Those Are People Who Died
1988. I’m six. My first funeral. Never met Mike or his parents. Mom is crying and hugging other relatives I’ve never come across. They talk of things from previous decades, remembrances of a time before I existed. I go up to the casket. Overheard the “napping against the tree” story from Mike’s dad. Still looks like he is napping. This is the first dead body I have ever seen.
Mike was mom’s cousin. Was in his early-30s. Been out fishing with friends all day, drinking beers on the boat while they tried to catch walleyes. Sun went down. Mike and friends went back to shore. Friends hitched the boat to their truck and said goodnight to Mike. He climbed in his truck and drove home. Country road twisted and turned back in on itself. Mike, still boozy, going too fast, went off road. Front right end of his truck struck a tree. Mike wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He burst through the windshield, bounced along the ground and slammed into a different tree. Old man that came upon the accident later said it looked Mike had sat down with his back to the tree and taken a nap.
Mike still has the brown bushy hair and moustache that he has in pictures next to the casket. Pictures from before he died. He wears the kind of glasses friends and I will later in life refer to as “Jeffrey Dahmer glasses.” He’s smiling in all his pictures. Friends hug him. Parents lean on him and give him kisses on his cheeks. Redheaded woman named Roxanne poses next to Mike, her right hand on his chest, her head on his shoulder. Someone told me they were dating. I don’t see Roxanne at the funeral.
Grant Medical Center. 1989. I am seven-years old. In a waiting room on a floor high in the building, reading a book called Eating Ice Cream with a Werewolf. Uncle John is sitting next to me, watching a baseball game. Keeping me company while my mom, dad and aunt Cathy go back to my grandfather’s room. Grandpa Jack has cancer. Will be years before I learn that he developed cancer only a year or so after I was born 1981. A period of remission happened, so no one ever told me he was ill.
Aunt Cathy comes out. Takes me by the hand and leads me down the unusually dark hospital hall. It is April. It is spring. Sun blasts through the windows at the end of the hall. Lights above us are turned off. I smell urine, medicinal creams, bleached fabrics and an odor I will later come to think of as the “stink of death.” Smells like rot, like a body being eaten from the inside out. In my older years I consider it the smell of fear.
The stink is making me sad. Cathy leads me into my grandfather’s room. Mom and dad are there. Uncle Pat and his wife are sitting in the corner. Didn’t even know they came. Cathy’s sons, Brian and Andy, are standing next to the large hospital window. Both older than me. Andy graduated high school last year. Came up from Miami University to see grandpa. I think Andy is cool.
Grandma sits at the end of the bed, watching her husband.
Stand in front of my parents. Mom puts her hands around my shoulders. Grandpa talks to Pat about something when he notices me.
“Jay!” He pats his hospital bed. Mom helps me up and I sit next to him. Tubes all over him – coming out of his arms, from under his gown, one hooked to his nose. Rubs my back, asks me how I’m doing. I talk as a little kid would talk, still unaware of how heavy the whole situation is. Grandpa laughs at my stories, wants to know how school is going, asks me why anyone would ever want to eat ice cream with a werewolf.
He points to the state office tower. Columbus spreads out below the window. I follow the aim of his finger.
“See that? I helped build that.” He was a pipefitter, a loyal union man, took pride in his work. Navy guy in the 40s. Drove one of the Higgins boats during the invasion of Normandy in WWII. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan? He went through that.
Talk a little bit longer before mom says it’s time to get me some lunch. Hug grandpa Jack. He kisses me on the cheek. I leave not knowing this will be the last time we speak.
Weeks later. Lunch. Mom, aunt Cathy, grandma, me. Eat hospital food in the hospital cafeteria. Grandma is crying. Grandpa is unresponsive, on life support. Mom says he looks like he’s sleeping. Time to let him go. Pneumonia has settled in. His cancerous body, too weak to fight anymore, breaks down and allows pneumonia to win the war.
“I can’t lose Jack,” my grandma whispers.
At the funeral, I think he is smiling. Lay my hand on his. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kantner, comes to the funeral home to pay her respects. Mom bawls when she sees her, hugs my teacher tightly. I sit on Kantner’s lap later and she rubs my arm, tells me things will be okay.
As they bury grandpa, a bagpiper in a kilt plays “Amazing Grace.”
Someone banging on our apartment door. 1994. It is summer. I am twelve going on thirteen. Mom opens the door. A neighbor girl, Ashley, is screaming and crying.
She points to the backyard. Mom and me step outside. Her older brother Jeremy has fashioned a crude noose and is hanging from one of the hook-steps embedded in the telephone pole. His body thrashes. The hands are pulling at the rope around his neck.
“Oh, Jesus! Oh shit! Jason, call 911!”
I run inside, grab the cordless phone, call for a squad. As I’m on the phone, I step back out on the front porch. Mom tries to climb the fence separating the apartment’s backyard from the glass factory behind us. Jeremy’s arms are looser, his body only twitching. One arm gets too weak and falls away from his neck. Mom balances herself on top of the fence and is about to climb the hook-steps when the rope breaks and Jeremy falls roughly fifteen onto the factory parking lot.
