What is it that they are all doing over there?
I read recently from a famous author quoting another famous author who said that the hardest part about death is the first night. I picture myself in a grave or turning to ashes or having those ashes loaded into a firecracker and shot up into the sky to be scattered at the finale of my funeral. Maybe the funeral is the easiest part– when your friends and family and people who you forgot loved you gather into one room and wish they had more time. Maybe the spirit or the soul or the presence of the dead lingers, abiding by each cultural norm, waiting in the aisles and the walls for the priest to call the final Rest in Peace– the metaphorical shotgun blast that can send them racing, finally, to the next place. Or to the Nothing.
But then, what is it that they are all doing? The dead, that is. With all of the science and history and tarot cards and religion we’ve acquired to this point, how is it that we have no idea what’s going on over there? How is it that their whereabouts and goings ons are wrapped up in the same sleeping bear mysteries such as what day did Earth begin and where is Amelia Earhart and what the hell is a 401K? And how, with all their suspected suspension from time, have they not thought to send a nice card or phone call or telepathic message? What is it that they are doing after the dying is done and the mystery is gone? Do they spend their timeless days bettering their deadness? Do they worry that they are not getting everything out of death as we worry whether or not we are truly living? Do all of my dead know each other, now, and meet at boutique bars where they discuss the benefits of consuming raw worm heads compared to the glistening, manufactured sparkling star juice that’s so popular right now?
I had a belly full of waffles and a head full of pop songs as we drove to Scottsboro, Alabama last Saturday morning. We didn’t say much about Uncle Bob and Aunt Joanne as we catered bottled water and homemade candies to my 2-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew. I didn’t ask many questions about the car accident that took their lives four days earlier, or really want many answers to the questions I did ask. I wanted, more than anything, to believe this was all on purpose. That two people who loved each other more than anything, who realized they were aging faster than living, who were well into their 80’s, decided that they couldn’t take the thought of being without the other. I wanted to believe they made themselves an unspoken pact at that tree, and let the car crumble so their hearts wouldn’t have to.
When we visited them late last summer, Uncle Bob toured me through the family history and the steel industry as we sat, gnawing on black licorice and letting the thick smell of cigarettes saturate our clothes like it saturated the carpet, his pack of Freedoms resting beside his easy chair. There, he introduced me to their wall of death. Their parents, their children, their spouses, all gone and able to watch from photographs as Bob and Joanne watched their television. It is far easier to believe in secret death pacts than to imagine one or the other of them adding a picture of their beloved to that wall.
We sat in the last row marked for family, behind the many unfamiliar faces of our family. I had practiced in my head how I might introduce myself, “Hello, I am Uncle Bob’s great niece. Jim’s youngest granddaughter.” But all my practicing was foiled by mild blubbers and mumbles as I watched Joanne and Uncle Bob sleep endlessly, her fingers still bruised, his silver pocket watch wound and ticking by his head.
I fidgeted while one souped up Alabama theological doctorate dressed as their consoling pastor prattled off three fun facts about each of them before spending the next 25 minutes converting a grieving captive audience. I imagined him prepping for the service, strategizing his move to the weeping jugular of collected souls. I imagined even Jesus Christ being able to put aside his impossible agenda for a day to celebrate two lives instead of his cross. Then I imagined Jesus Christ picking up his cross and walking out, shaking his head, and maybe whapping the young Christian buck on the back of the head as he turned around.
Later that night, I imagined Bob and Joanne in the grave. What is it they were doing down there? Tapping out secret messages? Waiting for the other to collect their things so they could leave? Were they open and afraid, minds washed blank, waiting on the waiting…
But this is how we live with the dead. We stand in the confusion of a missing person. We walk to these open caskets and we wait for a response. My niece, Saffron, says hello. She wonders why they are sleeping in a full room. Then, as she is carried away, she waves her hand over her mother’s shoulder and whispers, “Bye-bye!” She played in the pew while I fidget three people down. And then, when the preacher has quit preaching and everyone stands, she looks alarmed. “Where is Uncle Bob? Where is Uncle Bob? Where is Uncle Bob?”