have tried to bite you,” I told him.
“Come to our party,” he said, walking away and pulling our dog by the collar with him.
There wasn’t much we could do except follow him over to a group of people. The sweet smoke was what I noticed first. Then all the bottles.
“Do you wanna smoke?” the boy’s father asked.
“No thanks,” I said quickly. My husband took longer to decline.
“How ‘bout a beer?”
I wanted to leave, but my husband shrugged. “Sure, I’ll take one.”
“Looks like you’re having a good time,” I said, making a sweeping gesture with my hand. It was something my mother might have done.
“Yeah, we’re here to celebrate.” He led us over to a white poster board. At the top it read, “The Life of Joe Scum,” and it was covered in pictures. Joe was a punk rocker, so most of the images were of him on stage, but there were a couple of a neon-pink cat, and on the bottom right-hand corner a newspaper article showed a picture of a charred house.
“I’ve seen that cat. Over there,” I said, pointing to the street we had walked up to get to the park.
“Joe lived there.”
The last time I had seen the cat, it had looked singed. I began to put it all together. “Did he live in the house that burned down just a few days ago?”
“Fell asleep in his chair smoking. This is his funeral.” He must have seen my face, because he added, “It’s how he would have wanted it.”
The summer heat had cooled; my husband and I went on a bike ride. Things still weren’t easy between us, but neither were they difficult. The route took us down a swooping hill where a large dog ran out into the road and lunged for my leg. My husband pedaled hard and got himself between me and the dog’s teeth.
“Thanks,” I said.
I love you, I meant.