My First Memory of Death
I’m taking a non-fiction class and our first assignment was to write about a fuzzy memory. I’m thinking I didn’t quite get it right, but I’m going to share it here anyway.
Thirty years later, I don’t interrupt as my mother talks about her father. Every time she calls him Daddy, I think for a moment that she means mine. I’m a little ashamed that I don’t know the answers to some of my questions, but I don’t let that stop me from asking.
All my memories come to me in patches. They are fragments of emotion, pictures in a photo album with untold stories lost in the expanse of white between each shot.
And so I ask my mother to tell me what I don’t remember: I want to know about Grandpop’s funeral. I want her to flesh out my first memory of death.
I remember it was sunny.
“It was a sunny day, it was a very sunny day,” she says. “Actually it was kind of warm; it was in the fall. He didn’t want to have a funeral, he just wanted to have a….He didn’t want to have anything really. We just had a graveside service.”
I remember the light. The sun folded over the edges of the canopy above us, making a sharp distinction between light and shade. That line of light crossed over the green astroturf carpet, crossed over the people, and cut a slant across the backs of the folding metal chairs in front of me. The bare sunlight glanced off their tops and pierced my eyes.
I remember the flag spread over the coffin. I vaguely remember the sound of a bugler playing taps. I don’t remember the guns firing off their salute and I don’t remember ever before asking, “What was he in the military?”
Momma tells me now, “He was in the Navy, in the CV’s, which is the engineering group. And in the Army he was just a private. He was in the Army and the Navy, during world war 2.”
I remember watching dry-eyed as the flag was lifted. Two men in uniform worked silently, solemnly. They folded the flag in half lengthwise, and then again, the same way my Nannie and I folded sheets when we brought them down off the clothesline. Then one man folded a corner down to form a little triangle. Over and over he turned that triangle, making crisp and precise folds, slowly eating up what was left of the flag. I never cried until his partner bent silently and handed the folded flag to my uncle.
I remember crying for Momma and Uncle Bodie. I remember thinking that my tears weren’t for Grandpop or for me. I remember mourning his life and what little I knew of his choices. I felt sad that he was an alcoholic. I felt sad that when I thought of him, the picture in my head was of passing by his room and glancing in to see a drunk man sitting on the side of his bed, looking back out at me.
I remember thinking, “This was their father.” No matter what his choices, no matter what his faults or frailties, he loved them. And they loved him. The tears they cried were not just for the man he’d become, but for a man I never knew. I ached inside as I considered that pain. I cried because their daddy was dead.
Everyone went to my Aunt and Uncle’s house after the funeral.
“Cause we were living in the apartments and we didn’t really have anywhere people could go,” Momma reminds me.
“It was nice,” she says, “people sitting around talking about – you know how they do – about different things they remember about him.”
At thirteen, I didn’t understand at all how the people around me were behaving. They were talking – and laughing! I moved through the familiar rooms of that house, soaking in the stories and the jokes, the apparent cheer and indifference. And I twisted it all into anger and resentment inside my heart.
How could they laugh? How could they act as though nothing bad had happened? A man was dead! Gone. My Grandpop would never have another opportunity to see his loved ones, to enjoy this world, to do something more, to make something better of his life. His chances were all over.
“Daddy’s feelings were just, ‘take me out, dig a hole in the field and dump me in it’.” Momma says, and I think I’ve heard that before.
“He did not want to have a funeral. He did not want to have a family night; he thought that was barbaric.”
“Really?” I ask, “Why?”
“Because everybody goes through and does their condolence thing and then they stand around laughing and joking and talking. While the person’s right there in the coffin! He said if anybody wanted to come see him, come see him while he’s living.”
“Well, all that stuff is really for the living people, anyway.” I say.
“Yeah. And he said that any money he had, he wanted us to take it and have a party.”
Momma and I meander through his childhood and I learn that he started drinking when he was thirteen, the age I was when he died. I meet his mother and some siblings. And I feel sad for him all over again.
Then Momma talks about a man who had months and years of sobriety. She talks about a funny man with a dry sense of humor. She talks about her father.
I remember my own stories of Grandpop in his garden, Grandpop in the chicken coop, Grandpop letting all the food on his plate run together because that’s what old people do. I see a picture in my head of Grandpop in a lawn chair by the well, beneath the biggest most beautiful shade tree ever. He sits with his legs crossed, quiet and content, watching as all us kids play.
And I understand what I couldn’t grasp at thirteen: that when dealing with death, we can’t help ourselves from focusing back on life.