I went to a funeral this week. That’s always fun, eh? It was a trying day that found me, at one point in the afternoon, walking down a back road of Hollandale wearing suede platform heels and red over-sized sunglasses. It was that kind of funeral.
The funeral was for the sister of a dear friend. A sister who put a gun in her hand and decided she’d had enough of herself, and everyone. She was 34-years-old. But, we aren’t going to lament her. Because I knew her. She’d rather we all have a good drink and laugh about the bullshit that went down at her funeral–because parts of it were pretty great.
She happened to be the sister of someone I truly loved–a woman that considers my mother her mentor, a woman who has a little girl only two months younger than my own Terror. We spent our pregnancies together—working side by side as therapists for abused children. Sharing our fears and talking non-stop about our exams. I worked with her sister in several capacities in the social service field as well. We collaborated on one particular case that resulted in the third cross-cultural adoption in Mississippi–a happy ending for a couple of kids who started their stories in a way that no one wants to hear.
Her sister and I swapped “war stories” about working abuse investigations in the back “smoking cage” (a small area outside the back door surrounded by a fence set up for the smokers) at Forrest County DHS. Mine were several years behind me, as I had moved on to something else. Hers didn’t last too much longer as some health issues, mental health issues, required a retreat to a hospital and some time not working. Our conversations were about her niece, her life, her boyfriends—just the regular happenings of 28-year-old women. I hold onto these conversations a little tighter now, if just for that little girl. The little girl only two months younger than Terror who isn’t going to understand why her Aunt doesn’t come around anymore, and an 8-month-old little boy that would only know her in stories.
The way Terror knows her Uncles–woven into our stories. Characters that are real only in the sense that they punctuate memories of her mother and let her know a little more about from where she comes. I expect one day she’ll ask me what happened to them and will finally be old enough to hear the stories of their deaths. The days we put them into the ground in The Delta and walked away. On those days I wasn’t wearing cream-colored suede platform heels and red sunglasses. I have learned in the years since that sometimes, even in the face of death, a little defiance is a good thing.
“Fuck you, Grim Reaper. Look at these heels.”
I was practically manic on the drive to The Delta. I woke up the morning of the funeral full of piss and vinegar and Benadryl. I have to if I actually want to sleep-the Benadryl-not the vinegar. I wake up full of piss most days. I hate funerals. I mean, no one really likes them, but I actually have physical reactions to them–sickness and such. I have ever since my brothers died. I usually avoid them at all costs. Only this one wasn’t the kind that you could avoid. Much like that Baptist wedding with a dry reception you’d find any excuse to miss.
We arrived exactly on time after getting lost in a town smaller than some of my sneezes–because we are that special. Want to know the extra sweet part? The town, many moons ago, was one that held my first set of step-grandparents and my stepfather’s farm. It was not “foreign” to me. But when we drove down the main street, I looked around and realized that I knew nothing about it anymore. My Mother must have had that same realization because her “phone” got us lost twice.
“Are you absolutely SURE that creek didn’t used to run the opposite direction?”
The funeral hall happened to be a small, low level, nondescript building sitting on the edge of a field of desiccated cotton stalks waiting to be turned. The graveyard wasn’t even a half a mile down the road and I could see it easily in the flatness of the Delta afternoon. The day was exceedingly bright with a biting wind. As we walked through the door and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, my Mom indicated a guest book in the corner. I walked over, desperately not paying attention to the devastation permeating the room, and signed my name with a flourish.
“I was here, bitches. All up in this misery. Let’s finish that one off with an exclamation point.”
I see my friend standing in a small visiting room off to the right side surrounded by family. She is hugging one of her cousins who is in a wheelchair due to Cerebral Palsy. Her spasticity so bad she is wearing a bib. They are both crying. The casket is in the room to the left with half of the pews already filled. I notice, oddly, that the bathroom is right off the room where the funeral is to be held. One loud piss and this whole thing can turn on a dime, I thought.
