Last week was the Third Coast International Audio Festival, which recognizes the best radio stories of the past year. The winner of the Third Coast Best New Artist award was April Dembosky, with her story entitled “Death Comes Home.” I downloaded a podcast from Third Coast and I listened to the hour-long story. It was about death, of course, and the ways that some people have handled the deaths of loved ones in unconventional ways. They chose to take the funeral rites into their own hands. They all ended up keeping the bodies in the caskets in their own homes. It was a really personal thing and they all seemed to get immense closure and satisfaction from doing it that way.
The closest experience that I have had with death is when my grandfather died. Actually, my step-father’s dad: I have a big, big, complicated family, but they are all my family nonetheless. Anyway, I think I was in the seventh or eighth grade when he died of cancer. Up to that point, there had been other deaths in the family: my mom’s mother had died several years earlier, and my step-great-grandmother had also died recently, but none were as personal as this one. I saw him deteriorating. I didn’t realize that he was deteriorating. I mean, I noticed that he was getting thinner, and I noticed as his cheeks took on a sort of sunken look, but his eyes were still lit up whenever I saw him. His hugs were no less warm and loving, and he still smelled familiar. Normal. But one day, after church, we got the call. My mom looked at me and said “Grandpa Charlie, he passed.” I had been expecting it but hearing the words so blunt that like threw my world into focus. Or out of focus. I was startled at the pocket phrase that had been reserved for this one moment. Shouldn’t something more personal be used for the end of a life?
The people in Dembosky’s story dealt with the deaths with an almost clinical manner (as well as with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, which I guess would be the one betrayer in the facade): before the death, the couples met with a funeral planner and decided where the casket would go for the wake and what the deceased would wear when the day came. And on the morning that the wife found her husband finally dead, she called up her assistant and the plan went into action. I can’t decide if planning out your funeral is depressing or therapeutic. There’s a comfort in activity, in knowing that no matter what happens, you are doing something about it. I wonder what I would wear to my casket. I wonder what I would choose to be recalled as looking like.
I remember the wake of Grandpa Charlie’s funeral. We were at the funeral home and there was a dark room filled with flowers. The smell was sickeningly sweet. They were supposed to be comforting; they were supposed to be votive offerings of peoples’ condolences and love. It’s just ironic because they smelled so fake. There were purple daisies in there– that’s so unnatural! Sometimes I’ll be walking along and I’ll get a whiff of that fake smell again and I’m right back in that dark room.
I couldn’t go in there for the longest time. I sat outside in the..lobby? If you can call it that, sure. I sat there, too scared to go in and see him lying in that box. I remember how his wife came out and hugged me. There was a lot of drama with her because they had only been married for a few years. I didn’t really like her either. No one really liked her.
I peeked into the room. I could see the tip of his sharp nose and just a hint of his forehead poking out over the side of the casket. I slowly worked my way in and settled myself on a couch on the far side of the room. All four of his high school yearbooks sat on a table and I found every picture of him in them. He was so good looking, so smart, so promising. He looked pretty much the same now, just older. He was a lawyer, you know. I was so proud of him.
Eventually someone, I don’t remember who, walked me up to the casket, and I looked at him. I could tell that he had makeup on. He was dark-skinned naturally, but the makeup faked this matte brown color that he just..wasn’t. His fingers looked so long folded up on his stomach. I expected him to get up; to look at me and smile and hug me and tell me it was okay, that he was just kidding. Then we would all laugh and go back to his house and have some chili. I wondered if he was wearing that cologne that smelled so characteristically like him. He probably wasn’t. All I could smell were those damn flowers. His second ex-wife, my step-step-ex-grandmother (the prefixes are superfluous, really), grabbed his hands and kissed his forehead in tears. I didn’t know how she could do that. I didn’t know how she could touch his cold dead flesh and feel anything but eeriness and fear.
I’ve always feared death. The idea of keeping a dead body in my house was just inconceivable. No way. I would be scared that it would come back to life and haunt me. But after listening to Dembosky’s story I’ve realized that the body is just the vessel through which the animation of life takes place. It’s like the picture frame that once housed a masterpiece. The fact that it is carbon-based and now decomposing is just an extra little tidbit, an insignificant detail. I guess I can understand wanting to hold onto it for as long as I can.
I feel like the family is still reeling from his death. We haven’t fully recovered. It’s been five or six years now, I guess. I wish I could call him up and tell him about my plans. I want him to come to my graduation in May and tell me how proud he is. I want him to read this blog. I still miss him. It’s weird because I’ve never been particularly attached in personal relationships. If this had not have happened, I never would have imagined that after five years, I could still cry about the loss of a person. But here I am. It’s raw human emotion, and although it is sad, I also find it to be refreshing and relieving. I go through so much of my life feigning appropriate emotions for situations; seldom do I genuinely and wholeheartedly feel something with all of my being.