Circle of Life
Mourning and celebrating all at once
It’s always light and dark around here, life and death sort of flirting with each other. My favorite aunt – probably my favorite non-parental blood relative from my family of origin – died when I was pregnant with Georgia. My dad had a TIA on Georgia’s sixth birthday. My uncle had a heart attack on my 32nd birthday. In one of the most Southern Gothic moments in my family’s entire history, which is saying a lot, my baby cousin crawled into the coffin with my grandmother. (Her mom, distracted, sat her down on the closed end of the coffin while chatting with someone. I yanked her out before she started teething on my grandmother’s pearls.)
And then, today, Ruby’s 14th birthday, I found my uncle had died late last week. Another heart attack.
My father, once the oldest of three, is now the last one alive.
I’m sad but not shocked. My uncle lived a rough life and made a lot of choices we’ll characterize as “interesting” so as to not speak ill of the dead. He smoked and drank to excess, pretty much constantly. Still, though, I loved him. He taught me to play cribbage and badminton. He made me laugh. But I’m trying to remember if I have even seen him in person since my grandmother’s funeral in 2002 … and I don’t think I have. He didn’t come to my wedding, either one of them. He didn’t come to my sister’s funeral or my aunt’s.
It’s hard to mourn someone you haven’t seen in 18 years.
It’s harder still to find time to mourn on a day I had planned to spend celebrating my older daughter.
Indeed, I was at the park with my girls when the social worker from Cabarrus County called. I haven’t lived in North Carolina since 1983, but the ties are deep enough that when I see (704) or (980) on my phone, I always answer.
The news, of course, was bad. I stayed cheerful for the sake of my girls while starting a mental list of everything I’d have to arrange: cremation, transport of the remains, whatever sort of “estate” he had left.
I baked a cherry pie for the birthday girl and wrapped Christmas presents while kicking myself for not calling him more often, for blowing off his drunken texts.
I watched Christmas movies while trying to remind myself to send a message to my late aunt’s husband to let him know and to call my cousin to discuss logistics.
Life and death. Joy and sorrow. Light and dark, on the shortest day of the year.
And it all comes full circle, to this piece I wrote in 2002, right after my grandmother’s funeral:
My stepmom wasn’t speaking to my uncle because he’d failed to express proper condolences at the death of one of her 11 dogs. My aunt wasn’t speaking to my sister because my sister was “acting tacky” by showing off the ring she’d just inherited. My cousin wasn’t talking to anyone because she was busy pacing back and forth, reading aloud the Egyptian Book of the Dead and replacing the name of any unfamiliar gods with “Jesus.” My baby cousin Annalee climbed into the casket with my grandmother and crawled around on top of her corpse for a few moments before anyone thought to remove her.
We stood under the tent the funeral home had set up and fanned ourselves with fans the cemetery had provided. The minister, red-faced and drenched with sweat in his long black robes, gave the fastest funeral service anyone had ever seen. We put my grandmother in the ground and my father took the shovel away from the grave diggers and tossed shovel after shovel of red-orange dirt over her casket as we all fanned ourselves and sniffled into tissues.
“It seems like, just as we bury one, there’s another one up and coming,” said my dad, looking at Annalee as she trampled the flowers I’d just laid on my brother’s grave.
And I started to cry.
My uncle came over and put his arm around my shoulders.
“Write about it,” he said. “Write about all of it.”
I’ll miss you, Uncle Chip. I have long forgotten how to play cribbage, but the writing part … that was good advice.