Four Funerals

Death is black news. So enormous it seems to blot even the stars from the sky. The absence of one person is enough to unbalance the earth’s axis. Too soon, every time shocking, when informed, you’ll never hear a loved one’s voice again. When notified a friend no longer exists. When confronted with the brute fact a family member no more lives, laughs, or thinks. Everything they were slowly wiped from the living into the grave.  History crawling forward, bringing all of us closer to the dust. Death is chaos and unweaving, hollowing out of carefully laid plans. Death reminds that we are fragile, that our lives inch toward the dissolving.

I was told recently of another friend’s passing.

K. was only twenty four, an aspiring stand up comedian.  Chasing dreams, out on the American west coast.  I remember her laughing. Laughing about a heckler of her act, laughing at her own clumsiness, laughing at the world’s beautiful morbidity. We would often talk late at night.  We both had a sense for the absurd, the way nothing about this world made sense.  What could you do other than laugh together?  To keep the gargantuan emptiness of a confusing and strange world neither of us seemed to belong in at bay.

She would tell me of her travels. New Zealand mist, the bluffs of Oregon, cities of light, sound, and humanity. She would remind me more existed than the pettiness of tumbleweeds I found myself stuck among like a ship waiting for a tide.  I could taste another world through her stories, like a sea breeze through a crack in the prison wall. She accepted everyone, the fallen through the cracks, the excluded, the exiled from society. Probably what led her to befriend me. My friend had a tender heart, could not stand to see anyone suffer without wanting to help.

K. was also a heroin addict.  Heroin killed her in a gradual descent into the dark.

She is forever frozen at twenty four, her life a fractured sentence that smears softly to extinction.

How strange this is: I will change, I will age, but she has passed into the timelessness of death — where she no longer turns with the gears of the world, or hears the call of those who cared for her. Her thoughts are incomplete, her dreams unfulfilled, all she wanted to achieve falls off half-way. The curtain fell, though her life had barely begun.

My grandfather’s was the first funeral I attended.

I didn’t understand at age four what it meant, didn’t grasp the finality. Didn’t know this would be my last glimpse of the mysterious man, who always had a new matchbox car for me whenever he visited. Who took me with him to feed his cows in the mornings. Who burned tobacco, praying in the way of his ancestors. Who kept books by Plato and Spinoza on his shelf.

At age twenty three now, I still don’t understand.

I know my grandfather mostly through a cassette he left for us grandchildren. I think he knew his time and ours wouldn’t overlap for long. I think that’s why he made the recording. Some nights I play his tape, contemplate the words of a man twenty years gone. He speaks with a voice so similar to my own. In pictures, I see his eyes. They burn still. My dad, my brothers, my uncle, me, we have the same hazel eyes.

In his tape, grandpa talks about the idea of home. Home will catch a person, even when the world throws them away. He talks about kicking around without purpose in the American Midwest. Out in society at large, away from the reservation, he was worn and troubled. Eventually Grandpa enlisted in the military. He gained prestige in World War II by capturing a Pacific island hill, though his comrades fell around him, and the odds seemed poised to send them all back in caskets that day. He was a hero. Yet he would lose honor too. Grandpa was no saint, no sage of lofty perfection. He was a common man. Everyone remembers the times he was ridiculous, the times he was mean, the times he faltered, as well as his times of wisdom, and kindness.

Grandfather returned to the reservation.  He says coming back to Wolf Creek is what saved his life. He hoped it would always be there through the generations for any of our family to come home to, when the world tossed them away. He talks of immersing himself in the spirituality his ancestors followed, long before skyscrapers loomed, and highways tangled across this continent. Home, coming home, the green green grass of home, these are things he thought important for my generation to hear: “You have a place on this earth, and it is good.” By his elder age, grandpa was a man respected for his wisdom. I hear things he said repeated sometimes, by people who have kept them for decades, kindled in their minds.

