I knew little of my cousin Evan, except that he was 7 days older than me and reveled in being a rambunctious boy of a single digit age as much as I. He was from a distant land my mom called Canada and would visit Minnesota infrequently with his brother Hugh.
This particular summer, Evan visited Minnesota… for good. His father passed away in a work related accident, so his mother moved back to Minnesota to be with the family. I remember being elated to hear that they were moving back to Minnesota for good, and that I’d have a friend to romp around our grandmother’s back yard with.
My younger mind couldn’t grasp tragedy. Although Evan, his brother and mother were undergoing the woes of a vicious, untimely death- I simply understood it as “Yay, a new friend in town”. My relationship with my father, at the time, was stewed in absence and somewhat of a mystique. I took his circumstance to be the same as mine: Living with a sibling, mother, and no father. My understanding couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Evan and I sit on a dark couch in a room full of weeping family members. Our grandfather, Doc Van Deusen, had passed away and we were now attending the funeral home for the viewing of the body.
Everything in the room seemed dark. I swear it was night out, but it was most likely in the throws of daylight, nothing held color in the room. The walls ran muddy, the lamps conveyed as cryptic antiquities, the window curtains hung like last minute buys at Dracula’s garage sale. I hated this place. Evan and I were forced to dress in tandem with the room- our Sunday best, as one would perhaps have it. Little boys, we were, dressed in slacks, dress shirts and little dress shoes.
The ceremony of it all made no damn sense to me. At the ripe age of 11, I took these people for madness. “Who, in their right mind, would want to view the dead body of a family member?!?!?” I continuously thought. My mother, emphatic in her sobbing, asked me to stand up and attend the room. “It’s that last time you’ll get to see him. Don’t you want to say goodbye?”
I entered the room… for her. I didn’t want anything to do with the display of my grandfather’s dead body, but I knew my mother would never forgive me if I didn’t go to see him. I’d rather sit on the dark couch with Evan than enter the room.
Upon entrance, I looked down and away. Perhaps my mere presence would suffice my mother’s heart… but I was curious. What would he look like? How would he seem? Would their be a strange smell? What if he jumped up and yelled “Surprise!”? My mind reeled. I must look at him, otherwise I’ll never live it down.
Averting my gaze… I first saw the right side of his face. I approached slowly to a view revealing the entirety of his horizontal posture, fully laid out in a casket. My mother reminded me he was on a cot, but I distinctly remember him wearing a suit in a casket. I don’t know why, but memory might serve me differently than the reality of it. That moment- I will never forget.
The room filled with tears and inconclusive sentences. He looked like him, but not. Something was off. He looked smaller than before. Of course, suffering from ALS will literally atrophy the body to something quite smaller, but his face… there was something in his face that looked off. It was him and not him at the same time. My younger mind fumbled with this paradox of viewing my grandfather’s lifeless body… as a stranger.
He meant the world to me, but at 11 years of age, I just didn’t have the tragic swell to cry or be upset. I’d known some of him, but by no means all of him. Doc was a complex man with a litany of layers and walls. All for good reason, but none of which I could understand at the time. I remember, at the age of 18, writing to my father that I no longer wanted to see or speak to him. However, running into him a year later, we broke bread, chatted… I referenced the “break-up” letter I sent him to which he conjured a glint in his eye, grinned criminally, and shortly said “You’ll understand when you get older”. I get it now.
Doc’s body was saying something. There was a statement there muddled in the reality of his death and physical departure. Something was there, and it would take a lifetime to understand it.
My mother texts “Do you still want to view grandmother’s body at the funeral home?” Inversely to 22 years ago, I have the choice. No one is mandating I sit in an antiquated church-smelling room to take a gander at a lifeless body in relation to me. I reply “Yes”.
“This will be easy as it was before”, I think to myself. “I have the wherewithal of an adult mind, I can come and go as I please, and I can control my emotions as a grown man”, I expound.
I arrive early. The building is empty. Silent.
The acoustics of main entrance room swallow any sound made between the walls. Nothing can be heard. It feels to be a liminal space trapped between reality and the stars. Something is off here.
A man comes out to greet me. His tone is soft, his posture is perfect. “I’m here to see Carol” I tell him. Most assuredly the last time I will be able to say it. “Yes” he replies, “We’ll wait for your mother”.
I figured I could maybe go it alone since my mother wasn’t already there, and I could possibly get “this” over with. “I had visited grandma just a week ago, I remember what the woman looks like.” My mind reeling again. I grab a pamphlet from a kiosk and sit with it. “How To Cope With The Loss Of A Loved One” reads the pamphlet. The literature drags me through a roster of pitfalls in dealing with death. I get it. I’m ready.
