SUE NEWCOMB MOWRER
When Pop died, he had completed eighty years, six months, and seventeen days, abandoning his body somewhere between midnight and seven on the second of January, leaving a few of us behind to mourn, to survive, to tie up the untidy ends that come with departing this life. I am left. I am abandoned as my mother is abandoned, but she has post-stroke dementia, rolling into Alzheimer's and couldn't take care of a cat, even if she could remember what a cat is or what a cat's good for, if a cat's good for anything at all.
When Pop died, it was in California, miles and miles from his heart, miles and miles from a Kansas life so cussed and so cursed that he had abandoned it half a century before, leaving behind the few bits of a barn that hadn't been burned that final winter, stick by stick when there was no money for coal, dragging a Kansan wife and Kansan child in his wake until the absence of land forced him to stop. In all those years between departure and death, he had mourned the absence of Kansas from his feet. His people were there, waiting on him, come on back, son, come back, and he yearned to be counted among them. Even the brother who had died in the war, lost forever in the roiling water, had been anchored to the flat, hard ground in marble. Kansas was home. It was always home. It would always be home. It could never be anything but home. And in Pop's telling and retelling of the stories of that life, of the life he had lived and left and mourned, it had become my home, mythic in proportion and scope, it was Paradise Lost and Paradise Found, it was the new Promised Land. He could not rest outside it. I could not rest until he did.
My mother is awake now, dressed and looking for breakfast, something to chew on, grist for the mill, when the end-of-life nurse arrives. Mom is convinced that Pop is still sleeping and her color rises. You need to be quiet, she hisses at us, don't you wake him up. He'll want his coffee when he wakes up and it's not ready. Let him sleep until I can get the coffee perked. The nurse whispers to me, muted by crazy, almost as if we're in chapel, Death being so close upon us and everyone but my mother so painfully aware of its proximity. His job is quite specific in nature, so unnatural in execution. He must confirm there are no signs of life, that all that had made Pop who he is, who he was, is now absent and gone somewhere that remains unnamed. The nurse must make a tour of the house, collecting all the narcotics that are too dangerous for a grieving family to dispose of properly, drugs with which a child and a wife cannot be trusted. He takes down the intravenous bag, removes the lines, and places the infamous tag on Pop's big left toe, a ridiculous toe of improbable magnitude with a distinct list to the left. On the tag, I see Pop's name and a number, tagged like so much baggage to be tracked down the road for someone else to carry. The nurse covers the body from the neck down with a crisp white sheet, the top folded down precisely eighteen inches and smoothed softly to form a cautious crease. It seems odd to me at the moment, such an exact eighteen inches with such a careful crease, but it was something the end-of-life nurse did on a regular basis so I assumed he knew what he was doing and why. I couldn't ask. I would have to think about that later.
The carry van arrives bearing two solemn men in dark polos; there is no noise to betray their arrival, no chatter, no radio from the cab of their windowless white van. Every movement they make is circumspect, no flourish, no fanfare, their hands clasped behind their backs at parade rest, their feet still between intended steps. It isn't as easy as you'd think, removing mortal remains from a home with a family looking on, watching what you're about to do with and to the one they love, there to witness every tiny detail of final contact. Care must be taken, respect must be shown. The remains must be transferred to a travel gurney with three sets of ratchet belts, and they proceed as if Pop were a flag to be folded, the last flag removed from a battlefield on which the battle has been lost, reverently, a sorrowful protocol for every move. The body is strapped down tightly across the chest at the upper arms over the tattoo that once read Marie but that had long ago gone to mush, a source of perpetual regret for Pop; at the waist, they cross a now concave belly heavily scarred by multiple surgeries, testament to a life that had been incised; and over the shins quite hairless where years of boot rub had lain them bare, the straps are tugged tight against loose skin gone slack. Pop is trussed tight and is now safe to carry at precipitous angles, no fear of pitching him out like so much waste, out the door, down the tight half-flight of stairs and into the carry van. Neighbors are watching out their kitchen windows now, gaping, gawking, cringing, praying that Death will be content with just one soul. Oh, sweet Jesus, someone died. Someone died and they're carrying him right out the front door. Why aren't they using a hearse? Is it the coroner? Did you want more toast? Do you want me to warm up your coffee?