Sometimes I wish I could talk to my grandfather, just once, in my adult age. Wish I could roll down the old dirt lane, and he would be there, just once. We were not ready for him to go. I wish I could have known that deep voice in the tape reel. There is so much we had to learn, that vanished with him, with the elder generation. I know he wanted to be there to help us through our crossroads, to be a refuge his family could seek during the tempests, but death overthrew his plans.

Now I’m left with only the memory, one of my first memories, of my dad’s vigil until midnight at grandfather’s wake. A handful of mementos, keepsakes, little pieces found around the family property, are all I can hold of my grandfather. Stones of his sweat lodge, rotted beams of his horse corral, rusted scrap of his old truck. These are all that reminds a man ever lived, aside from memories the living still carry.

C. was a kid I grew up with. A year older than me, we would often face off in youth basketball leagues and soccer seasons. As we grew to teenagers together in the boredom of a small Nebraska border town, we became friends.

We shared hobbies of card collecting, listening to heavy metal, reading sci fi. I remember I faked sick once in middle school. A teacher sent C. to my house to retrieve a textbook she had loaned me. He just sat down, played video games with me the entire afternoon, disregarding the woman’s orders.

The bald head of the principle was beet red, forehead vein throbbing with every screech the next day.

“I’ve never seen such disrespect and blatant unconcern for rules in all my years!” He hollered.

I don’t remember our response, but I remember it made that bald head go another shade of scarlet.

In high school, C. moved to another town. He faded from communication. I lost all touch, as happens when friends are thrown apart. I never heard about him again until the announcement of his death.

C. was a rarity, somewhat quirky. Every school has that guy who marches slightly askew to his own drum.  C. was ours. Many liked C., most at least tolerated him in our little town. Yet where he moved, the kids were ruthless, harassing him viciously every day of his existence there. School became a misery. Home life wasn’t a haven either.  All this history of course I learned second hand, long after everything was done.

Here, I can only speculate. I suppose he felt trapped. I suppose he felt hopeless. I suppose he felt life wasn’t worth living anymore.

I will always remember the eulogy, the recounting of his end.  The last day of his life, he came home crying. He ran past his mother, would not talk to her. C. locked himself in his room, and as his family beat on the door, pleading with him to come out, he took his own life with a hunting rifle.

His funeral was at the Methodist church. The small town he left as a high school sophomore, he returned to in a closed casket.  It seemed like everyone was there.  And everyone was crying.  Even those that never seemed to notice him, they were crying.

Death is a question mark, upturned toward silence. Death is prompter of many reckonings, with god, with fellow humans, with a person’s own self. Death can be a catalyst of many inner struggles. The dealing with death is where much of my own character was formed.

My uncle was a man fallen through the cracks of society. He was every story of self-obliteration you ever heard, endless potentials drowned in alcohol.

He crashed in the gutter, never quite pulled himself free. Those who knew him in his youth say he had a sharp mind. They say he was a basketball whiz. No reason he couldn’t have been successful as anyone. Yet his demons imprisoned him, kept him from soaring toward anything greater.

Uncle always seemed morose.  I felt sad for him when I was a kid. I’d see him hobbling on the side of the road, when they would say “there’s uncle”, as the car passed. He became a slave to addiction, was homeless most of his adult life. Family tried to help him. They gave him money to attend school. He disappeared into the streets, never even showed for the first day of classes. They gave him places to stay. He would take a few things to pawn and leave.

Hungry demons sunk talons deep in my uncle, until there wasn’t much of the man left.

Yet he never forgot his family. He was not selfish, or a bad guy — only addicted. He tried to keep himself hidden in his worse moments. When sober, he would approach to chat, if he saw us around town. He always ended those conservations by saying “love you guys.” Though he had nothing in this world, the little money he got from leasing his land to ranchers each month, he would offer, wanting to know if we needed anything. Wanting to know if his nephews needed something to eat, or would like a soda from the convenience store.