I walked into the room with the pews and-before my butt could hit one-was hysterically crying. Because that is what I do. I also shake a little. I have a straight up PTSD reaction. It’s uncontrollable and I don’t like it one bit. Just ask my friends. I was the ONLY ONE that remained calm when we caught Elizabeth’s apartment balcony on fire trying to barbecue. One of my Superpowers is emotional control. My husband happily leaves to search my Mother’s car for tissues–as it seems we are in the only funeral home south of the Mason Dixon line which has no damn tissue.
As soon as he walks out, they start seating the family and I know that he is going to be very upset about having to walk up after them. He’ll stand in the back of the funeral home for the rest of the day rather than to have to overcome the parental shame that falls over him every time he walks into a church for something a little late. I am already upset about the scenario I’ve imagined in my head and all I want is some damn tissue in a damn funeral home. My Mother puts her arm around my shoulder and begins The Patting.
I know if I fall apart and she has to care for me than she doesn’t have to pay attention to the woman in the front of the room who is putting her child in the ground. Because my Mom’s been in that seat before and I know that she can feel it under her butt just as much as I can. The front pew. With a casket in front of you. And I shake a little more to try to get that feeling off me. She pats. I shake. My husband finally shows up with the tissue and-just as predicted-stands in the back of the room until I violently signal to him that he is desperately needed in the pew with the two women that look like drowned raccoons. There is a woman sitting in front of me with interestingly frosted hair and she manages to distract me enough that I attempt to employ all of the therapeutic techniques I actually teach others when in the throws of what we-very professionally-refer to as “a fit.”
“I guess we’re about to figure out if this graduate degree is worth a shit.”
None of them work worth a damn. Not even the deep, deep breathing. I’m still crying and shaking. Shit. The family is finished getting seated, my husband walks up with the tissue and I start to pat my face in order to not do more damage to the eye makeup I’m sure is everywhere. Grief in The South can be somewhat ambivalent.
The cousin my friend was hugging as I walked in is wheeled up last and placed at the end of my row. My Mother pats. My husband chews some gum, loudly and in control of it. I realize that I might not be able to make it as the preacher stands up and says, “Everyone please rise.” The entire room goes completely quiet and I begin to grasp the fact that if I don’t get it under control soon, someone is going to notice. As I’m leaning over to my Mother to ask about going outside for a minute, the cousin in the wheelchair at the end of the row saves my life.
She does this by burping, loudly. In a completely silent room. With a casket in the front of it.
At first it seemed to complicate everything as my crying now turned to snorting uncontrollably. I was starting to get hysterical. It’s only happened to me one other time and I knew I would be past the point of return if I let it take hold. Two minutes before, I was desperately trying to quit crying and just like that, now I’m trying not to laugh.
My Mother, thinking the shakes of laughter were shakes of me truly losing my shit, leaned over to ask if I needed to “go outside”. I manage to squeak through a tissue that I was “inappropriately laughing.” She seemed to take that well and went back to patting. My husband, who also heard the belch, knew exactly what was going on and was whispering in my ear for me to “get myself together” but, damn it, if every single time that I thought I was over the whole experience, I imagined the burp again and it set me back into another fit of uncontrollable giggles.
“Now it starts to become to best funeral ever.”
Because they begin by playing “Daddy’s Hands” on a boom box in the corner. I’m not even sure they make a medication for that. Thankfully, I finally had myself together by the end of the song. Just by forcing myself to try and remember the name of the woman who sang it. Holly Dunn. Holly Dunn. Holly Dunn. Holly Dunn. Holly Dunn. HOLY. JESUS. THAT BURP WAS LOUD. HOLLY DUNN.
The first preacher gets up and straight up states that he “ didn’t know The Girl Who Died” and I start to wonder how far south this thing is going to go. But then, a second preacher stands up, obviously in grief, and starts to talk about knowing the family because he is a part of the family. And I realize that he is her Uncle. As he starts to speak, I realize that this is unscripted and real. I cry as he lists memories he has of her–her smile. One thing I always remembered about her as well. He meanders a bit and mentions that unlike “Muslims, Hindus and what have you, who believe that killing themselves is a glory to their god, Christians believe only in the blood of Jesus.”