My mother arrives, the soft spoken man leads us to the basement, and it hits me: This is the same funeral home Evan and I impatiently waited in our Sunday best outfits for our grandfather’s viewing of the body. The same church-scented air wafting through open space, I can’t help but scowl in its presence like revisiting an old enemy. I immediately regret coming back to this place. My veins course with fear stricken intimidation, I almost freeze in place and resist the march to the basement.
Descending onto the room, that same couch standing there, I feel everything- the air, the absence of sound, the dark walls, the vampiric curtains, my mother’s ease with the entirety of it all, and my own heart… beating slower and slower. This is it, this will be my mind’s undoing. All the anxiety, sadness, and deflation of the past 24 hours will come to a complete epoch in this next moment.
Everything will rage, and I can feel it already stirring.
Standing in the room, every cell of me wants to run. The soft-spoken man opens a door to another room. “You can take time to process in here. Through that door, there is a hallway, she is there.” Respectfully, he exits.
My mother goes in first, I follow close after. And here it is.
The crying is uncontrolled at first, as my eyes fill, release and repeat. I look up and away, but the reality of her is inescapably chasing me down. Her body demands my eyes. I acquiesce.
I have loved no one more than this woman. I have loved no one as uniquely as I have loved this woman.
To me, she was and will always be the truth.
For her life, I would give my own. And bearing all of this in a hallway next to her lifeless body is a pressure my soul is crumbling beneath.
The ground shakes.
The walls move.
I recall my mother, not asking, but telling me to reach out and touch my grandfather’s arm or hand during his viewing of the body. I thought her to be a mad woman. I reached out to touch his arm, as my uncles and aunt, one by one kissed him gently on the forehead. I wanted nothing more than to get “it” over with.
But here. There is no evading the circumstance through innocence, youth or naivety. Everything in me and around me is shaking violently, and I cannot make it stop.
My vision blurs. The tears continue to pour.
Whatever my mother is saying goes mute beneath how loudly my grandmother’s body is filling the hallway. Against every fiber, cell and ounce of blood in me, I take a step toward her… and another… and another, until I am standing next to her. I reach my left hand out, and touch her forehead. And it disappears.
Time stops. The walls pause. My tears hault. Everything ceases.
In this is the purest moment I have ever felt in my life. She is with me, she is everywhere, and she is in me. Carol wanted nothing of the pageantry of drama or over doing anything. She had mastered the simplicity of joy. Her daily practice was compassion and not holding concern for which she could not control. She was peace… and in this moment, she is giving me that. The tears would run again while entering my car in the parking lot outside of the funeral home, but in this pristine moment as I am touching her forehead on this final day before she is cremated, there is pure and simple peace… and she continues to giving it to the world.
The scene mirrored that of Doc’s where she didn’t look to be herself. Something foreign about her face- something that wasn’t her.
My mother dialogued for a few seconds. The tears subsided for the moment. I kissed my hand and placed it on her forehead once more. “Ok” I said. “It’s time”.
We exited the hallway.
Once caught in the folds of the hallway, the undulating walls and thick air, I thought I’d never want to leave my grandmother’s side. But now, the peace swimming through me… it spoke too clearly. It was time.
I returned to my car, and wept for what felt like an eternity.
I called Evan later that day. We talked about the passing. There was a calmness in the tone of his voice. He had visited her hours just after she passed away at the intensive care unit. Seeming unwavered in his posture, a part of me presumes it to be his experience of losing his father, and parts of me believe it’s because he has to be. Each of us plays a role in our family, and everyday I’m finding the connections between us are infinite.
Carol meant life to me. Now, she means that and more.
It was just a week ago she was playing with her great grand-daughter cracking jokes and telling stories of Doc’s uncles and aunts. But now…
Departing with Carol wasn’t the same as departing Doc’s viewing of the body. With Doc, even my younger mind was able to grasp that something was entirely unfinished with him, like the adventure had several more chapters to it. Again, it’ll take a lifetime for me to understand what that all means. However, with Carol, she knew- She was aware when death was upon her, and what it meant. She left everything behind.
Before her passing, and now after it, she means the world to me. And as sad, loud and heavily it weighs upon my heart, we must carry her legacy to the best of our ability and potential as a family.
To Carol. I’ll see you again someday.
With love, and nothing less than my heart,Always your grandson, Toussaint Morrison