One stark winter evening, snowstorm sweeping in from the north, temperatures plummeting below freezing, my uncle sought shelter from the cold in a dumpster.

The garbage collector, unable to hear his shouting, crushed him in the dump truck’s trash compacter.

They didn’t find him until the truck returned to the waste facility. He clung to life, barely. The flight for life helicopter was called to the scene. My uncle died in the air, on his way to Rapid City Regional Hospital.

“Man died in trash facility accident.”

A sensational headline grabbed attention in a small town that thrives on gossip. Seemed my uncle’s death was on everyone’s lips for a time. The Christian youth group I was forced to attend wednesday nights prayed for his soul. There was empty bravado about establishing a homeless shelter in my uncle’s name. The high school social studies teacher tried to incorporate his death in a lesson about poverty.

I said nothing. I don’t think they knew I was the homeless man’s nephew. Yet inwardly, I seethed.

Because none seemed to truly care that a man had died gruesomely. It was entertainment, chatter to distract from life’s idleness.

The only gesture I found poignant was a memorial someone placed in the park next to the railroad tracks. My uncle slept there often, near the abandoned rail yard. For some time afterwards, whoever placed it there faithfully set fresh flowers next to the wooden plaque engraved with his name.

His funeral was held near the baseball fields at the town’s perimeter. Grey clouds devoured visibility in their damp chills. A gentle watery sky hung above, a mist clung to the air like a lump in the throat. The weather, the elements, seemed to grieve for an old friend. As if the rain herself wore a black veil, and stood at the doors, waving goodbye, to a man who knew all the faces of nature well, from making bed in the grass, looking to the cosmos above the train yard before sleep.

I don’t remember much of the memorial service. My thoughts were absorbed trying to reconstruct the agony of my uncle’s final seconds, the horror of being crushed in a machine.

And it was there I realized nothing exists to catch people fallen through the cracks. No force in the cosmos gives hope, looks out for, the lost causes, the lost persons. There is just humanity, and my uncle was an instance where humanity failed.

Into the waters, the funeral procession trudged, bringing my uncle’s coffin to his burial plot. At the graveside, singers trilled a Lakota death song. Fog thickened until we could barely see, as cars sloshed past on a nearby highway. Rain residue stuck to tears, until the two couldn’t be distinguished from each other.

A man, middle aged, balding, somewhat scruffy, out of place in his suit, caught my attention. He seemed to be taking the funeral the hardest. He stood in back, crying, audibly sobbing.

After words were said, and my uncle’s coffin was lowered into the dirt, I stood awhile longer. Exhausted, disoriented, feeling the numb strangeness that always follows burying someone.

The crying man approached me.

“Were you related to the deceased?” He asked.

“Yeah. He was my uncle.” I replied.

His voice quivered, and he seemed about to collapse in the slump of his shoulders.

“I was the one who drove the truck when he was killed. I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”

He needed my forgiveness. Needed to hear — something — that to this day I can’t quite place. I wished he’d spoken to my grandma, to my other uncles, to anyone else, yet here he was, in the rain, before me.

I searched my feelings toward this man and found no bitterness. Found no ill will towards him.

So I said: “It’s a horrible thing that happened. But we don’t blame you. It’s not your fault he was in that dumpster, or that he lived the life he did. I’m glad you came today. It means a lot.”

He acknowledged my words with a nod, seemed to subdue his sobbing.

I walked away, toward the cars, out from the mist, back to busy routines. He stayed. How long I don’t know. Alone, pondering my uncle’s grave.

Death, finally, is a mirror. Death is our own reflection. Death is the destination life propels us toward, young and old, weak and mighty, great and meager. I look now, at the scheme of my own life.

I’m just a loner named Tom, ambling among tumbleweeds, drifting the highways. I’ve been without aim, directionless as spinning weathervanes.

Sit with me awhile, I’ll strum you a song on the guitar. Others could probably play it better, but it pleases me to warble along.

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