I shove the key into the lock on the back of my car and twist it open, pop the hatch, and outs pops a good number of my worldly possessions, avalanching out. Everything I own is in my car, and right now I’m like the Dutch boy, sticking my thumbs in the holes, trying to keep my life from spilling onto the hot streets. Shoeboxes of photos. A crate of old records. A guitar I don’t know how to play. All wrapped in my embrace. And somewhere in this mess is my only suit. It is blue, which I doubt is appropriate for a funeral, but it is better than nothing.
My hands are full of everything I own, and I’m not sure what to do next.
* * *
I was 10 when I went to my first funeral. My great uncle, Milt, up and died a painful death before his time. He had been beekeeper in life and always very kind to me. The casket had been wide open and my grandfather and I went up to it. Me, out of morbid curiosity. Him, out of something else altogether. I was shocked dumb when I saw Great Uncle Milt, looking so plastic and handmade, but Grandpa addressed him with a robust familiarity. “Hey Milt,” he said. I never heard him greet anyone any other way. He said nothing else for some time and I watched him watching Great Uncle Milt.
“Now you know,” he said, his hand on my back, “that’s not really him.”
“Yeah, I know.”
* * *
I step back from my car, arms akimbo, and the dam bursts in slow motion. Boxes tip, spilling their contents. A jar of coins. A crate of books. And I just watch it happen. It’s very hot and I am tired.
I moved to the South a week ago, into northern Florida. A hurricane named Deb arrived about the same time as I did, and we’ve been testing each other’s mettle ever since. I’m staying with a friend, looking for an apartment, living out of a green canvas bag and a North Face backpack. I feel like a barnacle in the tide, latching onto any hospitable-looking surface. And, like a barnacle, little of my fate is left in my own control.
It’s easy to say all this happened at a bad time for me. But then, death is always an interruptor. I went to my boss of five days and told him, almost sheepishly, that I’d have to be gone for a few days.
“Oh,” he said, kindly. “Were you close to him?”
I can’t think of a good way to answer.
* * *
I walk out to my parent’s porch early one morning. I’m home from college, and my grandfather is there, drinking coffee, reading the paper.
“There he is!” he says to me, as if I’d just returned from war. I sit, and we talk of school and football. And then he looks across the meadow. The sun pastels all the colors, and over it all, birdsong.
“Do you know different bird calls?” he asks me. I told him that I did not.
“Listen,” he says. There’s a clear and cheery string of ten or so syllables, rising and falling like a rubber ball.
“That’s a robin,” he says, and then whistles in response.
And then, a noisy screech.
“Do you know that one?” he asks.
And he smiles.
“Well,” he says. “That’s about all I know.”
* * *
I’ve opened suitcases and boxes in the Florida streets, rummaging through their contents while cars honk and drive around me and I hold my arms out at them fiercely as if to tackle their cars off the street. Somewhere in here, somewhere, I have black shoes. If I can’t have a black suit, I will at least wear black shoes. He deserves that much. I open one box, and find brown ones. I open another and find only sneakers and sandals. Here’s my dress shoes, all right where I packed them. All except my one black pair. My plane is leaving in three hours. I only arrived here five days ago.
Why did he have to die now? Why, when everything was so much better with him alive?
* * *
Six months ago, at my sister’s wedding. I was an usher, and sat near the very back of a cavernous auditorium. The groomsmen had walked in. My sister walked down the aisle, calmer than I would have dreamed for a bride on her wedding day. And she took her place by the groom and my grandfather stood up with a microphone. I did not know he’d been given a role to play. He stood up slower than usual, but not with the shakiness I’d grown accustomed to from him.
“Let’s pray,” he said.
“Our gracious and heavenly Father, we are so thankful to be gathered together here today,” he began, as he always did. And I do believe he spoke truly, every time. I know now that I was wrong to not be more thankful than I was.
* * *
I’m standing in the middle of the Florida streets, all my boxes open, everything I have open and available to the elements. It is raining. Everything I have is getting wet in the streets. Traffic swerves around me, and I’m too tired to care. I grab the brown shoes out of the street.
“Fine.” I say, in my own prayer.
“Sorry, Grandpa! I’m sorry you get brown shoes!” I kick a box over.
And I look into the merciless and silent sky, and wonder what it will take for God to finally just let us keep one thing that we love.
* * *
My grandfather’s greatest loves were God, family and music. When holidays came, he could combine all three and that was when he was at his happiest. One Christmas found him frail and weary, battered by chemo. We were shut in by a snowstorm and disheartened by travel and his own affliction. We attempt a meal. A story. Nothing is sticking. Conversation rumbles in screeching jolts. And then he starts singing.
“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”
“Down in my heart!”
“Down in my heart!”
“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.
“Down in my heart to stay.”
* * *
I’m the only one wearing a suit to the funeral, and the casket is wide open. He looks better than most corpses do. A little odd around the lips, perhaps, but he looks like I remember him. I sit in front of the casket with my brother and sisters and look straight ahead, unblinking. I’ve been told about the temptation to talk to the dead, but had underestimated how easy it is. The naturalness of it.
“Hey Grandpa,” I say.
“You know,” he says, from somewhere. “That’s not really me.”