I sit at the maple table that I hate, a testament to my mother's poor taste, and finish the paperwork that will be given over to the county coroner – who was here when Pop died, what time was it, what did he die of, where was he born, what's his birthday, where is he going now, and who's taking him there. He's just so many facts and numbers reduced to a chunk of paper for the county to process like last year's property taxes. I ask, half-beg the nurse to talk to my mother, Can you keep her busy so I can go say goodbye on my own? Is the van unlocked? I suppose no one concerns themselves with the wrinkled, dead bodies of old men being snatched out of windowless vans at this time in the morning. I slide the side door open carefully as if it would matter if the door should catch or complain, so smooth, so quiet a baby could sleep through the opening of this door. There's a heavy blanket of green velour rolled and folded neatly around and over the body and head of what had been my pop until sometime between midnight and seven this morning. I pull them back gently, the blanket and those eighteen inches of crisp white sheet that had been so neatly turned up and over his head, and there I find my Pop, quiet, peaceful, utterly composed. I kiss him on the forehead, so cool, so cool, and so dry when his skin touches my lips. I love you, Pop. You go on now, you're done down here. You go on and hold the Gate open. We'll all be along, by and by. I'm not crying. I'm only sad, dreadfully, deeply, horribly, unspeakably sad. I don't cry.
I first learned my dad was mortal late one afternoon during my sophomore year of high school when he had his first massive heart attack. He had collapsed, a devastating sneak attack by that wretched, traitorous heart, in the presence of almost fifty colleagues, men of the Sheriff's Department who, bless God in all things, were all well-versed in the finer points of restraining Death. Over the years, between heart attacks and hospital stays, Pop was the picture of health – it was all so curious, so misleading, so irritating. He'd buck bales into the barn, he'd break horses, he'd drink and he'd curse and he'd wish he could beat the bejeezus outta them what's got it coming. He said it wasn't fair, it wasn't right that a man like him didn't just drop dead off his horse in the middle of some open range, a man like him shouldn't have to die by littles. It was a travesty and it was wrong.
By the time Pop ran head first into seventy, he was undergoing his second open-heart operation, eight new plumbs on half a heart that had held on for the last twenty years. When the surgeon finally joined those of us waiting for news, we were always waiting, even then somewhere short of midnight, he assured us Pop wouldn't make it to dawn; we were to brace ourselves for what would most assuredly come. He padded over, shoes still covered from surgery, easing his hand onto my shoulder as if his surgeon's hand could excise the stun clean out of me. I could only say, You're wrong. He's not dying today, he's in there waiting for you. You need to finish your job. That's what we're paying you for. The doctor flushed. I understand, he said. You're in shock. This is a lot for you to take in right now. I can write you a prescription for Valium if you want or you could speak with our grief counselor or I can have our chaplain come up to pray with you. He stared through me with those surgeon's eyes, so brown no pupil was visible, humorless eyes that had grown accustomed to being Death's messenger. No, no thank you, no Valium, I'm quite calm, you see? I'm not grieving because it isn't time yet and I'm married to the only clergy I care to speak to. I didn't say my dad isn't ever going to die. I said he isn't going to die today. You need to get back in there. He's waiting on you.
Truly, I'm not crazy. It isn't that I didn't believe my dad wouldn't die someday; I knew he would die, one day. We're all gonna die, eventually. I just knew it wouldn't be that day. It wasn't this time. How could I convey to that surgeon, how can I convey to you, my absolute certainty bordering on religious conviction that I would know the day when it arrived, that I had always known that I would know?
Dawn eventually came. He's still alive but he's not going to last, was all the surgeon said. OK, I say, then we're going in to spend our time with him. My mother is stunned. She'd love to say something, I can see the words rioting behind her eyes looking for a way out, but her mouth only gapes and works itself with no effect. She looks like a giant grouper slung up against my sister, mouth flopping, gills flapping. The doctor persists, No, you can't. It's a sterile environment. You can't go in there. But by now I'm done. I have reached my limit of polite patience and up with this bullshit I will not put, not one more minute. Is he dying or not? Yes, the doctor insists, without a doubt, he is dying. My mother can't make any sense of the words. They won't play in her ears, and she lets out a small series of pitiful groans. They are the best she can manage. I can read her dull blue eyes, What are you saying? You can't talk to a doctor like that. What the hell is wrong with you? No, seriously, if Pop's gonna die, then I don't give two shits on a rock about sterile. In the end, the doctor relents because, after all, if Pop really is going to die, there's no logical reason to preserve the myth of sterility. He's lost the battle, and he knows it.
