I’ve seen Death around every corner lately, as a phantom out of the side of my eye, as a stalker just around the bend, as a wisp of wind floating in on a summer storm, beating down in sheets of rain.
He slinks in, his black coat trailing behind him, prowling around the edges of my consciousness, reminding me of his presence.
He was there in the car as we road to the funeral home to lay my husband’s aunt to rest.
“I hate funerals,” my husband said that morning.
“I’m not really sure if there’s a person alive who likes them,” I replied.
“She’s going to make me speak.”
“No she isn’t. Just be there for your Granny.”
“What does ‘be there’ even mean?”
“Exactly what it says. Be there. Stand next to her.”
His Granny is 91 years old. She lived through the Great Depression. She helped sell moonshine at 9 years old to feed their family. Her husband fought in World War 2 and died of cancer when they still had children to raise. So Granny was a single mom, who went to work every day in a factory. She helped raise my husband Jesse. He fondly says she taught him his 6 times tables and cooked him pancakes for breakfast. Granny would stay with him and his brother when Jesse’s dad had late gigs. His father was a professional musician who died by suicide.
“So many people were at his funeral.” Granny said. “Over 250 people. So many flowers. They loved him. He was so loved. And he loved those boys. He was just depressed.”
And now, here she was. About to bury another child.
“There is no greater pain.” I heard her say to Jesse. “I’ve buried both my parents, eleven siblings, a husband, friends… but losing your child… there is no greater pain.”
I looked over to Judah who was to have dental surgery the next day. We were to leave early in the morning from Jacksonville to make his appointment on time. He was to be put under anesthesia, and Jesse and I were so nervous about it.
But you can’t show it. You can’t show a hint of fear. You can’t even let a fraction of a second of nervousness show on your face when your child needs to be brave.
So I kissed him on the top of the head, looked him in the eyes and said, “I love you,” for seemingly no reason.
I looked back at Granny’s profile. I thought about her long life… and how she seemed to so graciously bear her grief.
She had so much practice already, after all.
She was not hysterical. Nor was she stoic. I watched her weep for the daughter who took care of her in her old age. Openly, without shame or fear of judgment.
She would move easily from tears to receiving other mourners and leading them to the casket, comforting them as they, too, cried.
How many times had she done this? How many times?
Death hovered over the entire funeral home, but saw fit to leave Granny alone. It seemed he even feared this 91 year old woman more than anything.
She grieved but was not consumed by it. She mourned but was not overcome.
I sat and watched with wonder. It was a sight to behold. Ethereal. Heavenly.
I looked at the contrast of this woman next to my husband who was doing his best to be his Granny’s rock. He gave her a strong arm to hold when she was unsteady on her feet.
I walked over and stared down at Aunt Robin. She would be buried with her son’s ashes next to her.
“What do you think, Sandi?” Granny asked.
I looked at the body before me. “They got her hair color just right, didn’t they?”
“I thought the same thing.” Granny said, smiling a little.
“I love the rose gold accents on the casket,” I said.
“Yes. I really like that, too. But do you think the casket looks green?”
“I think it’s just the lighting in here,” I said. “It looks like more of a light taupe to me. I think she would like it. I love the little hearts on the side, too.”
Granny seemed satisfied, so I turned to look at the children. I had sat them in the very back and told them not to move.
I moved towards them now, my black heels softly padding on the carpeted floor.
“Hey guys.” I sat next to them. “So right now we’re at what’s called a viewing. Aunt Robin’s body is in the casket up there. You don’t have to go up if you don’t want to, but some people find it healing to have closure.”
“Closure?” Judah asked.
“It means knowing she’s really gone because you’ve seen her body with your own eyes. For some people that gives a sense of finality. It helps them let go and move on.”
Judah looked up at the casket. Death peeked from around the flowers.
“I’d rather stay here.”
“I’ll go.” Lorelai said.
“Okay.” I responded.
I took her little hand in mine and led her to the casket framed in rose gold. Lorelai has always had a frank sense of death. It neither scares her nor enthralls her. She’s merely curious.
She could barely see over the casket, but her eyes roamed the body within.
“She has hair now.” The last time she saw Aunt Robin her hair was gone.
“Yes. They put a lovely wig on her.”
“I drew a picture of her at home. She was handing us presents. She always gave us presents.”
I smiled, thinking of how she’s already beginning to process life, and death, through art. “Yes. I saw that picture. She would have liked it.”
I smirked at death. Thinking of how my daughter depicted him with crayons and colored pencils. Not so scary, are you?
“I’ll go sit down now.” Lorelai said. “Goodbye, Aunt Robin.”
A man walked up who was introduced to us as Jesse’s dad’s former band mate.
“Your dad was a helluva musician.” He said. “I left the band and went to Nashville, but I regretted it. No one was like your dad. He was simply the best.”
More former band mates showed up. They spoke to Jesse about his dad, about his aunt.
Hearing their words made me understand how Jesse came to be. His Granny kept going to their shows even after her son passed away.
