I remember the first time I saw a dead body. It was my grandfather. Truthfully though, it wasn’t him at all, and even though I was a young boy I somehow instinctively knew that ‘he’ was gone. His skin was waxy and cold. His hair, a little too firm. He had become, in one long exhale, a mannequin sporting the very best clothes my grandmother could find in his small, spartan closet.
There was a rather long line of people gathered in the funeral home to wait and walk the carpeted aisle and give the living members of our family their condolences. I sat on the front row sort of bewildered by the whole thing. Some people cried. Some people kept the tears collared by telling funny stories about my grandfather. It sounded as though these people were speaking in another language. I could hear their words, and their stories, but the content was utterly foreign to me. I never knew my grandfather in the ways that these people spoke about him. All their words glistened.
All I knew of ‘Paw-paw’ was sickness. He was never happy. He was a sullen bull of a man, weakened by a diseased heart and a suitcase full of medicine. His skin was yellow like his fingernails which were stained by the cigarettes that he smoked. His tone was harsh, especially towards my grandmother who served him like a king, always smiling, never slow. Looking back, it seems as though having a bad heart in the 1980’s had made him bitter and angry. He was a strong man, now weak. He was a farmer, brought indoors. He was a hustler with no energy. And all that was crushingly disappointing.
But there in the receiving line were stories and laughter and tears that told a different story. People talked about my grandfather in the way that one might talk about a friend. I distinctly remember one of my uncles telling my grandmother that he was going to miss my grandfather. That was a shocking moment for me. Why on earth was anyone going to miss him? He wasn’t fun, or kind, or caring, or anything. He was angry, and distant, and scary.
I once picked up one of my grandfather’s prized pocket-knives when he wasn’t looking, and from across the room, without turning his head to see me, he yelled, “Dammit, put it down!”
I did put it down. I was so startled that I dropped that pearl handled knife on the carpet where it bounced twice. I looked down in horror.
“Pick the damned thing up and don’t touch it again!”
I think that was the most my grandfather ever said to me in one moment, and it was shouted in his signature hot tone.
The most awkward thing was that later, when we were leaving, my dad made me go and give paw-paw a hug. I didn’t want to hug him and I’m pretty sure that he didn’t want to hug me either. It was obligation and the one thing that shouted louder than my grandfather were the prods of forced affection.
Looking back I can see that I really didn’t know my grandfather at all, at least not the way others in the funeral home knew him. He had become someone that I’m sure he never planned on being. Most people aren’t hoping to become sick and emotionally disconnected. Most people’s life goals don’t include dying early and unhappy, yet people do all the time.
Life has a way of happening that even the most prepared can’t plan for, which begs the question – why do some of us wither and others of us flower, even while facing death and hardship and the angles of life that we did not consider?
Funeral home receiving lines are amplifiers, shouting in quiet whispers, loving embraces, and the preachers eulogy who a person really was. And often who a person really was is almost nothing like the body lying in the casket, or even the body that was breathing and hanging on just a few days ago.
Tragically, most people never get to hear the sound of their own life. That amplifier gets turned on only after they are gone. The words are right, the timing wrong.
Eulogies are for the living. Life and lives were meant to be celebrated, out loud, in front of others, long before that sad day when aunts and distant cousins gather. Our words about one another are not merely descriptive, they are creational. They hover over the deep waters and draw together elements that we did not know existed. They declare beauty over the ashes, and in doing so, grow a garden, a garden of love.
Joseph was his father’s favorite son, clothed in love, a coat of many colors that all his brothers could see. Heaven declared Jesus to be the beloved son before he had healed the sick or preached even one sermon. Some things simply cannot wait.
Joseph is also the son who was beaten, thrown into a hole, and sold into slavery. Likewise, Jesus was beaten, and nailed to a cross. Joseph knew hardship and pain and the unfair happenings of life. Jesus was the most innocent man in all history treated like a criminal! Yet both Joseph and Jesus did not wither, they flowered, and I’m convinced that they were able to flower because they had been planted deeply in the soil of affection and affirmation.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to my grandfather if he had heard the sound of his life before he died. What if the 17 year-old Arnold Russell had heard his mom and dad and friends say what they really thought and felt about him? Sadly, I’m afraid he probably did hear quite a bit of what people really thought and it was most likely not the celebratory song that gets sung at the end of one’s life. Perhaps those, harsher words were actually the seeds of anger and discontent, planted in vulnerable soil, all grown up in the end, squeezed by pain and sickness.
Timing matters. Some things simply cannot wait. Eulogies are for the living