“Wow, he’s gonna think about that analogy later and be really upset. Maybe.”
But then I finally get myself together because I get angry. Politics. Something I can quantify. I cannot quantify this loss–the death of a woman younger than myself. Three years less. Three years less and Terror wouldn’t exist. One thousand and ninety-five days.
But I can hate the hell out of a country preacher talking so ignorantly about religion and love at her funeral. And the anger helps me keep myself together through a playing of a Matchbox 20 song on that same boom box and another Muslim and Buddhist (this time) slur afterwards.
Finally, it is over and they wheel the casket out a side door directly into the bright parking lot. My Mother and I stand up and have a quick conversation about whether or not we will go to the graveside. The decision isn’t fully made until we all load into the car, heading down the unlined road towards the cemetery. We pass the Sheriff’s car that is to escort the hearse. All of us deferring to the other to make the verdict regarding visiting the cemetery.My Mom finally admits she does want to attend.
As we pass the last road leading into it, I scream “turn in here!” and my husband does, dutifully. We pull up onto a side road of the cemetery far away from the green tent where I now know she is headed. We watch the Sheriff’s car snake the line of cars the half mile from the funeral home and I ask for some gum and powder my nose while trying to fix my eye makeup. We climb out of the car and start walking down the road back to the part of the cemetery in which she is to be buried. And this is where I find myself in suede platform heels, walking down a back road in Hollandale, Mississippi wearing flamboyant red sunglasses.
About halfway there we break from the road and begin walking through the cemetery. The dirt is soft and wet and my heels start to sink as I meander around cars parked on the path, trying to find some purchase on the narrow, broken asphalt. As my heels sink into the dirt at the end of some stranger’s grave, I start to have irrational thoughts about the death catching hold. Becoming woven into me–from my heels up into my brain. Vines carried by loneliness and days I spent at the edge of fields–just wondering about the world, and if it got better. Wondering if this was it. And just not having a gun.
Somehow, I was able to escape part of my demons. Maybe physical distance helps everyone. Maybe there wasn’t a way for her to escape hers. That unrelenting feeling of “I failed”. I will always fail. There is nothing here for me in this form. I feel sorry for her, for all of it, and try to distract myself.
I read the names on tombstones as I walked by, anxious to recognize someone. To feel “kin” to this place once again—comforted. But with every step, as my “city” platforms sunk into the soft dirt and I wobbled off balance, I realized how much of me had gone. There was nothing left for me to feel a part of in this place anymore. Nothing but death. The other two boys lying in the dirt not fifty miles away. It is dying. And no matter how much I fight it, that death is in me too, somewhere. Waiting for the day it makes an appearance and someone has to decide which dress I’m going down in.
God, I hope my Mom let’s my gay friends pick that one out.
It is poetic justice that when a lot of us die in Mississippi, we are buried in the Delta.
That dirt holds a lot of our secrets. Our dead. Our broken. The reasons we are no better.
The graveside service was short and it seemed there was little left to say. We are here. She is not. We are going to put her in this hole shored up in $8,000.00 worth of metal and fabric. And she will rot inside of it, never becoming a part of what we all once were, always attempting to separate ourselves from the natural.
I felt the suction between my heels and the dirt and I reminded myself that I was no better. I will not stay here. No matter what you try. We dutifully handed our condolences to the family. Passing on the ones once given to us and started back to the car. I picked the shortest route through the cemetery. My Mother took the path as she can’t stand the thought of walking on a grave. I defiantly plod through the grass. Each step that I took deeper, sunken. I finally made it to the road and the car. I pulled off my shoes and sat in the front seat. It was over. And no one was any better for it.
We hit the highway less than a half mile from the graveyard and turned the car south. I didn’t take a deep breath until we hit Yazoo City and I knew I could relax. I tried to knock the dirt off my shoes and realized they were ruined. I walked barefoot back into my house–stepping on the grass outside and reminding myself, again, what it was like to be on this side of it.