I sit here in the last pew at the funeral home. Neighbor Jim sits next to me.
We are all facing the blond brick walls and deep red flowers that flank a small pine box that holds the ashes of our neighbor, Randy.
His widow and four children sit in the front row. His daughter is crying with such anguish that I cry, too. I know how she feels. She is scared. She’s worried about how the family will survive. And she cries because the pain is so deep. Loss. She will never, ever see him again. She is drenched in tears. She is inconsolable.
Her mother holds her daughter and cries a little. But she’s already told me how angry she is at her dead husband for shooting himself in the head on their bed while she took a shower right after she told him he had to get a job or get out.
The boys are stalwart. There is not the smallest sign of grief or fear. Just kinda normal.
Neighbor Jim leans over to tell me that he made that pine box and asks if I want to see it. I feel shy and hesitate. He asks if I want him to go up with me. I say yes. So the two of us go up to the front of the room where the box is. There is a small brass plaque on it. Jim made the box with his usual woodworking perfection. He says it took practically no time at all.
Neighbor Jim helped to clean up Randy’s house after he died. Pulled the bloody mattress out, among other things. He’s a good neighbor.
We go to a huge picture frame on an easel. There are pictures of Randy and his family. He looks happy. He holds his children, he watches his wife in labor, he poses, with his sleeves rolled up, for his official portrait for the grocery store he worked for.
It all feels . . . horrible, tragic, ironic, sad. But good, too. Life wasn’t all bad for Randy.
Neighbor Jim and I return to our seats and then Steve and Sheila, our other neighbors, join us. There are now four of us from our little community sitting in the back pew.
Steve and Sheila have just come from a memorial for their best friends, a husband and a wife, who had been murdered by an escaped prisoner in New Mexico when they were on a camping trip. They had all retired at the same time.
And here is something even worse for Steve and Sheila. They are the owners of the trailer where Randy and his family lived across the street from them and Neighbor Jim, the same trailer where their own dear son was shot in the groin two or three years earlier. One of my first conversations with my neighbor Steve was about how we had both lost our sons. He told me then how his son had died in his wife’s arms, in the ambulance.
Tangled, painful experiences wash over us as we sit in that pew.
The music wells up, a country western song, with fiddles playing as mournfully as any bagpipe. I love country western music. It is like rap – the poetry of the people. Heartache is something that country music does really, really well.
We sit quietly. The young woman on my right, holding a sweet little toddler on her lap, begins to cry. I wonder if she’s thinking of someone she loved who has died or if she is thinking of Randy.
The song ends and the reverend, a big man with a friendly face, walks up to the lectern and begins his talk.
It’s about God. And being saved. And pain. And then he quotes the Bible about “judging not.”
Three rows up I see a man nodding his head, just slightly, as those words are spoken. Has he been judged?
I see a chubby preteen boy, two rows up, who cries, and whose mother wraps her arms around him and cradles him.
The reverend goes on. He tells us that Randy had accepted the Lord, Jesus Christ, and that he was saved. He quotes the Bible, saying that if the Lord is with us, who can be against us? He knows that Randy is in heaven now. And he again makes reference to the fact that we cannot know what was in Randy’s heart. And we must not judge.
The reverend never raises his voice during his sermon. It’s a talk that is meant to be consoling but also thought provoking. It’s meant to keep Randy from being put outside the flock. And it’s a lesson to us in the pews that we had better get ourselves saved.
He talks about not analyzing, and that analyzing leads to paralyzing. I find myself shaking my head no. I am so over the faith thing.
Most people in the room are already convinced of the need to be saved but there are a few of us who don’t go for it.
Music again. About being saved and going to heaven.
The reverend returns to the lectern. He can’t seem to wind up his sermon. Four times he says that he’ll say just one more thing before he closes.
Then he invites us to come forward to show our love and respect to the family.
I go up with Sheila. The men hang back. This is women’s work I guess. We two women join the rest of the mourners. I hug the sorrowful widow and say nothing, just hug her, and then I lean in to the inconsolable daughter and tell her I know how she feels and I say to the older son who isn’t showing any emotion that I hope he comes to my pond to fish.
And then it’s over.
We four neighbors congregate in the foyer. Randy’s pictures play on a video in the corner. People stop to watch for a while.
There’s nothing left to do or say, so we walk out of the building, into the 104 degree parking lot. Neighbor Jim walks me to my car. He tells me how he resents being preached to. I tell him I don’t resent it because I know the reverend does it out of concern for our souls, but that I, personally, had lost my belief in a loving God who protects me.
We agree that our funerals won’t have any of that.
Our conversation leads me to tell him that after my son died I thought about why it happened. I thought about it almost constantly for three years, reaching back and back through causes and effects until finally I got back to the beginning of the Universe and the Big Bang. I realized that everything was like an infinite set of dominoes, toppling each other in patterns that ran in all directions, affecting one thing and then another, and that my son’s death had been coming with those particular circumstances, since the beginning of time.
Neighbor Jim nods and agrees. It’s just the way it is. And there’s nothing you can do about it. The luck of the draw.
And as I climb into the smothering furnace of my car, I think to myself that maybe I would like a country western song at my funeral, like the one that played today. That song had helped us cry. We sat together in that room and bid a fond farewell to all our dearly departed and cried.
It was real purdy.