We all knew it was coming; we’d been waiting for it for over two years. Weekly visits to the hospital or down the dirt roads that lead to his old, musty recliner could suddenly be canceled. Sundays could once again belong to naps and lazy afternoon reading instead of guarded conversations and whispered judgments. These were the plusses, the silver linings that came after the storm, after the tears, and after the realization that Papa was really gone this time.
I had always wondered how they would tell me. Would it happen when I was home one weekend and we’d all rush to the hospital together, our good-byes stuck to the tips of our tongues and our fingers reaching out for each other’s? Or would I get a phone call early one Tuesday morning, too close to sleep to comprehend the news and too far away to make it back in time for my tears to matter? In the end, neither scenario came to pass, and the reality of such a loss hit harder than any morbid daydream ever could.
I found out from Facebook early one Wednesday morning; it was the first and the only status I read that day. I missed a quiz and a lecture so I could go home, and though I drove as fast as I could, it wasn’t fast enough. Papa was already gone. I experienced his death through the eyes of my family. I could see Mema, no longer the care-taker, the wife, or the nurse; her anguish and leftover love written on every line of her face as her tears fell like rivers – a sight I never once thought I would see and a heart I didn’t think could be any more broken. I watched as my Aunt Martha wept from sadness as she kissed her daddy’s cold lips goodnight one last time, as Aunt Trish’s hands trembled with emotion while she refused to let go of his hands, and how Aunt Joan’s grief appeared slightly tinged by a sense of relief and justice. I saw my father’s arms wrapped around my mother while she leaned on his chest. I watched while my brother hid his ambivalence as he remembered the times Papa balled his fists in anger. I saw my cousins sitting in chairs or in pews, whispering about absences and missed appointments and Thanksgivings that will never be the same. I watched and I saw my family splintering itself apart and gluing itself together, peacefully, yet in complete torment and confusion. These dichotomies served as their only retaliation against an expected, but terrible death that solved a majority of their problems, but for a price no one was willing to pay.
Papa’s old blue pick-up truck’s tailgate is cold beneath my thighs, a welcome contrast to the already sweltering morning as my family scatters within the corn patch, only Daddy’s and Uncle Lonnie’s heads visible above the corn stalks. I’m seven and deemed too young to help pick the ears of corn, so I stay behind, listening to their voices drift to me on the morning wind. A constant stream of complaints drips from the mouths of my brother and cousin; they think they’re strong enough to at least help carry the buckets. I grin at their banter, secretly glad I’m not the only one left behind, but they jump down after only a few minutes of waiting, running around the corner and behind the house, out of sight instantly.
Birds scatter into the air as my parents and aunts and uncles pick their way through the never-ending rows. I watch as the fog becomes less and less dense as the sun continues to rise, already sweating and already miserable despite the beauty of such a scene. Aunt Trish and Aunt Martha come from inside, carrying old basins and creamers, ready to leave here and go to the canning plant as soon as everybody else finishes with the picking. I roll my eyes as the first few gnats find their way to the scabs on my knees, wishing I could be in school or anywhere that’s not here.
One by one, my family emerges from the corn stalks carrying bucket after bucket overflowing with ears of corn. Aunt Joan smiles as she passes me, as if to say “You know how this goes, Jordie. Just hang in there.” I watch as my Mema, the last of my family to find their way back, takes the half-empty bucket from my Papa’s hand and adds it to one of her already full ones, saying words I can’t quite make out. Daddy dumps the buckets – there must be about a hundred, in my opinion – into the back of his truck. Mama yells for Ryan to come back- that it’s almost time to go, and my mema leaves Papa, carrying three buckets in her two hands, stronger than all the men in my family combined. I jump from the tailgate and run to Papa as he takes a swig from his red Solo cup, sweat trickling down his arm, and take his hand as we walk back towards his truck. It’s going to be a long day at the canning plant, but I can always count on Papa to keep me company.