He leads us back to where Pop is laying, lines coming out of everywhere, plumbed in places you wouldn't think likely, two in his chest, two in his abdomen, one in each side, a catheter leaking light bourbon into a collection bag. He's completely bare except for the tubes, some tape, and a large modesty pad. My mom and sister stop at Pop's feet, holding hands, whimpering, and wiping their eyes. I go to the far side, by his head. Look at you, Pop. You're a mess. I can't let you go out anywhere unattended, can I? Mom looks at me like I have lost my mind, and she has a fair point even if I don't want to give it to her. Look at this hair, Pop. Where's your comb? Did you leave it in a bar? His eyes dart wildly under the lids. He's not waking up, the nurse assures me. It's just a natural reaction to stimulation. My ass. He can hear me. If there's one man on this planet who can open his eyes on elephant meds, it'll be my Pop. I use my fingers to rake, pulling and pushing, tugging his hair into place, smoothing the cranky parts. With every run of my fingers, his eyes slide around under those lids so recently released from surgical tape like he's trying to follow my hand through his hair. I finally get those damn horns knocked down into place, and I say, Now you look like I can take you someplace. But you're gonna have to put on some clothes first, Pop, 'cuz damn, I can't take you out anywhere lookin' like this. The nurse is horrified. I don't give a tinker's rip. Talk to him like he's a baby, and he'll know something's wrong for sure, and I'm not having it.
Six weeks later, I take Pop home from that damn hospital, away from Dr. Shark Eyes, away from nurses who think I'm nuts, away from tubes and hoses and needles and monitors that beep all night long. I stay on at the house for three more weeks until the wounds have cleanly sealed, and he is able to wobble around more or less on his own. One morning, though, while he sits in his recliner watching me clean the incisions and applying Betadine followed by fresh bandages, head down, Pop says to me I saw you. I heard what you said. What, Pop? I didn't say anything. I saw you. I heard you...there. What did you see, Pop? Where? I was there. I heard what that doctor said to you in the hospital...in the waiting room. Pop, you were three rooms away. I know what you said. I saw your mother and sister crying, they believed the doctor, but you didn't. You knew I was waiting. You sent him back and made him do his job. You wouldn't give up, so he couldn't. Doc finally knew, but you knew all along. You knew. Yes, I did.
Eventually, no matter how content I would have been to sit in the doorway of that carry van holding Pop's hand, the hand that had shown me how to hold a set of reins, a hand that had smacked me only once leaving a palm print that covered one entire butt cheek and left a welt for three days, a hand that held me up my entire life and never let me falter, I had to go back into that damned house, I had to get on with the business of Death. I sent my mother in to get his clothes and hoped it would take her half the morning, so I could be left to think in peace. I expected to see his fine black suit come out with a white shirt and red tie, the suit in which he had walked me down an aisle, the suit he had worn on the last few occasions that required a suit of importance. But no, out she came carrying a western suit jacket from the years of Waylon Jennings, a terrible polyester taupe, brown slacks, a cream shirt, and a tie that should have been worn by a drunk at a fiesta – wide, garish, loud, and utterly startling. If he had spilled guacamole on it, no one would have ever noticed. Next to the clothes sat a pair of alligator Tony Lamas, along with a brown paper bag containing fresh underwear and gold-toed socks. Now here's something you should know if you didn't already and the situation should present itself: the dead don't need fresh underwear or gold-toed socks or wing tips, and they especially don't need Tony Lama alligator boots. You can insist on socks if you want and you'll get your way, but shoes, especially Tony Lamas, are definitely not going on. And apparently, there are other requirements for the nether regions, the purpose for which tidy-whities are undeniably insufficient. You should believe me when I say and let's leave it at this, that from the moment the body is vacated, modesty and decorum are sparse.
The handler took the clothing lightly from my mother's arms, but left the boots, socks, and underwear. Bless God, she didn't notice until the carry van was long gone. There was no tantrum when she made her discovery. She did not scream or force me to chase the van down the road shrieking at the top of my lungs, horn blaring, undies, socks, and boots flapping wildly in the wind. But she did not forget. When she packed her own case for the trip, the underwear and socks were stowed carefully on top of her own things in a gallon ziplock bag. There was no room for the boots, and I counted that my second blessing of the day. My own carry-on held a massive supply of my mother's medicines. Believe me once again when I say that, if you have to travel with a woman suffering from Alzheimer's and 9/11 is fresh in everyone's mind, you want a big ol' bottle of Xanax in your bag of tricks and keep it close at hand. Yes, indeed, better living through effective chemistry, that's what I always say. These would be my bywords during this trip; they would remain my bywords for several months, maybe even the next several years.
