Funeral Watch: The First Day
Really, this is two firsts. My first death in a large family, and my first organic death.
I’ve been in Smyrna, Georgia for less than twenty-four hours, watching as family and friends gather for the death of my father-in-law, Charles L. Allen, Sr.
It’s a noisy process, though that doesn’t surprise me. What does confuse me is the joyfulness of it all.
Not joy in the death, of course. Joy in regrouping, whether days or years have passed.
Friends have arrived from Sugar Grove, less than twenty minutes from the house, and family is here from Columbus, Ohio. For the first six hours the conversation is around other things. The grown children and their friends discuss television, music, stupid stunts they tried as wild boys in the woods of Georgia. The children of those children – well, they vary – the two sisters bicker or talk about their peers, the elder boy regales me with stories from games of Battlefront and Call of Duty, talks of his dream to become a premium YouTube sensation. The toddler races his toy truck from sun room to kitchen, impervious to any outside sorrows.
Mrs. Allen is receiving church ladies in the dining room. I don’t want to intrude, but mostly, there are kind words and gentle touches. Casseroles, Coca-cola, and chocolate cake. What I hear is talk of travels with the church group as far afield as South Dakota. I hear laughter and see smiles.
It’s comforting, though hard to wrap my head around. Somehow I’ve become more familiar with somber reflection than open joy, and my own talk of Batman and barbecue seems like it should alienate rather than bond. In a way, it’s a comfort when the friends file out and only family is left.
Even then, though, they’re siblings. They tease, tweak, and taunt one another.
“What room are you in,” asks Sheila, and Lois replies “Two-oh-seven and two-oh-nine.”
“Well, so much for sleeping,” Mitch sighs, “They’ll be pranking us all night.”
Mrs. Allen tells the story of the night they met, fifty-five years ago. It’s too funny a story to keep anyone down, though – with apologies – I’ll keep it to the family for the time being. Leanne and I set to work packing away five whole untouched pizzas, making room for pitchers of sweet tea by removing pitchers of plain water.
I warn that the pizza boxes in a recycling bin will attract raccoons and possum, and am assured they don’t come by as often as rats do. Finally, my chance to make a joke – “Well, that’s all right, then.”
Eventually the family, too, files out the door. My wife and I sit with her mother, and this is more familiar territory. My birth family is small, their circles close and tight. Here we can discuss what still needs doing.
Collect the truck from his hunting camp and sign the title to the camper over. Do we want to drive the truck back to Chicago? No, love it as she does, Leanne knows it wouldn’t make the journey. Cancel the appointments with the dentist, neurologist, general practitioner.
The details soothe me, if nobody else; and so do the eventual tears.
It’s not that I want those left behind to be task-oriented and sorrowful at such a time.
It’s just all I know.
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