Mom jumps down. Woman on the end of the phone says paramedics are on their way, that I can hang up. Run to the fence. Other kids from other apartments have come outside, are spilling over and through the broken fence. Shimmy through an opening. Mom has pulled the noose off his neck and tossed it aside. She gives him mouth-to-mouth and pumps his chest with her hands. Ashley is weeping. There is clear snot rolling out of both of her nostrils.
Mom keeps giving him CPR until the squad arrives. They go to work on him. Mom corrals us kids away from the scene, moves us back to the other side of the fence. Fire truck arrives, and they try to help the boy. Seems like days but is only maybe five minutes when one of the paramedics calmly says, “Call it.” They mean call the time of death. Saw that in some movies. While the others load Jeremy onto a stretcher, two paramedics jump the fence to talk to everyone. Mom tells her story. I tell mine. Ashley says parents are at work. She says Jeremy talked about killing himself every day. They thank my mom for trying to help. Ashley goes with them to the hospital.
Jeremy was only fourteen. Mom and me don’t talk much for the rest of the day. Jeremy’s parents never come around to ask mom what happened. I recommend going over to their place and talking to them. Mom says they probably don’t want to talk.
My second grandfather is dead. Dad is sitting next to me in the funeral home sobbing, stifling moans of sadness. It is only maybe the second or third time I’ve ever seen him cry. Once was when we went to see the movie Sling Blade. Billy Bob Thornton’s character has a moment where he berates his abusive, bigoted, now-disabled father. Dad cried at that scene.
It is 1999. I am seventeen, almost eighteen. It is June. Ralph Sharon is dead. He was 84. He was a mean sonnavabitch, meaner than my dad ever has been. He was more physical, more willing to fight, somehow even crueler with his words. He talked of burning his neighbor’s house down in the 70s, when a black lesbian couple moved in. He tolerated them, sometimes even stood in the driveway and talked to them. I think he didn’t burn the house down simply because he didn’t want to go to prison. Had there been no risk, believe he would’ve happily torched the place. Lifelong attitude wasn’t far removed from David Duke, presidential candidate and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
But he’s dead now, and I feel nothing. Don’t care. Mom kept me away from dad’s side of the family for a reason. Room is filled with sniffles and weeping and hugs and reminisces of the other grandfather I had. The one I barely had any relationship with. I have to be a pallbearer today. I think about dropping the casket on purpose and claiming it was an accident. Nah, too risky. Don’t wanna deal with drama. Just want to get this day over with.
Dad grabs my hand, squeezes tightly. Don’t know if this is legit or part of a show. Hold it for as long as I can stand and break away, venturing toward the casket. Ralph is inside. He is frowning. He looks miserable. The funeral people couldn’t even work their magic to make his dumbass face look faux-pleasant. He is angry, even in death.
We bury him. I go home, play Mario Kart 64 with my friends.
January 2004. I am 22. Terrible snowstorm moved in. Have to go to work. I despise snow. I despise winter. Driving is a treacherous, time-consuming. Back end of my car sways if I go just a smidge over 25 mph. Going to take forever to get from Canal Winchester to Pickerington, to my job at the movie theater. Call one of my managers, Zack, tell him I might be late. He says to be careful and take my time.
Crawl down High Street, heading toward Route 33. As I get closer to the freeway, I see a couple cars parked alongside the road. Fucking wonderful. What is going on?
A van is blocking our lane, preventing us from crossing 33. Passenger side is facing us. It is smashed in. Notice another car parked on the opposite side of High Street. Its front end is crumpled, and black smoke is pouring out of the hood. Two teenage girls and a man who looks like their father are standing upwind from the smoke. Man is holding a shirt or a towel against his mouth. A woman, who doesn’t look like she was involved in the accident, is talking to him. Teen girls are crying. One has squatted down, is plugging her ears, body heaving. Man removes the shirt or towel and talks to the woman. His mouth is a bloody void.
I pull up behind one of the parked cars and head toward the van. An older man, probably in his sixties, is pacing alongside it. He looks frenzied. Winter wind is blowing his thinning hair all over the place. His pupils are enlarged. A different woman is trying to keep pace with him, rubbing his back and trying to calm him.
“Oh, god! She’s dead! She’s dead! What—what am I gonna—” Guttural howls erupt from deep inside him.
A guy close to my age comes around from the other side of the van. He is on his cell phone. Moves the mouthpiece away, nods at me.
“Hey,” he says.
“You need any help, man,” I ask.
The guy shakes his head. “We got help coming.”
“That car—” he points to the car with the man and teen girls, “came off Bowen Road way too fast and broadsided this dude.” He thumbs in the direction of the frazzled old man.
I see the old woman in the van.