When we finally check in at our motel, two flights and a very long drive later, I dump our bags onto our beds. My mother sets her case on the dresser and looks around the room, lost and agitated. It’s almost three hours from Kansas City down to home, and it’s hard to read a map, keep the car on the road, and take care of a crazy woman with a history of throwing car doors open at high speed, all at the same time, and I’m exhausted. Let me tell you something about my mother: she's more work than three two-year-olds, and the constant babble, her incessant chatter is killing me. She has jabbered through two flights and a three-hour drive, perseverating over every detail of the funeral to come, including the ones about which she has no clue. All I have to say on the subject is now I understand the meaning of “justifiable homicide.”
Our first stop is the funeral home. As the funeral director is kind enough to enlighten us, Kansas state law requires that a coffin be placed in a cement vault consisting of four sides and a floor, a vault topper being optional. The coffin itself is designed to be water-tight for a parched 200 years. Would you like a topper on the vault as well? That way everything will stay dry for at least 400 years at the very minimum, says the director. I feel like I'm at a carnival, barkers calling to me, Get your red hot topper right here, folks! Yessiree, for the paltry sum of $900, you too can be dry for 400 years! You'd have to be a chump to pass up a bargain like that. Yes, my mother says, oh yes, I want a topper on the vault, a topper on his and a topper on mine, too. Fletcher needs to stay dry. I turn my head to avoid laughing out loud. $900 for a chunk of cement to keep your dead ass dry for 400 years. What a racket.
Next we go to the marble shop for a monument because, if your dead dry ass is going to lay somewhere for 400 years, we really ought to mark the spot with something that'll go the distance. The owner greets us, a Mr. Heep smile, Come on into my office, get in here out of that wind. He does not offer to shake my hand, but keeps his own hands jammed deep in his pockets. Would you like some coffee and a sample book to look at? For my own selfish reasons, I suggest to my mother, You should pick out a double monument. That way, you can be sure you get what you want for yourself. I know Pop doesn't give a rat's ass about a headstone. Frankly, he wanted my uncle to nail together a pine box and screw a couple planks down across the top but, clearly, that isn't what's going to happen this week. My mother picks out a double-bomber monument, marble vases at either end, her name on the left, his on the right because that's how they've slept since they were married, their dates of birth carved under their names, his date of death under his as well, hers with a big blank spot in anxious anticipation, a big-ass heart in the middle with the date of their marriage in slanted script. If Pop were here, he'd be laughing himself sick at the sight of all its loopy pretension. It's then I realize an astounding fact: if he'd lived just nine more days, they would have been married sixty-one years. I pray fervently she won't make the connection and insist on a “Happy Anniversary” banner to lay over the coffin. Oh, please God, don't let that flash in that addlepated brain of hers. She's as happy as a clam in cold water when we leave.
The funeral director had run a touching obituary in the local paper with the times of the viewing and funeral and people had taken notice. A few of the old farmers who remembered the family are here, one cousin had come down from Kansas City, one man who had been a friend to my parents since high school is brought in by his son, a few more people I don't know fill the room. My mother sits down in a soft wing chair in her gray sweatsuit with snowmen on the front and tells everyone about her breakfast of biscuits and gravy. She loves biscuits and gravy and she didn't get any on herself today. With all this discussion about food, she hasn't noticed Pop laying in the box just ten feet away but, when she does, all talk stops. She pulls a long box out of her purse and shuffles over to the coffin. She lays the box on Pop's chest and out comes a pile of doo-dads to be arrayed on and around him. First there's a Masonic neck piece. At this angle, she can't raise his head, so she tucks the ends in under his neck, pushing and prodding until the clasp is hidden. Then there's the Masonic tie pin. Next comes the lambskin apron. If she couldn't raise his head, surely she can't raise him at the waist but that doesn’t occur to her at first, and as she leans heavily against the coffin trying to get a better angle, I pray that they don't both go rolling into Sunday. In the end, she resorts to push-and-tuck, and the apron succumbs to her will. Finally, it's his glasses. Glasses? On they go, jammed onto his nose and cocked over the ears. I don't say anything. Instead, I turn and go into the anteroom and sit on a long bench with the funeral home men and start telling stories about my Pop. We are laughing, quietly, but we're laughing. My sister gives me a wicked eyeball complete with arched brow from the viewing room, just daring me to continue in my gypsy ways. I guess you're not supposed to tell stories at a time like this with dead bodies just a few feet away, especially not stories that make you laugh where people can hear you, but I don't know why not because Pop and I did exactly that when his dad died.
