Based on true events. All the names have been changed.
I remember being afraid as I walked along the gravel road with my dad. We were going to see a dead person. I was ten years old. I had never seen a dead person before.
The chirping of crickets followed us down the road. Twilight felt like a magical time when I was a young girl, when farm chores were done for the day and the fields were quiet. When I think of the peaceful summer evenings of my childhood, I can picture our big sky glowing with the reds, oranges, and pinks of magnificent sunsets.
My dad and I walked slowly to Joe and Elizabeth’s house. Joe was my great-uncle and Elizabeth my great-aunt, recently deceased. They were our closest neighbors, a quarter-mile from our farm. Joe had stopped by our place earlier to make sure we were coming to the wake.
“Yes,” my dad said. “After the milking is done.”
I didn’t know what to expect at the wake. What would it be like to be in the same room as a dead person, I wondered. I was afraid that an adult might ask me to touch my aunt. For all I knew, kissing a dead person’s hands was a sign of respect.
Sometimes when my dad and I stopped by Joe and Elizabeth’s place, Elizabeth had treated me to pieces of hard candy—wavy ribbons with glossy green and red stripes. She was a kind lady. Later, I learned that she had been in bad health up to the time of her death. I hoped that she had not suffered before she passed. I was going to be afraid—and sad—to see her in a casket.
Before that evening, I had seen death already in the form of dead animals: a dog run over by a milk truck; a deer struck by a car on the road; baby sparrows with no feathers scattered dead under an elm tree after a bad storm.
One time I came upon the body of a newborn calf lying alone in the snow in a field. Much of the carcass had been eaten by some wild animal. But its head was all there with its eyes wide open, staring and frightened. It seemed wrong for a dead calf to be left that way, but I accepted that it could not be buried in the frozen ground.
I did not want to see Elizabeth’s eyes open in the casket.
I figured my dad had probably seen dead people before Elizabeth. His own father had died when he was a teenager. Before that, there was a baby sister who lived less than three hours.
When my dad’s older brother was killed during the Second World War, the Army sent the body home in a closed casket which was not opened before they buried him.
I had never seen my dad cry. He told me the story about a door slamming hard on the tip of his little finger when he was a boy. It pinched the tip right off. He must have howled in pain. It made me sad to think of him hurting like that.
I wondered if I would cry at Elizabeth’s wake because of fear or sadness.
We opened the front door of Joe and Elizabeth’s house and stepped inside onto the green linoleum. The open casket was in the front room. Elizabeth, lying so still, wore a dark-print dress with tiny flowers. Her rosary rested over the backs of her crossed hands. Tidy pin curls framed her peaceful face.
Wearing their church clothes, Uncle Joe with his daughter Bess and her husband, stood close by the casket. Earlier, the priest had come to give Elizabeth communion when they knew the end was near.
I felt much affection for my older cousin Bess. Four years earlier—coming home after my first day of school—the school bus driver drove right past my house, forgetting to let me off. Bess called out to the driver, “Hey, what about this little girl?”
The bus driver braked and reversed to let me off the bus. I had been too afraid to utter a word. If not for Bess speaking up for me, I might have ended up crying quietly alone, unnoticed at the back of the bus, riding the seven miles back into town.
My dad and I knelt by the casket to pray. I wondered if Elizabeth could sense that we were there. Did dying mean that after the body was used up, the mind still existed somewhere apart?
In the front room, the light was growing dim. The darkness outside made the white lace curtains that hung at the windows look whiter.
Hearing low voices praying was soothing and sad. I wanted to keep looking at Elizabeth, trying to understand the stillness of a dead person. But I also wanted to go home.
In the dark, my dad and I walked home, back to my mom and three younger siblings. A million-billion stars packed the night sky. Was Elizabeth’s soul up there somewhere? As we walked, I might have looked for the brightest star, the one that would be carrying her to heaven.
“Dad, where is heaven? Is it all over the sky? Or just in one part?”
At the time, I don’t think any adult asked me about the wake, as in “You saw a dead person for the first time. Were you afraid?”
No, there was none of that. To handle hardships and deaths, we kept on with living.
Remembering Elizabeth’s wake now as an adult, it feels like a rite of passage. At the age of ten I had seen what human death looked like, and I was now a step further from childhood, a step closer to adulthood.
Sixty-three years have come and gone since Elizabeth died. In that time, fear—and sadness—have visited my life every so often, as they do.
This year my dad passed away—another rite of passage. While sadness burrowed in deep at first, my memories of his joy in living ease my sorrow as time passes. To savor life is to honor the ones who have gone before us.
~ THE END ~