After the usual pleasantries with the local mortician at Marshall’s Funeral Home, updating him on my latest report card and confirming that art is still my favorite class, it was time to get to the business of stealing candy.
I spent much of my childhood in the funeral home. Grandparents, great grandparents, Sunday school teachers, cousins, friends, people I’d never met: it was a rotation of faces in the same glossy box with the same bouquets and the same cast of characters on either side of the receiving line. Old ladies clucked their tongues and old men shook their heads while my friends and I ran rampant in the cool downstairs basement, experimenting with powdered coffee creamer in our tea and spooking ourselves with the infant coffins kept in the back room we weren’t allowed in, but always found ourselves shooed out of.
My father led the protocol of laughter. When we were inevitably suspended from the basement on account of mischief, he wrangled us to the corner of the viewing room where the floral stench was at its minimum, and transformed a gaggle of uncomfortably dressed kids into an espionage unit. We were sent on missions to ensure that the corpse wasn’t moving, bending our faces, one at a time, close to the chemically bloated skin and pancake make up, and reporting back. We were ordered to avoid the decorative vases, on account of them being “the last guy’s funeral” (note: this instigated my early wish to be cremated after death, accidentally left in other people’s funerals, and ultimately shot up in a firecracker). Most importantly, however, we were sent to find every candy dish in the joint, inconspicuously empty the contents, and bring our booty back to my father. He would pay us our share, and place the rest in his own pockets. The striped peppermints and green anise sugar drops would reward each completed tasks for the next two days, through hours of visitation and weepy services and American flag laden coffins being walked away by old men in pointed hats and church basement casseroles and hymns that are older than the dead themselves.
These are the best parts I took from a string of unfortunate events, the quartz from pallets, the diamonds from roughs, treasures from trash, and all the other things we say about making good from bad situations. These are the memories that also caused me to falsely inform the other half of my band, Scott, that I’m “really good at funerals” as we traveled at 80 mph from Nashville to Chattanooga to attend the funeral of our pal– a fellow musician friend we’d known for three short years. When you’re a traveling band like we are, you make these “road friends,” who become your real friends, who house you when you pass through, and who you return the favor to when they are in your town, and who you share these evening-long experiences of music and drinking on each other’s porches, who you make promises with to meet up halfway when touring subsides and you have just one free afternoon to be “real time” friends outside of late night shows. These are the people with whom you are your most hopeful: your best self. And you love them like you wish you loved your family.
This year, I learned that we, as artists and travelers, are in the business of watching our friends die. We are swept from each city, leaving pieces of ourselves behind with a return address. And then we wait at home with our selves all scattered about and hope, for once, that this delivery will never be made. But it is– it always is– because we are also in the business of having our hearts broken.
On this April Monday, the package came as a phone call.
“We lost Josh,” our friend Scotty said. “He, um… did it himself.”
You see, we are in this business by birth and by choice. The business of loving bigger and writing it out for the rest of the world. And sometimes this long range of emotion is confusing, because our co-workers in this field sometimes fall victim to the work itself. And then we all lose. And we, the carriers, must then take on that fallen one’s load, too. And we must, for a time, blame ourselves for not helping to carry it earlier.
Because we are not in the business of pretending it is none of our damn business.
It was two nights before I slept. The first night was impossible. The nagging feeling that I should wait… I lit a Mary candle to keep me company, and we waited together. We sometimes faded, seeing Josh behind my eyelids. But then Mary and I also saw him in her flickering– in my chair. By my door.
My friend Bryan, who I am convinced I need to start paying to listen to me, told me I accidentally held Shivah– waiting with the body so the soul knows even during its transition that it is not alone– and that he is loved.
What I believed was this: what if he wants to come home again and finds us only sleeping? Who will be there to tell him to stay? Who will be there to tell him it’s okay and we love him and we want him here with us?
Shivah, maybe. Or maybe the hope that a mistake can be reversed. Maybe all that checking to make sure the body wasn’t moving those years ago gave me too much hope.
The next night, there was a sunset. I could spend time explaining its likeness to a Saharan haze and a Neptune moon and a dragon’s fiery eye with feathery scales, but in hindsight, it was likely just a sunset. And I am not a believer in sunsets, anymore. Not like I was– when a twilight sky was the palm of god’s hand opening to me. I gave up on my belief in sunsets sometime when I gave up my belief in cable television.
But I believed in this one. I believed that if Josh had waited just one more day, this one would’ve had the power to keep him living.
I told him so.
Somewhere, I think he agreed.
And we watched the sky creature’s eye sink low into sleep together.
The next day, I knew he was gone. I thought about the lone vulture I had seen late Monday afternoon. The bird who, Bryan says, stands for us in the gaps of life and death. The only one capable of digesting the stickiness that comes with the unforeseen end of things.
I’m still looking for the buried treasure in all of it. I, with an overflowing room full of people, bawled our way through a funeral, with not a peppermint candy in sight. And we are now in the business of seeking a cure for what happened. To write more. To listen harder. To love bigger. And to meet up halfway like we said we would sooner rather than later.