The sister is wringing a hankie in her hands, introducing her husband around and sniffling as people come by. Oh, geez, the theater of it all. She comes out, this time to actually talk to me, I'm pinning our flowers inside the coffin lid, she says. Why? I have to ask because I've missed her point. Because Daddy would like it. It's clear from her delivery that there can be no valid second position on the matter. Really? Well, go on then. I drop my head, so I won't laugh out loud. Does she not realize he's dead in that box in there? Everyone assumes the shaking of my shoulders is me suppressing my tears – but it's not and they'd know that if they only knew me better. Ten minutes later she's back, Do you have any pictures of your kids on you? I don't think so, I'm not that kind of mom. I know what my kids look like and I never assume that other people want to look at them just because I like them pretty well. But I go through my wallet anyway and, devil be damned, here's one of the twins from the rifle team last year. Well, how about that, so I fork it over, Here you go. Whatcha gonna do with it? I know better than to think she's going to show anyone in that room pictures of my kids. I'm going to pin it next to the flowers inside the coffin lid. Oh. Well, OK. Apparently, Pop would like that, too. Go on then.
Ten minutes go by and she's back, this time in a huff. Mom wants Daddy to wear his glasses, but I think they make him look old. What do you think? Don't you think they make him look too old? Seriously? First thing, damn it, he is old. Second thing, you just pinned two wads of flowers and a stack of pictures inside that coffin. Don't you think he's gonna need those damn glasses to see that shit? Frankly, I think the real question, the only question there oughta be is where the hell can we lay our hands on a big-ass flashlight with durable batteries cuz if Pop's got glasses, flowers, and pictures, he's gonna need a God-blessed flashlight to see that shit once he's under a cement topper and six feet of dirt with his bone-dry ass for the next 400 years...but I don't say that. What I do say is, Leave mom alone. If she wants him to wear his glasses, leave the glasses on. Pop doesn't give a hot shit about it either way. She stomps off, clearly irritated with me, at my irreverence, at my refusal to take her side, at the nerve of my serving her up cold. She seems completely oblivious to the fact that this has turned into Egyptian Funeral Rites for the Dead. God forbid Pop should look old in his damn coffin. That would absolutely be the worst thing that could happen today. Shit on a Rolaid.
Here's the blessing in having a funeral in a dying farm town in January in southeastern Kansas: everyone is old. They want to be off the streets and tucked safely in their bed by eight, so they don't go sliding around on the ice that's going to form without fail, ice that's the mortal enemy of old hips and arthritis. The last visitor leaves, and I take my mom back to the motel. Go to bed, Mom. She's clearly tired, she's got diabetes and Alzheimer's and all this is very hard on her. I know that in my brain, but sometimes I'm not as patient as I should be and I know that, too. I need to be kinder. Tomorrow's going to be a long day and I need to get her into bed, but now there's a knock on the door; it's my sister of the evil eye and arching brow. Do you want to go to the bar for a drink? Frankly, I'd rather run down the hall buck-ass naked with my hair on fire, so I beg off, Sorry, I've got babysitting duty tonight. I've just put her down and you know how she is if we wake her up. But my sister doesn’t know how my mom is if we wake her up because she’s never watched my mom overnight, so she says dismissively, Oh, OK, and goes on her way, sailing down the hall headed for the bar, with me or without.
Something does wake the baby though at four a.m. I hear someone fumble with the door lock and chain, and then she's out in the hall, walking up and down in her jammies, looking for my dad, convinced he's in one of the rooms but won't come out and she can't explain why. He's hiding and that's not fair. No, Mom, he's not hiding, he's sleeping over at the funeral home. Don't you remember we tucked him in over there? Oh, yes, that's right. But we need to get dressed and get over there now, so I can talk to him. No, Mom, they aren't open yet. But Fletcher needs me. I always get his coffee of a morning. No, Mom, we paid those people to take care of his coffee. They'll take care of everything. I don't think she believes me, but she lets it go and allows me to lead her back to our room. The restaurant here in the motel won't open for another two hours, and you need your rest. You need to lay back down, or you'll get sick and it's too early to take your shot. But she won't lay down. You can never get a baby back to sleep once they're up. She gets dressed – another sweatsuit with another winter scene, but it isn't the red one because even she understands you shouldn't wear red to a funeral. She turns on the television and sits on the end of her bed staring at the farm-fresh faces flickering in the pre-dawn hours.