The funeral home reeks of age and reminds me of what I imagine history to smell like. It’s cold and much too flowery, in my opinion. My younger cousins sit on the plush love seats watching as picture after picture of my papa flashes across the screen of a television I didn’t know would be here. I see papa’s life told in a series of snapshots- the Korean War he never fully came home from, holding hands with Mema beside an unfamiliar pond, and again, in an unfamiliar living room before leaving for some dance of the past, arms wrapped around his daughters’ shoulders as they stand dressed in their Sunday best, smiling in pictures with Mama at her wedding and at Aunt Trish’s and Aunt Martha’s and Aunt Joan’s, Shawn sitting in his lap, as they drive the tractor through the field, Ryan watching as he shucks corn, teaching his youngest grandson how not to cut off a finger, being one of the first to hold Tyler in the hospital, the first of his great-grandchildren, our entire family on Easter morning, the pecan trees and old swing constantly in the background. Then there’s me being pushed by Papa in the old red wheelbarrow – our glasses shining in the sunlight, laughing as he pushes me through the green, green grass.
“Hey, Papa? What’s the capitol of Mississippi?”
I look over at my papa, sitting across the patio table made from old PVC pipes, sweating from the heat while he smokes a cigarette, his red Solo cup dripping water onto his hand as he looks over at me. We’ve just started learning the state’s capitols in Mrs. Jetta’s class and I’ve been quizzing everybody I know, including the bus driver, and so far nobody has gotten the capitol of Mississippi right. But Papa’s the smartest man in the world; of course he’ll know the answer. Papa always knows the right answer. He puts his cup down on the table and lets out a long sigh and I can smell it, that putrid smell that only ever comes from his breath and whatever cup he’s drinking from.
“Mississippi, you said?” he asks, putting out his unfinished cigarette in the ashtray on the table.
I reply, “Yes, sir,” nodding enthusiastically, wondering for the first time if I might have finally found the question that he doesn’t know the answer to.
“I’m gonna need to think on this one for just a second, sweet pea. I need some more tea, anyway.”
I look suspiciously at his almost full cup of something that’s obviously not tea, but don’t say anything; Papa doesn’t like backtalk or whining. He stands quickly, years of summers spent tending to his and Mema’s profuse garden keeps him agile, and walks up the steps back into the house and air conditioning. I consider following him, it’s the kind of hot only known to South Georgia and I’m tired of sweating, but I know Papa won’t like it if I follow him instead of wait for him to come back. He doesn’t take long, the screen door slamming behind him as he descends the steps, cigarettes in one hand and red Solo cup in the other. I smile up at him as he sits back down and relights his cigarette, wondering if he thought of the right answer or not.
“What was your question again, sweet pea? What’s the capitol of Mississippi?” He lazily leans back in his chair, exhaling a line of smoke into the heavy, hot air. “I think it’s Jackson, but, now, I’m not sure.”
“Right!” I exclaim, Papa laughing at my excitement. I smile, thrilled because I knew he wouldn’t get it wrong. He never does. “You know you’re the first person I’ve asked, Papa, who knew that it was Jackson? Everybody else just says they don’t know!”
“I don’t ever forget a thing, Jordie,” Papa says, taking a sip from his cup and looking out towards the garden, as if seeing things would always remain invisible to my eyes. I would spend the rest of his life waiting for him to come back.
I stare at the faces of my family, some wrinkled with age and others barely touched by the sun- they’re so young. There’s so much black, so many clouds, so many people. I wonder if all funerals are this cold, if it’s some kind of divine rule the climate must follow, or if I’m just trying to ascribe some sort of purpose to the tears I refuse to allow to fall. The wind stings my face as my mama wraps her hand around my arm, bringing me back from my contemplation of Shakespearean weather patterns to her and the comfort I’m supposed to be bringing.
“We’re getting ready to go in,” she says through her chattering teeth. My mama has always hated the cold.
“Okay,” I reply, squeezing her hand and trying to smile for her. We walk to the front doors of the church, behind her sisters and her mother, Daddy’s arms wrapped around both of us. I can hear a piano playing inside, the same piano I once practiced on as a child, playing my favorite hymn from my childhood:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
The double doors swing open. The next half-hour passes quickly, and in a haze as I cry, gripping my mother’s and my father’s hands.
Twenty-year-old eyes stare blankly at me from inside the mirror. Tangled long, brown hair shines dully in the dingy light of the dirty bathroom, mascara smeared and lipstick smudged. She’s the classic college cliché, sloppy day-drunk and lost in Statesboro, Georgia, alone, a mere seventy miles from the corn fields and pastures she grew up in. She’s been sick, it’s obvious, but what’s more gruesome is the expression in her eyes. Vacant, lost, and full of apathy; she stares at me, her eyes reminding me of Papa’s glassy expression from my childhood. Nausea grips my stomach again, as I realize the girl in the mirror is me, living out yet another cliché before gagging over the toilet again. I can’t have Papa’s eyes.