I didn’t see her walking up. She was too quiet. Man with his girls and his blood. Older man hollering in terror. They got my attention. Old woman is sitting in the passenger seat. Window is gone. She is wearing her seatbelt. Head leans against the door, like she’s napping. The right side of her face is covered in blood. Never seen so much blood in person. My stomach drops. I’m lightheaded. Could pass out right now, vomit, shit myself.
“You can go on, man,” the guy on the phone says. “Thanks for stopping. A bunch of motherfuckers just kept driving by before these two women stopped.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I’ll get out of the, uh, way. Hope everything is okay.”
Everything isn’t okay, you fucking moron. Woman is dead. What a jackass thing to say, Jason.
Get to work. I’m in the projection booth today. Eight hours in a gray cinderblock hallway with no windows. Can’t stop thinking about the old woman. Call mom, tell her what happened. When I get off work, she tells me the local news had a brief story on the accident. The old woman did die or was dead on the scene. News doesn’t specify, nor do they give any names. Just that the woman was 67-years old. Guy with the teen girls did blow through a red light on Bowen Road, couldn’t stop because he was going too fast on the snow and ice.
I despise snow. I despise winter.
July 4th, 2011. I am twenty-nine. Driving home from shit-ass job. After midnight. Pull up to my friend’s place. As I walk, my phone rings. Mom.
“Grandma is gone,” she says.
Broken hip sent her to a nursing home. Miserable. Lonely. Unhappy. Still missed Jack. Quit eating. Nurses tried to get her to down some kind of food. Woman was stubborn. My belief is she willed herself to die. Was 84. Knew her body was almost done. Didn’t see any reason to stick around at a party she didn’t enjoy.
Leave my friend’s. Meet mom at the nursing home. We’re the first ones there. Grandma is under a blanket. Looks like she is just asleep. Nurse explains she checked on grandma at 11:30. Things were normal. Half-hour later, she’s dead.
Nurse leaves us alone with her. Grandma’s dentures aren’t in. Jaw hangs open. I try to push it shut, give her some dignity. Jaw drops back open. Uncle Pat shows up. Wife he had when grandpa died at Grant is no longer around. Divorced years ago. Cousins I haven’t seen in years show up, too. Aunt Cathy and uncle John come. All discuss what happens from here. Mom, Cathy and Pat talk with the funeral people who show up. They will transport her to the home in Pickerington.
July 7th. Service, then burial. I am a pallbearer. Tighten my grip to make sure I don’t lose grandma. Watch her casket lowered into the ground. She was the last grandparent I had. Dad’s mom died before I was born. This was the only grandmother I ever knew. She is in the ground next to Jack.
I am 35. June 2016. Mount Carmel East. Uncle John is hooked up to a breathing machine. Still wide-awake. Still struggling to breath. Arthritis has limited his mobility. Two strokes have limited everything else. Body winding down. Aunt Cathy sits next to him. Mom and I stand beside him. Keep crying quietly, keep wiping my eyes.
This was bound to happen. All knew John’s time was limited. Last few years have been hard on the man. Maintained his cheerfulness, though. Never felt sorry for self or lashed out at anyone. John is smart. John knows the deal.
He was the main father figure I had growing up. Don’t know if he knows this. He can’t talk because of the machine. I can’t talk because I will fall to pieces. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is on TV. Watch the scene with Kong and Naomi Watts playing on the frozen pond. Scene made me cry when I saw it at the theater years ago. Stomping on my heart now.
Nurses and doctors come in. Time to clean and change John. Cathy, mom and I got to leave. John takes ahold of my hand, squeezes tightly. We lock eyes for a moment and I kiss him on top of his bald head. His other arm wraps around me as tightly as possible. Does the same thing to mom.
Cathy gets the call in the middle of the night. He passed quietly in his sleep. He is cremated. The box is heavier than expected. John was a smaller man.
Mom is 70. Older than her father when he died. In good health. In good spirits. I worry about her passing. But maybe I get to have her around for a long time. Cathy is nearing 71. Had a mastectomy years ago. Still smokes, especially because she misses John. Talks about being lonely. Tries to remain happy.
Dad might be dead. Don’t know. Google his obit from time to time. Nothing comes up. Don’t know what I’d do with this information. Satisfaction? Sense of closure? Dunno. Need to stop doing it. Best to continue life as though he’s already gone.
Doesn’t feel like I’m a few weeks from turning 37. Presumed life would be a bore at this point. Thought I’d be nothing more than a husk of a man, with a dead-end job, a loveless marriage and kids that annoy me. Don’t feel old, despite most of my classmates being born when I was in high school. I’ve remained unshackled. Free to bend myself anyway I wanted.
I think of Mike, though. And grandpa Jack. And Jeremy. And grandpa Ralph. And the old woman. And grandma. And uncle John. Their lives stretched before them once, just as mine does. Just as yours does. I saw them in their twilight, sometimes after the light had completely left them. Someday, someone will see me in my twilight. Hope it’s not soon. Hope there aren’t many regrets. Hope I look like I’m only sleeping.