Mom, did you brush your teeth? Yes. Here are your meds. Where's your water? Here.
Now comes the local news and the farm report.
Would you like me to comb your hair? No, I did it already.
It doesn't occur to her that if I had to ask the question, maybe she should reconsider her answer, but I let it go. It doesn't really matter after all when you think about it. It's only hair, and it's gonna get blown to hell and back once we're out on the prairie anyway because she won't wear a hat.
Finally, six o'clock comes, and I take her to the restaurant exactly 237 paces from our door; I don't have to bother with the menu because I already know what she'll want. It's coffee and biscuits and gravy every morning that she isn't at home in her own kitchen where the best she can wrangle is toast. Bring an extra biscuit with jam please, I tell the waitress. I cut it for her, but she eats her breakfast on her own with a spoon so as not to drip. She lets me cover her front with two napkins, so she won't have to change her clothes again before we go over to the funeral home. I avoid eating anything that will make my poor guts twist – twist any more than they already have. I don't want to be out in the middle of the prairie at a graveside needing a facility. I'd have to drive five miles back into town or knock at the door of some farmhouse, excuse me, I'm just over at the graveyard there burying my dad, but I need to use your bathroom. Would you mind? No. Not a good idea. No coffee. No juice. No bacon or sausage. Oatmeal, plain. Hot tea. That's the ticket.
I stall her as long as I can, trying to eat only one bite to every two of hers, but finally I can't hold her back any longer. She's heading for the car, so I follow her out and strap her into her seat. Mom, we have a little time, do you want to take a drive around town before we go over to see Pop? Yes, you're right. We need to drive past Grandma's house and then we can go see Fletcher. Alright. My mother can't remember how to dial a phone, but she remembers how to get to Margrave Street where her parents lived. Her parents have been gone for almost twenty years now, but the house is just the same, still white, still green shutters, still two aluminum rockers on the front porch that's still covered with green outdoor carpet. I almost expect to see Dewey and Bessie come out, him wanting to watch cars go by and her bitching at him that he'll catch cold. I remember Bessie telling Dewey once in a restaurant that he should have cottage cheese instead of cucumbers because the cukes would make him burp. I thought Pop would die right then and there from embarrassment.
The front doors of the funeral home are unlocked, and the white limo is standing ready at the side door when we get back into town. The coffin is closed now. I hope someone remembered that blessed flashlight before it was too late because, clearly, it's too late now. The funeral director says a few words, and we wait for anyone else who may be on the way. It's icy this morning, and people are going to be slow on these roads. At 9:30, the director's son, a sort of sometimes minister, speaks for a few minutes. It's a middle-of-the-road, non-denominational-we're-all-bound-for-Heaven-kids kind of message that could not possibly offend anyone, anyone except me. I appear to be the only one in the room who's irritated, so I let my mind wander. Why am I irritated? What? My mother shakes my elbow, It's time to go. Take me to the car. We stand up and walk to the side exit where the funeral limo is waiting. I sit up front with the driver. My mother, the sister, and her husband are behind.
The car is quiet on the way out as we roll past the farms and outbuildings. We pass Bethany Church, the site of several other stories involving my father that apparently would also be inappropriate in the extreme to share in the car at a time like this. Pop would have told the stories, but I'm too tired now to put up with the blow-back from the back seat. I'd stop here again later, five years later, to have a chat with the pastor, but not now. There are no houses, nothing but fences and battered barns, field fences, no crops, no cattle because it's January and it's cold. Finally, we come upon the cemetery. Six old men, four in overalls, carry Pop out of the hearse and place his coffin, suspending it over the hole that's been prepared; more of the green outdoor carpeting covers the displaced dirt and flowers surround it.
