This weekend a colleague and her husband were killed in an automobile accident. I suppose some will say there is at least a measure of comfort in knowing they went together.
When faced with incomprehensible tragedy, humans have to search for anything that makes it seem a little less random and a little easier to grasp.
Since I was a little girl, I have understood what death is as my rural Southern upbringing meant I was not to be protected from it. Up until I was eighteen and cancer took the Grandmother with whom I was living, our deceased relatives were always brought back home to be with their families until the funeral.
A long, black hearse would back up to the front door of Maw-Maw’s house and men dressed in black with thin ties and perfectly parted hair would wheel my aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents into our version of a formal living room.
I have a very vivid memory of myself running across the front yard, pigtails swinging, loudly announcing my Uncle Ed’s arrival.
Inside the house and surrounding the casket, carnations and chain-smoking relatives stood watch, while in the kitchen a myriad of Southern Baptist women from the community laid out more salty ham and lemon meringue pie than even the saddest family could eat.
Occasionally a female cousin might play something softly on the old player piano sitting directly across from the one who'd gone on. Having myself taken piano lessons in the second and third grade, I once thought I was ready to get the coveted pats on the back coupled with a few teary Bless Your Heart’s by playing the only song I knew. I quickly learned Down at Papa Joe’s was not as appropriate as my cousin's Old Rugged Cross.
Throughout the night the coffin remained open, but protocol demanded that two males who were not closely related to the deceased sat guard beside our loved one until the morning. The smell of strong coffee, cigarette smoke and carnations is one that sort of burns itself in your memory, a peculiar mix of comfort and pain all at once.
Because Maw-Maw loved me and didn’t want the memory of death in the house to give me nightmares, she would scoop me up, take me to the side of the casket and instruct me to kiss my relative good-bye. I was never afraid or hesitant, but I imagine the rest of the world would find it curious that I knew dead people felt like cold stone even before I knew my ABC’s.
Of course there were as many tears as glasses of sweet tea, but the crying was always peppered with whispers of explanation.
“Jesus ended his suffering and called him home. He’s in a better place now.”
“She missed her husband so much. Thank the Lord she’s finally with him in Glory.”
No one ever said, “This makes no damn sense,” because in that world, death made perfect sense. Everyone who died did so exactly the way they were supposed to, at exactly the time they were supposed to, end of story.
Today, years and worlds away from that life, all I can think is that Jeanie’s death makes no damn sense.
She was the nicest person you’d ever want to meet and I guarantee you’d have liked her because she was that kind of person.
She had sparkly eyes with tiny, permanent squint lines from years of laughing out loud. Her voice was wonderfully gravelly and deep in a way that always put me in mind of Jessica Rabbit. The few times I actually heard her swear, she’d lower that voice to a whisper as she said the offending word.
She called me a “hoot” and as only a handful of people in my professional life can do, she brought out the most gregarious part of me. I loved being in the same room with her and I loved talking to her on the phone and there are so few in my line of work about whom I can make that statement.
I spoke to her last only a few days ago when among other things, she made me write down her email address because she wanted a copy of something I’d written. It was one of only a handful of ferocious letters to the editor I’ve ever written and she went on and on about it as if I’d authored the President’s Inaugural Address. I promised I would send it that afternoon, but as is often the case with too many things in my busy life, it went undone.
Every day I’d see my scrawled note to self reminding me to email her and every day, I was too busy. A small, ridiculous thing to think about in the midst of this tragedy, but I think maybe it’s the small, ridiculous things that bother us the most when something like this happens.
There is nothing to do now but send flowers to the family she left and attend her funeral because that’s what we do, right? Flowers, funeral, move on.
I will get up and go to work tomorrow and do my best to act as if nothing has happened because discussing it too much is bothersome and off-putting to those for whom death is not something you get close to. On Wednesday, I will put on black and say good-bye to this lovely lady in an appropriate and wholly civilized way.
How odd that I find myself longing for the uncivilized good-byes from my past. How I hope for her family that they have the benefit of a quiet time alone with her so they can grieve out loud and say all the things they wish they’d said before she was snatched away.
I will miss you, Jeanie. I'm so sorry.
Calling All Angels
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