After the Requiem
Death arrives at the most inconvenient of times. The temperature is below freezing for days on end. Piankashaw County more closely resembles the Arctic Circle than Southeast Missouri as the snow, the ice, and the freezing temperatures turn the countryside into frozen tundra. There is talk of this being the worst winter in decades and here I am, the youngest of six men chosen to be pallbearers at my grandfather’s funeral. My cousin Roscoe and I are in the front and nearly fall down a few times trying to climb up to the top of St. Agnes Hill Cemetery to bring Big Daddy to his final resting place.
The wind blows hard against my face. This helps to hide the tears. I hold my chin up a little higher and through my blurred vision, take the last few steps up the hill to the pedestal where we lay him to rest. I can’t take in too much of the detail of his mahogany coffin as they lower it into the ground and Father Fitzpatrick says the “walk through the valley of death” shit. I heard it several times before, but it really hadn’t resonated with me quite like it does this time. I turn away and look off into the woods as they begin lowering him into the ground. This, with the words “…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” make Big Daddy’s death all too real once again. And I am not ready for that just yet.
The past few days have been a blur. Big Daddy died on Monday and the rest of the week we are busy with the arrangements and visitation. It is here, in the last few days, that I learn the real meaning of the term “Irish Wake.” I do anything I can to soften the reality of the events unfolding around me. This includes booze and drugs. I move through the hours in a fog, avoiding everyone else as often as I can, keeping my distance, comfortably within my own little haze. I anticipate more of the same today.
There are a lot of sounds around me as I hear the droning of Father Fitzpatrick, finishing up the 23rd Psalm in an almost Gregorian chant that brings the service to a close. People sniffle into their handkerchiefs and in the distance, I can hear the crackling of a tree branch that just can not take the weight of the ice any longer. I feel as if I can’t take the weight either as these sounds buzz in my ears like one of Emily Dickinson’s flies. It is increasingly difficult to ignore the soft sobs coming from Gram. I think I am standing strong, like a McCauley should, keeping it all inside so that I don’t look vulnerable next to my grieving family, holding it together so that Gram can grieve and not worry about me. Then I hear someone gulp back an anguished sob—and realize that the sound is coming from me.
There is a big part of me that wonders why we subject ourselves to these terrible rituals. It is hard enough watching Big Daddy dwindle down to nothing during his illness. It is hard enough watching him take his last breath. It is hard enough telling Gram that he is gone. Not only do we have to do those things, but also have to deal with all the long-lost relatives. The people who live far away who weren’t able to see Big Daddy before he died. The people who live across town and were just too busy to get there. Who insist on telling you how bad they feel and how sorry they are as they show up to say goodbye. As far as I am concerned, I have already said my goodbyes. I have closure. And I don’t understand why Gram and the rest of us have to go through all of this so that others can get closure, too. We aren’t doing this for Big Daddy and we certainly aren’t doing it for ourselves. I am angry that custom dictates that we do it for other people who, frankly, don’t really deserve anything from us and shouldn’t ask us to do this just so they can say goodbye. And yet, we gathered in silence and stood there at the funeral parlor for the last few days, meeting the lines of mourners, and trying to hold it together while they gave their clichéd and helpless condolences.
He was such a good man… We will all miss him very much… He is in a better place… Someday you will see him again… These soft-spoken words ring hollow in my ears as I stare back at them with my red and glazed-over eyes. Then we carry the coffin up to an empty hole in the earth, and listen to it being lowered into the ground while the priest says some words.
After the mourners start to walk away from the gravesite, they begin to gather in groups near their cars. They begin talking about how they need to get together more often. “The only time we ever see one another is when there’s a funeral…” It comes out of their mouths, just like “I am so sorry for your loss.” Meanwhile, the family is still standing at the gravesite, and it finally sinks in that this is the last goodbye. Then I realize that these goodbyes will forever go unsaid no matter how many times I say it. It just hangs there like a cold dark cloud. There were so many things I felt, so many things I wanted to say, but I then knew that there was no one to say it to. The person I wanted to hear it is already gone.
Finally, Gram decides that she is ready to walk away. I grasp her elbow so that I can help her down the hill. Uncle Jake steadies her by holding her other elbow. When we get down to the bottom of the hill near where the cars were parked, I let go.
“I am going to walk home,” I say. St. Agnes Hill is only about a half mile from our house and I need some time to be alone with my feelings before I face people again.
“You can ride home with me, mom,” Uncle Jake says before he turns around and looks at me and asks, “Are you sure you want to walk?”
“Yeah, I’ll meet you at home,” I say, as I stare into eyes that were very similar to the eyes of the man that we just buried, and choke back tears.
I find the journey back home is much different than the one I took to the cemetery. Bringing Big Daddy there is much different than leaving him behind, and every step I took away from there, I can feel the heaviness bearing down on me. With every step, I can feel myself being torn more and more. The funeral mass and the lowering of the coffin are like a requiem. It is our symbolic equivalent of watching the credits roll at the end of the lives of our loved ones. There, we see the names of those who are players both in the main drama and in the supporting roles and there, we hear triumphant music that celebrates the finitude of existence.
But when the projector reel is spent, when the movie is over, what happens in the theater when the lights come on? Most people never stay long enough to find out, but that is precisely what I am doing just then as I was walking away from the cemetery. I am living after the end of the movie and there is no beautiful music, no heroic characters, no leading ladies. No celebration of the finitude of a life well lived. Only what seems like the infinite sadness of a gaping puncture wound to the soul. A wound so deep that it doesn’t bleed and doesn’t heal. A wound that just hurts. That’s what remains after the requiem.
© William Matthew McCarter
William Matthew McCarter is a writer form Southeast Missouri. His work has appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Midwestern Gothic, Southern Gothic Creations, and Fried Chicken and Coffee.