Funeral In A Small Town - Part VI
I started this story 8 years ago when my husband's beloved Grandmother passed away. It is a true story. The people and events are real. But I couldn't wrap it up in a neat little bow. There really isn't any "ending" as all the people still live and breathe and go on with their lives. I just didn't know how to make my story complete. So I tucked it away in my documents, hoping it would come to me one day. Eight years later, there has been another death in the family (and several in between) and on Tuesday, we will once again be attending a Funeral In A Small Town. This time it will not be so new. I won't be so taken aback. And my issues with faith have evolved and perhaps even resolved a bit. I still don't have Jesus in my heart. I am still angry at times. But I grow less so with each passing year.
In preparing for the coming funeral, I was reminded of this story, and my first Funeral In A Small Town. I dragged it out, dusted it off and reread it. I was overwhelmed by all those thoughts and emotions once again. It was and is one of the most profound and evocative experiences of my life. It didn't bring me to Jesus, as I said. But it helped me see why people cling so tightly to faith. '
But you're wondering about Jerry. Jerry hasn't found Jesus either. At least not that I know of. SmallSouthernTown is not a place we spend much time and Jerry is an elusive figure. I wish I could give you some kind of ending for him. But that part has yet to be written yet, and I am not the author of that tale. But my part is done, finally. I feel a sense of closure now. It's good.
Part VI - The End
Beneath the dark green canopy that shields mourners from the harsh and unrelenting sun, the air is stifling in a way that can't be described to those who've never experienced a Southern summer. It's a solid thing, with weight and heft. It lays upon a person like a moist blanket. People fan themselves and pull deep breaths, hoping for the merest wisp of fresh air. There is none to be had. And the saccharine scent of the roses that cover the casket in a lush layer is so thick you can taste it, adding to the oppressive atmosphere. I swallow again and again trying to rid my palate of the cloying sweetness, but it's no use.
There are rows of folding chairs draped in crushed red velvet. The sons and daughters politely fight for position in the front row. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews are in the rows behind. Friends and lesser relatives populate the back rows and stand at the perimeter.
Jerry and I stand at the back of the crowd, for different reasons. I don't think he can stand the sight of that chasm beneath the casket. I can't stand the viscid feeling of the air beneath the canopy. I feel as though I am struggling to breathe, though I can actually do so perfectly well when I pause to draw a deep, deliberate breath. I drape an arm over each of my boys despite the heat. Their skin is slick at the nape and their hair pasted in damp spikes to the pale slices of skin revealed by their recent shearing.
Jerry stands beside us, smoking and silent. The smoke doesn't waft away on the breeze, but merely hangs in a bloated cloud about his head. The smell is making me feel ill, but I can't muster up any indignation about it. As a former smoker I know all too well that the long draw, the sharp inhale and the bite in the lungs are sometimes the only things that hold a person together. I don't even fan away the hazy strands that hang in front of my eyes, because it will make him feel bad. I don't want him to feel bad. My boys, who normally complain quite unabashedly about cigarette smoke, say nothing either. I am prepared to scold, but it seems I won't have to. It's one of those eerily perceptive moments of which children are sometimes capable, I suppose.
From my position at the back of the crowd, I can see the damp patches on every back above the red velvet of the straight backed chairs. Men mop and ladies blot; all to no avail. With everyone crowded together beneath the canopy, the temperature rises steadily and there is simply no hope of staying dry. I'm sure my own back, though not pressed against crushed velvet, is sporting a sizeable damp patch as well. I can feel the sweat trickling and tickling in multiple streams all over my body. I did not think to bring a handkerchief, so I have nothing with which to halt their maddening progress. My boys are wriggling surreptitiously, clearly having the same problem. Jerry sweats heavily beside me, but does not mop or wriggle. He is as still as one of the many statues in the graveyard behind us; his expression every bit as stony.
