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A Fistful of Caskets

I’m sitting at a picnic table in a park. A father and son are throwing a baseball back and forth. A young girl throws herself down the slide with a squeal. Her older brother chases her down while their parents stand nearby and chat, smiles on their faces. The sun is mid-way between high noon and sunset.

The moment is snap-shot worthy. Something from a postcard.

My cell phone, lying on the table, lights up next to me. My dad is calling. I see that I’ve missed a previous text from him that reads simply, CALL ME ASAP.

My stomach drops and all the terrible things come to my mind. How much of an emergency is this? What am I about to discover? I’m picking up the phone and dread is filling me up. It rings and I’m thinking it’s either going to be awful or an overreaction. It rings again. I tap my finger as my stomach tightens.

Mid-ring he picks up. A moment of silence. A choke. A pause. It’s just long enough to know it’s not good. Just enough to think it’s bad. Just enough time to brace myself for news, some news. Please do not tell me someone is dead.

I hear a sharp inhale and then, “My mom died.”

Silence. My thoughts a void. Then it all snaps back to me, thrown in my face like a bright light after darkness. My grandma was dead. My dad’s mother was dead.

My mind goes blank, the back of my brain falls out and all I can think is of a big empty space where no thought lives at all. I stare at that dad throwing the ball to his son. The image is macabre.

My mind instantly throws a handful of sloppy thoughts in front of me. What was the last thing you said? When was the last time you spoke? Did you return her last call? I struggle to think, to answer, to understand.

My dad and I sit in silence for the better part of a minute. I hear the occasional sniff on his side followed by shallow exhales. He lost his mother, I think. A picture of my own mother rises into my mind and I immediately understand that someday I will be standing in his shoes, calling Rory, telling him that my mother has passed on.

I ask what happened.

“She’s old. She’s old.”

I fly back to South Dakota a few days later and meet up with my family. There are a lot of us. I grew up amongst these people. And I grew up amongst my grandmother, she having lived next door to me my entire life.

At the wake I stand at her casket and stare down at her. They have made her look nice though she did already look nice while she was alive. Her hair is perfect. Her skin is colored to look healthy. A slight smile. I can’t help but think she looks happy to be dead.

Her hands are cold. And small. And her skin is thin and wrought with fat veins and deep wrinkles. I see a watch on her hand, Wizard of Oz themed. It ticks, very much alive.

I watch the second hand take it’s jolting steps forward, forever marching ahead. And another second. And another second. And another second. And now I’m a few moments closer to the end of my own plank, my yellow brick road getting shorter and shorter, brick by brick by brick.

The last thing I see before they close the casket is her watch, still ticking.

At the graveside they’ve dug a hole before the family arrives. I carry the casket from the hearse to the grave and slide it onto the harness. Around the casket they’ve placed fake grass, hiding the earth from our eyes, cloaking death, hiding the truth from us, trying to put make-up on it, hiding what we’re doing.

Some words are said and people begin to walk away, the casket still sitting on the harness.

The crowd gathers in their cars and drive away, the casket still sitting on the harness.

As I drive away, I see the casket, still sitting on the harness, reflected in my mirrors.

I want to watch it lower. I want to bury her with my hands. I don’t want to drive away and eat turkey sandwiches and potato salad while she sits alone, being lowered and buried by some Chuck and Larry Whoever.

Afterwards, in the church basement, I have a chance to look out at the attendees. We are young and old. I witness the web she has weaved, the relationships she has forged, the people she knew, either by choice or by blood. These were her people. Some of them so young they are brand new, a baby nursing. Some of them so old, their minds have begun to fade, their memories being slowly deleted, their relationships being erased.

I look at the ones that are closest to me, mother, father. Siblings. Uncles and aunts. Cousins and friends. And I realize I will be standing here again in the years to come. If I am lucky enough to continue to live, I will see each of them in a casket, their eyes closed, their make-up on, their happy-to-be-dead smiles. And their ticking watches. Like the marching of a drum.

Tick.

Tick.

Tock.

I fly back home the day after the day after the funeral and am walking up my driveway in LA late. It’s dark. The moon is up. My family is sleeping.

Inside I drop my bag and kill my coat. Kiss my wife. Walk into the children’s room and see them sleeping, their eyes closed, their faces young and healthy. Their smiles nowhere to be found in their sleep.

I enter our room and pull off my shirt. Glancing down into the crib, I see Beau sleeping on her back, one hand laying on her tummy. One hand sprawled above her head.

I stare at her. And I stare at her. And I stare at her. And I can’t shake the thought. It eats at me and turns my stomach and makes me sick. I feel my throat restrict and my eyes begin to well up.

Someday I will die. Someday I will leave you alone, Beau. Someday I will leave you all. Alone. Someday you will have only one another. Someday you will be standing over me, staring down at me. I can’t protect you from this. You will suffer the death of a parent.

And if we are lucky, you will suffer the death of a parent and not I suffering the terrible and awful naked horror of losing a child.

The clock ticks. It ticks on and on. My children grow. They have families and children of their own, friends and lives. They’ve built their own webs of relationships, their own complex frameworks that I will not know. I will not be familiar with them. Their late-life tapestry will not be for me to observe or take part in.

Staring down at Beau, the third and final thought strikes me and I want to walk out of the room, redirect my thoughts and blind myself with distractions. I want the horrible earth to be covered in fake grass – I don’t want the truth. I want the make-up on the truth. I don’t want the truth. I want to run from it but instead I stand at her crib side and I keep staring, digging into it. Letting the emotions encase me.

Someday Beau will die. And someday she will lie in a coffin. And I will not be there. And strangers will celebrate the life of my baby.

In the earth, my grandmothers watch continues to tick.

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