Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thirty Years Ago

30 years seems like a long time. It is. In fact, it's roughly three-quarters of my life. But I remember this day every year and, especially, this year, as it marks a milestone. My maternal grandfather, Felix Johnson Bennett, died on this day in 1984. I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade and he was one of, if not my most, favorite people in my entire world. I called him "Papa" (pronounced "paw-paw").

But this wasn't the only thing that happened that day. A lot transpired and it took years and even decades for me to realize all that transpired.

A lot of it is foggy asI was protected from many of the details, I suspect, by my loving and cautious parents. But this was the first time death knocked close to home. On my own door. And it came looking for someone I loved dearly.

Daddy came and got me out of school. At first, it was exciting having the school secretary interrupt the class and watching her hand a note to my teacher and then watching as the teacher read it. Following a glance around the classroom, her eyes landed on me and she called me to the front of the room. I don't remember her words but I'm sure I was told to gather my belongings and go out front to meet my Dad. There he stood in his splendid work suit, looking spiffy as he did every day of my childhood. And it was probably in the hallway or the car that he explained that something was wrong (insert a marker here where I first experienced the delayed sting of an understatement).

Even at almost 40 years old, I still am not 100% sure what happened. Papa was chopping wood out in his yard when he collapsed. My grandmother would have been inside. How did she know? How long was he out there before help came? Did she call an ambulance? Was he D.O.A. or did they work on him for a while? I never had the courage to ask these questions and always subscribed to the "don't ask questions if you don't want to know the answer" school of thought. Instead, I carry them around with me like one does freckles or a weird-sounding sneeze. It feels like something I inherited that I've just learned to live with.

I spent the night with our next door neighbor. This was the first time I'd spent the night somewhere other than with family and it should have been fun. A sleepover in the middle of the week? Heck yeah. But it wasn't because I knew something was wrong and I missed my parents.

The next few days are foggy. I have a couple of vivid memories from the funeral home. Arriving for the first night of visitation, I remember Daddy leaving Mom and me in the car and running inside. We sat there silently when she asked quietly, "do you have any questions? Do you understand what's happening?" Yes, I had countless questions and, no, there was no way I understood what was happening, but I shook my head side to side, ending the conversation before it really started.  We walked inside the funeral home. I imagine my maternal grandmother was with us. But the next memory I have is of this incredibly long, straight hallway leading to our designated visitation room (the "Dogwood Room," I recall). I heard an unfamiliar sound, half despair and half whimper and I realized it came from my Mom. Daddy was on one side of her and her Uncle Horace (Papa's brother) on the other, and they were half carrying her down this hall. (Insert marker here where I first realized the pain of losing someone is not just emotional. It can manifest in a very physical way.)

Entering the room, I noticed myriad green plants and flowers and weird stands with carnations on them. Too young to know that carnations are the skid marks on the underpants of the floral world, I was able to detect there just isn't something right about them. They smell weird, their edges look strange. I made a note to try and stay away from the flower whenever possible.

Approaching the casket, I saw Papa for the first time since his soul departed this world. It looked like him for the most part, yet things were decidedly "off." First, he wasn't leaning on something with a cigarette in between his fingers, a curl of smoke dancing above his head. He wasn't smiling. His hair was oddly in place and slicked back instead of casually tousled. He was wearing a suit instead of his trademark overalls. And his skin was not a normal color.

Mema patted his neatly folded hands and touched his face and I remember Daddy explaining to me that "dead people's skin" doesn't feel like ours. "If you touched it," he described, "it would feel like cold concrete."

Visitors began to file in and move in a weird, impromptu receiving line by my Mom and Mema. Each said how sorry they were, what a great man he was, and many remarked on how wonderful he looked. "Really?" I silently thought to myself. Even at nine years old, I thought what an odd comment that was and I still do to this day.

People brought food...lots of food. The funeral home kitchen was packed to the gills. It seemed like a good place to hide out. There were cookies there. It gave me a break from seeing my family's sad faces, hearing the inane banter, and looking over at that box that held my Papa. In the kitchen, people sat and stood around smiling and telling stories and laughing. It was here that I learned the next lesson and it would be 10+ years later, in college, when I would learn a quote to go along with it:

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life:  it goes on."
                                                                                        -- Robert Frost

Then the day of the funeral came. January 12, 1984. My Papa had been gone for four days now. Four days since we'd heard his laughter. Hugged him. Today was the day they were going to put him in the ground. At the service, in addition to the usual suspects of Mom and Mema crying, I saw Daddy cry for the first time. Here, I realized two things:  even the strong, stoic types have feelings. And in-laws can be friends.

The cemetery was just a short walk from the funeral home. It was cold, but the sun was shining that morning. As we stood around the grave and listened to the preacher say his final words, I looked at his casket hovering over the seemingly bottomless hole and imagined flinging myself on top in a last-ditch effort to hold onto him. I knew once they lowered that box in the ground, that it was game over. Someone whispered to my Mom that "the sun always shines on a country boy when he's going home." And then, for the first time, I heard a sound which, to this day, makes my stomach contract, causes a pain in my side and in my heart, and makes my blood stop running for just a second -- the clankety-clank of the machinery as they lowered the coffin. As if Death's hand was reaching up through the ground to claim this man, it was and remains the saddest sound I've ever heard.

In the days that followed, I, along with my family, adjusted to life minus one. Years later, while cleaning out my grandmother's house, I found a calendar which she had kept and used as a diary of sorts. On each month, in each little day's block, she had written doctor's appointments and dinner plans, praises to God, prayers for sick friends, or something interesting that had happened that day. The calendar took a noticeably dark turn following my Papa's passing. "Why did You take him from me, Lord?" she asked on one day. "I don't know how to live without him." "I cannot stop crying." "I thought I heard him downstairs this morning." And, "God, I miss him. I miss him so much." I was young and in love when I found this, yet I stood there realizing I didn't really know love. And I certainly didn't know grief. And I was astonished and saddened to find out just how devastated she was because, as far as I knew, she kept on being my same Mema. She picked me up from school. She played games with me. I didn't see her cry. I didn't know the grasp that loneliness and sadness had on her. And my heart hurt for her, suffering oftentimes alone. I realized that my family made sure she was alive but did we make sure she was living? We included her in outings, family birthday celebrations, holidays. But what about those dark hours when she was home alone. learning to live without him? How sad she must have been once those calls and flowers and cards stopped coming. So it was here that I made a note to remember this angst. I didn't, nor do I still, have the answer to overcoming it. But at least I know it's out there.

Through the years, I've imagined what it would be like to talk to Papa again. What if he had known me as an adult? Come to my wedding? Seen Calleigh be born? What would I ask him that a nine-year-old kid didn't know to? Did he know how much I loved him? Possibly the final lesson learned? Don't put off 'til tomorrow. There's no guarantee. So, I'll sign off now because I have a call I need to make.