When He's gone

November 17, 2009
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A friend once asked me what I’d do if they got their heart broken again. My answer was that I would be there for them to pick up the shattered remains and try to put them back together with strict determination. In times of hardship, this type of support can be come across in almost everyone you meet, especially in family. While driving down the long country roads and interstates of Galva, IL in our blue Jeep, I looked out the window at the golden acres of corn before us.
As I stared longer, I started to cogitate, “I hope today isn’t at all like yesterday. I don’t want to see a dead man, even if he is my grandfather. I already have the image of his pale, artificial-looking hands and face instilled in my mind. The memories still burn of my mother walking down the center aisle of the church towards the twenty gauge steel casket and then veering suddenly to the right into my father’s arms, instantly crying, Aunt Annie asking grandmother when her father will wake up, as if she didn’t know what death meant, and of all five of his daughters crying before him as they stood by the casket. Yesterday was not a pleasant day, but I’m afraid I’ll have to experience the same situation today at his funeral.”
Pulling into the parking lot of the First Christian Church of Keithsburg, we parked behind the smooth black and grey hearse that was to take my grandfather to the ground in which he was to be laid to eternal rest. Looking into the distance to my right, I could see the cemetery covered in small and very large headstones. Some were plain and simple headstones, while others were tall, elaborate, granite stones with white carvings of past memories belonging to the people who once embodied the corpse that lay under it in the cold, moist ground. As I stared, my gut churned at the thought of having to walk on dead people that have been dead for years, rotting in the ground, with maggots eating their eyes out, their flesh slowly being peeled away by time and nature. Nonetheless, I made my way, hands in the pockets of my black slacks, into the church and into the experience that would open my blind eyes into the insights of life and death.
My family and I walked into an open room to the right of the main entryway of the church and sat, silently with our heads bowed, as the pastor read a prayer.
I remember judging him by thinking, “That was the most unsympathetic, uncaring prayer I’ve ever heard. It’s as if he’s done the same prayer a thousand times for a thousand families and just ceases to care anymore.”
After the unemotional prayer, we were lined up by the funeral director and lead into the left side of the church as, “The Old Rugged Cross,” was being played on the organ. My father, my brother, and I sat three rows back from the front and all the way to the end of the pew, by the center aisle, while my mom sat in the first row. Unfortunately, I had an extremely good view of my grandfather lying in the casket approximately five feet away from me, the one thing I feared most. Once everyone was situated, the pastor waddled to the front of the church and pressed the play button on the stereo. The country song, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” played loudly throughout the church as teardrops fell from my mother and her sisters as well as my grandmother and my grandpa’s second wife, Cindy.

“The beauty of song and the messages,” I pondered, “Beautiful messages are sent through them. Music is truly a powerful force in this corrupt world. It is one of the only things that are pure heart and soul.”
Immediately following this song, the pastor rose from the chair he had been sitting on and proceeded to tell about his experiences with my grandfather and how he made friends easily, but most of all he talked about the disease that plagued him, the surgeries at age nineteen, the emphysema, and the congestive heart failure that killed him. Throughout the depressing funeral service, people dissolved in tears. This was the hardest part of the experience for me, seeing my own family cry, feeling their pain; trying to be strong for them when I felt the same way. I’m only a teenager in high school, but I felt as if I had been rivaled with an impossible task that I must accomplish. To conclude the funeral service, “You Can Let Go,” by Crystal Shawanda was played. This is when the tears fell like a waterfall over a steep cliff of despair.
”This song describes exactly what mom must be thinking right now. She didn’t want her daddy to die, I’m sure, but when the time came she was content. She was content in the fact that he wouldn’t be suffering from the chronic pain he once endured. It’s a horrible feeling to feel the once filled void in your heart crack open when a loved one dies, but she’s strong and so supportive of her sisters,” I contemplated as my mom rubbed the back of her weeping sister.

The, “Old Rugged Cross,” played once more as family members were dismissed by the funeral director to consol Cindy, or to go up to the casket. As the row behind me arose, I noticed my,Great Aunt with red eyes and tears flowing down her face.
“Poor Auntie, she’s gone through this three times with three different siblings in the past year and a half. What has come of this world, no one should ever have to feel that kind of loss. She’s been so strong for all of us,” I sympathized to myself.
When it was my turn to rise and to leave the church, I first went with my dad up to the casket and peered at my dead grandpa. We both commented about how peaceful he looked, just as many others had, and we left the church and went back into the main entryway to wait for my mother and her sisters. As they came out of the church, tissues in clutch, they immediately headed for someone of support to embrace them. Looking to my right through the glass window of the church, I saw men dressed in suits closing the casket of my grandfather, never to see him again. A couple of minutes later, the funeral director appeared before us all and requested that everyone but the pallbearers wait outside. I gathered my brother and followed my mom outside and we waited by my Great Aunt Debbie until the pallbearers arrived with the casket and slowly slid it into the back of the hearse. My mother, brother, grandmother, Aunt and I all got into our car and followed the procession of cars to the cemetery. It was a silent ride, to an almost silent place. Had it not been for the salty wind that blew from the west, there wouldn’t have been a sound in the eerie cemetery.

Getting out of our car and approaching the green tent that covered the hole in the ground, I overheard the funeral director say to Cindy, “Well, at least there is sunshine today.”
“There might be sunshine,” I thought, “But there is a raincloud over our heads, raining tears on us today.”
The graveside service was brief. As we gathered into the large tent, the pastor read a lengthy poem as we all stood silent.
He ended with, “…Imagine walking on a shore, and it being heaven, touching a hand and it being God’s…”
After he said these calming words, my mother, aunts, and my grandmother all put roses on the casket, one at a time. It was very hard to watch each of them, crying, their clear tears streaming down their faces, a lost hope, and most probably standing in silence thinking of their father, memories, and the fact they shall never see him again. My grandmother put her rose on first, a beautiful yellow rose, followed by my mom and her five sisters. Annie was last.
“This must be so hard for them, the youngest of them is in their mid twenties and they don’t have a father to see them through all of life’s milestones, getting married, having a child, just being together and having more good times such as the one’s they had already shared,” I pondered.
I then looked briefly at the headstone, a basic headstone with the inscription of his name and his five daughters.

“He’s symbolized in stone until the winds of time wash his name away. This stone means a lot; it’s a symbol to life, death, happiness, despair, children, and memories,” I thought silently.
Coming out of the tent, people stared as if waiting for something amazing to happen, but nothing did. Instead, my family stood next to each other, and my mom put her arm around my shoulders as I stared to the horizon. Until we left, I could only manage to look where the sky meets the earth, where the heavens meet reality. We then drove back to the church and had a short lunch put on by the members of the church as we sat with family and reminisced memories of my late grandfather. Before long, it was time to begin the six hour journey back to my comfortable home in MN, after being in an unfamiliar land under unfamiliar and nerve wracking circumstances. I hugged my Great Aunt Debbie, as I had become very fond of her and my grandmother before climbing into the car.
“At least it’s all over,” I stated looking back at the fading cemetery behind me.
“Yes, thankfully,” replied my mom calmly but heart heavy, the sun setting as we headed into the distance, out of sight of my grandfather.

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