The funeral director has tried to do everything he can think of to make this more bearable out on the prairie so early on a raw January morning. He's erected a tent with three and a half walls, but the wind is pushing in hard like a drunk charging the bar. There are chairs for the mourners inside, facing the coffin. Actually, we're short about ten chairs – unheard of for a January funeral with people this old. I'm the only one there under fifty except for the sometimes minister; I guess the average age to be seventy-three. My mother, sister, and brother-in-law sit in the front row furthest inside the tent, closest to the sometimes-minister. They leave room for me next to them, but I notice several of my dad's cousins standing in the back. I can't sit in any case. I need to stand. I call one of the cousins over and tell her to sit next to my mother. This is one of my dad's cousins, she's over eighty and shouldn't be standing out here. She hasn't been well, she's just out of the hospital, she shouldn't be here at all in her condition. This cannot be easy for her, watching one of her own, one she grew up with, one of the last, going down into the ground. I'm touched by how slowly they all take their seats. No one lunges for a chair – it would be unseemly – and they fill the chairs from the back of the tent forward. The oldest get chairs first, and the people on walkers sit on the ends, but they're all so old; how do they choose who goes next? Old ladies first, sick men second seems to be the rule. Finally, the minister starts. Now he tells the story from my dad's last few days in the hospital before we brought him home to die.
Pop didn't like organized religion, thank you very much. I always laughed and said he should convert and become Greek Orthodox like me because there's nothing organized about us at all. He would laugh right back and say, That's just fine, Sister. I talk to the Lord on a daily basis and He and I have come to an understanding. Well, OK, then Pop. If you're in good with the Lord, I'm not going to worry about it.
But when we come down to his last few days in the hospital before coming home, he knew he was dying. I knew he was dying. I could feel the day pulling on me like a rotten child near a candy rack. I had taken dinner to him in his room because he hated the hospital food, and I figure if you're dying and you want to eat stuff loaded with salt and fat, who gives a good rip? My only question was, do you want pie with that? So, over his plate of baked ham and scalloped potatoes, I ask him if he wants me to call for Father Andy, just to chat. I'd known Father when he was still Just Andy and so, of course, Pop had known him for almost as long. It came as no great surprise when Pop said yes, he'd like to see Father Andy again. Father came to the hospital one day later; he sat next to Pop and talked for a while and then he asked, Do you want me to pray with you or do you want me to read Scripture? Read, says my dad. Father nods and opens his Bible to the Gospel of Matthew and reads the story of the Centurion, the one where the Centurion asks the Lord to heal his servant. My dad's eyes are closed, but he's not asleep. It's not a long passage, but Father reads slowly and clearly and it's easy to follow. Finally, he finishes the reading, and after a little more conversation, Father rises to go. My dad thanks him, and my husband walks out to take Father to his car. It's a long hike from my dad's room to the parking lot, but I know Tony wants to visit with Father Andy on his own; we all have our needs. When they're gone, I ask Pop if he's OK because I can see a tear laboring down his cheek, and his breathing is a little ragged. Yes, I'm fine. Do you know when Father was reading, he asks me, do you know what happened? No, Pop, what happened? I could see it all, every bit of it, but not like a movie. I could see it like I was standing in the crowd, and I could see that Centurion talking to the Lord. I could smell the dust in the air, and I could feel the heat. What does that mean, Sister? he asks me. What does it mean? It means you're at the jumping-off-place, Pop, and you have to be clear. You have to decide. You have to make your declaration. I know, he says, and he smiles at me. The Lord and I are good. I'm ready to go. OK, then. Let's get you home.
The sometimes-minister finishes the story. People's heads are down. I don't believe they know what to think, this being the land of Methodists and home canning, sensible people not given to fancy or frolic. I don't know if they believe it at all. I hear some sniffing and see some dabbing. It's time to wrap this up, old knees are aching and bursitis is snapping joints shut. People stand and start to mill, shaking hands, hugging. It's over and it's cold and their old bones can't stand out in this wind any longer, not even inside this almost enclosure. They need a heater and some coffee, maybe even a cruller. Goodbye, they say. Sorry for your sorrow. That Fletcher, he was a pistol. The world just won't be the same without him. Safe travels. He was a fine man. You were lucky girls. Goodbye now, you take care.
I wander among the graves, my hat pulled down low and my coat collar up high against the prairie wind. I look down at the names on the headstones, generations and generations of Pop's people, my people. They lay out here on the open prairie, under the wind, under the sun, under marble monuments that will mark their spots until they've been worn to dust – at least 400 years. My father, just as he wanted, is counted among them, among his people. He's home.
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