Finally Brother Dwight takes his place in front of the casket. He is color is high, and his glorious mustache has wilted dramatically. Most of the men have shed their jackets, rolled up their shirt sleeves and loosened their collars, but Brother Dwight still wears his vest and jacket. He mops his brow frequently, but still sweat falls onto the Bible he holds in his hands. He wipes the drops from the pages with his handkerchief, while blinking ferociously against the new drops that have already formed on his brow. His remarks are brief, there is no call to Glory. It's hot as hell, and it seems that is too hot for salvation.
She was a good woman, God will welcome her. She is going home and we should rejoice. Heads nod and a few half-hearted Amens are offered. It seems the heat has stolen the zeal from these mourners. A hasty but heartfelt prayer is said, and then it is time for the final good-bye. The heat makes people unwilling to linger, but there is no wish to leave their little Mother just yet. Her children touch the casket reverently. Linda and Barbara Jean hold one another in a damp embrace as they whisper their goodbyes. The men clasp one another by the shoulder and wait with heads bowed as their wives and sisters mourn. Her sons are stoic. Because as heartbroken as they all are over the loss of this remarkable woman, their grief is tempered by hope. They are convinced they will see her again. It is as beautiful as it is baffling.
"Good bye Mama. I'll see you in heaven."
"Good by Mama. God keep you 'til we're together again."
"Good by Mama. Go with Jesus. We'll be with you soon."
"Good by Mama. You're goin' home now."
"I love you Mama. We'll all be together in Glory soon."
Each person passes the casket and takes a rose. It's a somber procession, with many tears and few words. I usher my children towards the van, so husband and the rest of the family can have their last moments with her. We make the long trek up the hill to the graveled parking area without speaking. I turn on the van and crank the dial on the air conditioner to the highest setting. The boys settle in, instantly soothed by the air that streams warmly from the vents. Any air movement, no matter how tepid, is like balm on a wound. Their shoulders slump and they begin the self tranquilizing process at which children are so adept. I am envious of the ease with which they shed the events of the day. I know I will not do so quite so adroitly. Neither will Husband. I foresee a long night ahead of us.
I stand outside the van, watching the crowd thin. I do not want to witness that leave taking. I do not want to watch that casket being lowered into the ground. So instead I admire the stately lines of the small white country church, the graceful green hills into which it is nestled, and the neatly tended graves that dot the landscape around it like children around a mother's skirts.
Soon most of the mourners have departed. Husband lingers, talking with some of his people. There are so many, and he doesn't see them often. There are folks here today he hasn't seen since he was a child. I hate to rush him, but I am anxious to go as well.
Despite my resolve not to, I glance back at the gravesite. Jerry stands alone in front of the casket, one hand on the glossy, varnished surface, head bowed, shoulders shaking at last with sobs I can see and feel, but not hear. A man in overalls turns a crank and the casket begins to sink slowly into the ground. Jerry's hand and body follow the casket until he is kneeling. The casket is flush with the ground for an instant, and then slips quietly below the earthen threshold. Jerry's hand doesn't leave the casket and for a moment I fear he will tumble in after it. But he doesn't. His hand leaves the casket and curls into a fist, which he cradles against his chest like a broken wing. I see his lips move and I know the single word he has he has uttered..."Mama".
Husband suddenly reappears at my side.
"Let's go, Baby." his voice is thick and weary.
"What about him?" I ask, inclining my head towards Jerry, still kneeling at the gravesite below.
Husband looks for a long moment.
"He's not ready to leave her yet." he says.
Nobody is ever ready, I think, to leave their Mother in a hole in the ground. But all of us have to. All of us will. Even Jesus can't make it any easier. For all I don't know about faith and conviction, I am certain of that fact.
"But he needs..."
"He needs his Mama, baby." says husband softly.
As we watch, Jerry gets to his feet. He lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. His shoulders square, and then he begins the long slow climb up the hill. The words of the sweet, soulful hymn from the service come back to me.
He has decided then. He will....Press On.