Fiction by William Matthew McCarter
Death arrives at the most inconvenient of times. The temperature had been below freezing for days on end. Piankashaw County more closely resembled the Arctic Circle than Southeast Missouri as the snow, the ice, and the freezing temperatures turned the countryside into frozen tundra. There was talk of this being the worst winter in decades and here I was, the youngest of six men chosen to be pallbearers at my grandfather’s funeral. My cousin, Roscoe, and I were in the front and nearly fell down a few times trying to climb up to the top of St. Agnes Hill Cemetery to bring Big Daddy to his final resting place.
The wind blew hard against my face. This helped to hide the tears. I held my chin up a little higher and through my blurred vision, took the last few steps up the hill to the pedestal where we would lay him to rest. I couldn’t take in too much of the detail of his mahogany coffin as they lowered it into the ground and Father Fitzpatrick said the “walk through the valley of death” shit. I had heard it several times before but it really hadn’t resonated with me quite like it did this time. I turned away and looked off into the woods as they began lowering him into the ground. This, coupled with the words “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” made Big Daddy’s death all too real once again and I wasn’t ready for that just yet.
The past few days had been a blur. Big Daddy had died on Monday and the rest of the week, we had been busy with the arrangements and visitation. It was here, in the last few days, that I learned the real meaning of the term “Irish Wake.” I did anything I could to soften the reality of the events that were unfolding around me. This included booze and drugs. I moved through the hours in a fog, avoiding everyone else as often as I could, keeping my distance, comfortably within my own little haze. I was anticipating more of the same today.
There were a lot of sounds around me as I heard the droning of Father Fitzpatrick, finishing up the 23rd Psalm in an almost Gregorian chant that brought the service to a close. People sniffled into their handkerchiefs and in the distance, I could hear the crackling of a tree branch that just could not take the weight of the ice any longer. I felt as if I couldn’t take the weight either as these sounds buzzed in my ear like one of Emily Dickenson’s flies. While I could partially drown the white noise around me, it was increasingly difficult to ignore the soft sobs coming from Gram. I thought I was standing strong, like a McCauley should, keeping it all inside so that I did not look vulnerable next to my grieving family… holding it together so that Gram could grieve and not worry about me. Then I heard someone gulp back an anguished sob and realized that the sound had come from me.
There is a big part of me that wonders why we subject ourselves to these terrible rituals. It was hard enough watching Big Daddy dwindle down to nothing during his protracted illness. It was hard enough watching him take his last breath. It was hard enough telling Gram that he was gone. Not only did we have to do those things, but also had to deal with all the long-lost relatives – the people who lived far away that weren’t able to see Big Daddy before he died as well as the people who lived across town and were just too busy to get there – who insisted on telling you how bad they felt and how sorry they were as they showed up to say goodbye. As far as I was concerned, I had already said my goodbyes, I had closure. And I didn’t understand why Gram and the rest of us had to go through all of this so that others could get closure, too. We weren’t doing this for Big Daddy and we certainly weren’t doing it for ourselves and I was angry that custom dictated that we do it for other people who, frankly, I believed didn’t really deserve anything from us and should not ask us to do this so that they could say goodbye. And yet, we gathered in silence and stood there at the funeral parlor for the last few days, meeting the lines of mourners, and trying to hold it together while they gave their cliched and helpless condolences.
“He was such a good man… We will all miss him very much… He is in a better place… Someday you will see him again…” These soft-spoken words rang hollow in my ears as I stared back at them with my red and glazed over eyes. Then we carried the coffin up to an empty hole in the earth, and then listened to it being lowered in the ground while the priest says some words.
After the mourners start to walk away from the gravesite and begin to coagulate in groups near their cars, and begin talking about how they need to get together more often. “The only time we ever see one another is when there is a funeral…” will be coming out of their mouths – clichés just like “I am so sorry for your loss.” Meanwhile, the family is still standing at the gravesite, and it finally sinks in that this is the last goodbye. Then you realize that these goodbyes will forever go unsaid no matter how many times you say it. It just hangs there like a cold dark cloud. There was so many things that I felt, so many things that I wanted to say, but I knew that there was no one to say it to because the person that I wanted to hear me is already gone.
Finally, Gram decided that she was ready to walk away. I grasped her elbow so that I could help her down the hill. Uncle Jake steadied her by holding onto her other elbow. When we got down to the bottom of the hill and neared the street where the cars were parked, I let go.
“I am going to walk home,” I said. St. Agnes Hill was only about a half mile from our house and I felt that I needed some time to be alone with my feelings before I faced the people again.
“You can ride home with me, mom,” Uncle Jake said before he turned around and looked at me and asked, “Are you sure you want to walk?”
“Yeah, I’ll meet you at home,” I said as I stared into eyes that were very similar to the eyes of the man that we had just buried and choked back the tears.
I found that the journey back home was much different than the one I took to the cemetery. Bringing Big Daddy there was much different than leaving him behind and every step I took away from there, I could feel the heaviness of the experience bearing down on me. With every step, I could feel myself being torn more and more. The funeral mass and the lowering of the coffin were like a requiem. It was our symbolic equivalent of watching the credits roll at the end of the lives of our loved ones. There, we see the names of those who were players both in the main drama and in the supporting roles and there, we hear triumphant music that celebrates the finitude of existence.
But when the projector reel is spent, when the movie is over, what happens in the theatre when the lights come on? Most people never stay long enough to find out but that is precisely what I was doing just then as I was walking away from the cemetery – I was living after the end of the movie and there was no beautiful music, no heroic characters, no leading ladies. No celebration of the finitude of a life well lived. There was only what seemed like the infinite sadness of a gaping puncture wound to the soul – a wound so deep that it doesn’t bleed and doesn’t heal – a wound that just hurts. That’s what remains after the requiem.