The preacher says that he was saved, that he finally asked the Lord to come into his heart in the days prior to his death. Mema says that he told her he loved her for the first time in years. She told me that he said he was sorry for the way he treated her the entire 59 years they were married. He was saved, they say. He was ready to go home, they say. He finally gets to know peace and forgiveness and love, they say.
I don’t say anything.
“Jordie? Jordie, come here, please.”
I look up from where I’m sitting on the couch into the eyes of my papa. He’s lying on a hospital bed on the far end of the living room closest to the fireplace. He’s always cold now; he always shivers while everyone else sweats. He’s reaching his hand out to me and I don’t know what to do. I look over at my mama, who watches me between the half-finished sentences she struggles to exchange with her sisters, and she nods for me to go over to him, to hold his hand and talk to him and listen as he breathes.
I look at his slightly smiling face as I get up and cross the distance separating us, seeing yet again, the toll his choices finally took on his body. He’s paler than the sheets with blankets wrapped around his torso and legs, and he’s so skinny; his head looks like nothing more than a skull wrapped too tightly in skin that’s too weathered to be alive. But he is alive, still breathing despite everything the doctors said.
When I reach his bed, I take his hand in mine, shocked that it can be so cold while being so near to the fire. He looks up at me, his eyes innocent and clear like a child’s on Christmas morning. He doesn’t say anything at first; he just smiles up at me, his brown eyes somehow shining like sunshine. I try to see only the light that suddenly emanates from inside his eyes while I hear from across the room my aunts’ sobs and my mema’s pleading voice claiming once again that she did everything she could to save him. I try to concentrate only on this one sober, coherent moment that the alcohol and Alzheimer’s and heart attacks and liver failure can’t take away from us.
He licks his lips and I prepare myself for the conversation I’ve spent my entire adolescence waiting for. He wouldn’t have called me of all people over to him if he didn’t have something important to say, right? I prepare myself for an apology or a few words of love or maybe even a prayer. Because he’s dying, we all know he’s really dying this time, and all the words I’ve never let myself say have bubbled up from all the places I hid them in years ago. He licks his lips and I wait for our moment to finally forgive each other. I look over at one of the pictures he keeps beside his bed, the one of him, my brother, and me smiling in front of his beloved orange tree, and wait.
Papa licks his lips and says, “Jordie, Jordie, Jordie…”
He pauses, his eyes looking into mine, and it’s then that I see the light, the light that brought such innocence and clarity and made his brown eyes shine like summer, leave his expression. I watch as the fog rolls back in and he licks his lips again and says, “Will you bring me another beer from the fridge?”
I let go of his hand.
Am I allowed to miss him, allowed to feel a pain that is utterly my own? Am I allowed to remember the nights he and I would stay up late watching TV or listening to the night that existed all around the screened-in porch? Am I allowed to hear his voice asking about the current book I have brought to read while staying the weekend at his and Mema’s house? Am I allowed, even after the things I said, the anger I allowed to burn for years just for him, after the lies and the slurs and curses and accusations? Can I miss him? Can I cry? Can I cry for the words I never got to say? I’ll never get to say I’m sorry. I’ll never get to tell him about how, for a long time, I was just like him. I defined myself by who my papa was; I saw my reflection in his eyes as they stared out the front door, glazed by alcohol and regret. I’ll never get to tell him how it was his eyes that saved me. And I will never get to tell him thank you.
At the graveside, I stay behind my family, standing amid the myriad of flowers and little American flags fluttering in the breeze, my hand running over the smooth, glossy casket. I tell Papa all the things I wish I had the courage to say while he could hear me. I don’t know if he heard me, I don’t know if it even mattered to him what I said, but I told him and I cried for him – my own tears, no one else’s. I told him I loved him and I meant it. I did all this, wiped my eyes, and caught up to my mother and her mother, taking their hands as we walked back to the car, the early winter wind blowing harder with every step. There’s acceptance in silence and solidarity, in attempting to protect those you love from the things they cannot be protected from. I’m sure that one day I’ll find it – that closure I’ve heard only comes with time – and I’ll give it to my mother and her sisters and their mother as a beacon of hope that, like Papa’s, redemption is always a possibility. Not all souls remain lost forever.