The Secret of the Coffin

For too many people, a coffin holds a secret.

The death of a loved one is born in many ways. Some exhibit tears. Some are silently stoic. Some jabber to hide the pain.

Cancer was killing Daddy. I knew cancer was killing Daddy. I knew cancer was killing Daddy and it wouldn’t be long coming.

I didn’t believe it. Not a word.

Momma told me about his decision to forego treatment because it would give him six, maybe, more months of living. Yes, the living would’ve been life, but what is life while a machine is pulsing radiation into your brain and while chemicals turn you into a withered shell of your former self, like when a spider liquefies its victim’s insides for its meal?

At the hospital, Daddy explained his reasoning. My tears told him I understood. And I cried no more.

Not even when the family watched him take his last breath.

The spider had sucked me dry of emotion and replaced it with The Secret of the Coffin. Then again, there’s another possible consideration.

When the funeral home personnel said we could come see him, we did.

Why I saw him in his coffin, its Secret liquefied my insides.

My Daddy was dead, dead, dead, dead, and nothing would change that.

The ocean of me flowed, salty and hateful and draining me of my last vestiges of denial.

MY DADDY WAS DEAD, DEAD, DEAD, DEAD, AND NOTHING WOULD CHANGE THAT.

That was/is the saddest day of my life. Many know what I mean.

When a boy has a great Daddy, one who shared those sacred boyhood passions, like fishing to name one, it means more than any fish.

I can still see him in my mind’s eye. I can smell the sweet and savory aroma of pipe tobacco. I can see the slight opening of his two top-center teeth, what I called in a short story I wrote about him, “his gap-toothed grin.” I can feel his arms around me when he understood the importance of telling his grown son he loved him. I can feel his confidence when he was my best man during my second marriage; one which is now in its twenty-fifth year.

No matter how much I know it’s wrong to allow it, regrets sometimes nibble around the edge of my heart, like ants on the core of an apple turning brown in the summer sun. As time passes, I can’t decide if those minuscule bites hurt more or less.

This year I aged a year past his age when he died. Another ant to nibble.

Despite how it might sound, the ants and spiders are losing.

Daddy died the year he was my best man. The last thing he told me about my marriage was to “just love one another.”

Simple words from a man who must’ve had hidden complications; I can’t help but feel he, like most parents, are panes of glass when we glance but mirrors when we look.

One ant leaves, another takes its place, but since I understand them, they leave more often than they arrive.

Just love one another.

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Memories: A Memorial Day Story

I close my fingers around his small, warm hand, and we move closer. When he was born screaming, and I along with him, I promised myself I’d bring him here one day.

That day has come.

I have tissues in my pocketbook. I’ll need them, though he won’t. He’s still too young to understand, but he knows things are not as they should be. From his first birthday, with a single candle on his cupcake that I blew out as his eyes questioned mine, I think he knew. Those deep blue eyes continued to ask, with stares at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays, when two-parent families arrived.

His grandparents are here too, and they run their fingers along the monument’s chiseled edge, speaking in low tones. She pulls her own Kleenex from a worn purse. He turns away. His head drops and his shoulders shake.

That day was horrible, like a nightmare but real. Dressed in black, I sat in front of his flag-draped casket. Hot tears streamed down my face as my heart pounded at the thought of living without him. Of my son living without a father. My heart threatened to burst from my chest and some selfish part of me wished it would.

But only for a moment because of what was left behind, as true a blessing as I’ve ever known.

Now we’re here. We hold hands and I have to explain, but I pause as he points at the leaves on the old oak.

“The wind is talking, Momma. Could that be him? You said he might tell me … tell me things if I listen?”

I nod and smile and squeeze his hand. “You never know, sweetheart, it could be.” He releases my hand and steps to the tree, touches the course gray bark with tentative fingertips and looks up again. He steps closer, wraps his arms as far around the tree as they will go, and closes his eyes.

“Momma showed me your picture, but I wish you were here.”

He walks back to me. “Can we talk to him now?”

I can’t answer. I hold the third tissue to my eyes. Should have brought the box.

“Give me a minute, sweetheart, okay?”

He takes my free hand, tugs it to his cheek. “Okay, Momma.”

God, how hard this is. How hard the first years were. I’m—we’re better, and I’m grateful, but what I wouldn’t give to not be doing this, not because of how it makes me feel, but because of the reason we must.

Before coming here, I’d promised my reflection in the bathroom mirror I wouldn’t cry. I swipe at my eyes, the tears just enough to keep my cheeks damp, and shove the tattered knot into my pocket.

“Okay, Momma’s ready.”

We step forward and I put down the quilt. Its threadbare patchwork is full of memories, one of which is the night my son was conceived. With him standing in front of me, I kneel and hold out my hand.

“Give me your hand.” He puts his hand in mine, and I place it on the first letter carved into the cool stone. “What’s this letter?”

Those eyes … they’re his dad’s. My cheeks grow damp again, nearly to sobbing, and I swallow. Fighting. Screaming inside to stay strong, but the tears sting as alcohol on an old and open wound, one exactly five-and-a-half-years-old.

“S, Momma, it’s an S.”

“That’s right.” I move his finger. “And this one?”

He traces the letter. “G?”

“Right again. One more.”

He touches this one on his own. “T, and that’s a period.” His faint, blonde eyebrows rise. “What does it mean?”

“Your daddy was a Marine, and that means he was a Sergeant.”

“Like my toy soldiers? I named one Sergeant Smith.”

Nothing like that at all, I don’t say. “You’re right.”

He drops his head. “My soldiers never get hurt … not really.”

“No, and I wish your daddy never got hurt either. He would be so proud of the big boy you’ve become and how you’re taking care of me.”

He leans against me and pulls my hands around him. Though he’s not a baby any more, his hair is baby-soft, and it smells of the shampoo I used last night during his bath, when he played and splashed and when we laughed. His ears are pink, chilly against my face from the morning November breeze.

We stay there silently, until he glances back at me.

“Can I tell him something?”

I nod, and his single fingertip touches the white marble where my head had lain, where my tears had fallen, and finally, where I had kissed goodbye.

“I love you, Daddy.”

 

In Fiery Splendor

sunset over the Albemarle sound

As the budding rose is to the rising sun

drawing forth in fiery splendor

so are we

As the smile of a child is to the parent’s heart

bringing forth love in all its mysterious ways

so are we

As the gull is to wave tops

endlessly seeking above crests foamy and golden at sunrise

so are we

As the oak leaf is to emerald grandeur

awaiting the final downward drift with gust and gale

so are we

As we each seek our path, yearning above all else to

lock hope away in our hearts

instead

set it free

Allow hope to bloom, to laugh, to soar

and

at the end

you will pass forth with joy and thanksgiving

filled to everlasting

Take a look into the mirror.

Take a look into the mirror and

tell me what you see.

Take a look into the mirror and …

tell me what you see.

… take a look into the mirror

… tell me what you see. …

Turn your damn cell phone off!

Thank you so very much.

Now. …

Please, take a look into the mirror and

tell me what you see.

Oh? You say that you don’t know that person?

Forgive me, but I am not surprised.

And imagine how many other people, family, friends, that you now have the pleasure of getting to know in just a few days.

Who? All those people who will be sitting around you and getting ready to eat a lovely meal.

Happy Thanksgiving!