A rockstar, born to rockstars. People who drank life in and reveled in it, celebrated it with music and dancing and beer and spirit.
I love this family I married into.
I spent most of the time keeping the kids from making too much racket. They were the only children present and all they wanted to do was play.
I thought back to my Papa’s funeral. All of the grandkids had found a spare room in the funeral home, and we made up games, laughing as death stood in the corner, mocked and taunted by little children.
Children who play on graves. Children who view him matter-of-factly, children who will laugh and laugh and laugh when everything should be scary.
Children who bravely march up to the casket and stare down at death.
I remember looking at my Papa’s body, and I reached in the casket to play with his grey hair. He used to pull me on his lap, snap his fingers and hit his fist, and start to sing some song he made up on the fly.
He was a musician, too. He’d bring all of us to the nursing homes and have us sing.
He loved to hear me sing. He’d give me the mic for a solo.
“Get out of here, kid.” He’d say seriously, to the amusement of all the elderly in the room. “You’re stealing the show from me.”
A woman moved to stop me from playing in his hair.
“Leave her alone.” My Mema said. “That’s her Papa.” She smiled at me. “Stay there as long as you’d like.”
And Death cowered at her smile. Another strong woman, unafraid of his theatrics.
Not more than a few months later, my Mema’s mother and father died. I wrote a letter to my Pa. My Mema was so pleased with the letter written by my seven year old hand, she insisted it be buried with him. She made copies and passed them around to family members.
Tears filled the eyes of the mourners as they read my words. They’d come up and put a heavy hand on my shoulder, telling me how much they loved my letter.
I, like my daughter, must process death through art. It was my first lesson that art when shared could heal—far beyond my own heart—the souls of others.
Death still lurked as the service continued. We sat through the eulogy, Lorelai falling asleep, Judah sitting stoically like his father.
When everyone had filed out, Granny made her way up to the casket one final time. Both of her grandsons standing beside her.
“The rose gold accents really are beautiful,” I heard Jesse say.
“Yes, I think so, too.” Granny said.
She whispered her last words to the daughter who cared for her, closed her eyes and silently released her to rest.
“I’ll join you soon.”
And Death shrunk, trembling at the words of this old woman. For he fears nothing more than the lack of fear, to be treated as a mere doorway to something greater, to be cast aside as inconsequential, an inevitability.
To be treated as common.
Aunt Robin’s obituary read that she, “Loved music.”
Small words that meant so much. I imagined her red head banging at her older brother’s gigs. I imagined a little Jesse sleeping on the couch, waiting for his dad to get home from late night shows.
“She had the greatest laugh,” Jesse said. “Infectious.”
I thought about how Aunt Robin showed all her friends videos of my gigs, how she handed out my book to everyone she knew.
I remember her laughing, sitting on the couch next to me. “I showed a video of you singing to my friend and she said, ‘Is there anything this girl can’t do?’”
I remember her calling me and telling me that she had cancer.
“Do me a favor. Don’t tell Jesse yet. Not until he’s better.”
I thought of her grieving her brother who died by suicide.
“You know, my Aunt Robin was very close to my dad.” Jesse said. “She was really there for my granny afterwards. I noticed her laugh changed when he died.”
I thought of her grieving her only son. I thought of her laughing with her granddaughter. I thought of her working her beef jerky business, selling packs to local bars. I thought of her being a caregiver for both her mom and another family.
I remember speaking with her about what I needed to make sure Jesse didn’t suffer the same fate as his dad.
“You know,” Aunt Robin said. “Granny thinks Jesse hung the moon. We’ll do whatever it takes to keep him here.”
And she did. She did whatever it took. Even asking me to withhold her cancer diagnosis, just in case it overwhelmed him and hurt his recovery.
What a woman.
And I think of Jesse, who was up last night, waiting for me to get home from a gig, just like he’d wait up for his dad.
“I wish more than anything that I could make it to one of your shows.” Granny said, back at her home. “You know I’d be there.”
I smiled, knowing she went to shows at loud bars until she was 80. Knowing she supported her son’s music career until the very day he died. “I know, Granny.”
I think of how I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this woman’s story, to hear her introduce me as her grandson’s wife, to hear her brag on me like she once bragged on her son, like she brags on her grandson.
“You did well today.” I told my husband. “You must be exhausted.”
“Ughhhh.” He groaned. “I’ve gotta do something to center myself. Some physics. Something.”
“You know your Granny is so proud of you.”
Jesse sighed. “I know.”
“Aunt Robin always told me, ‘Jesse hung the moon.’”
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah.”
“You are your Granny’s legacy.”
The words hung in the air. This woman. Born into The Great Depression. A single mom of three working her hands to the bone in a factory. The lone survivor of 12 siblings. Two children dead. One of her three grandchildren dead. Her son who loved music. Her daughter who loved to have a good time.
And here I was married to it all. Jesse, who can play multiple instruments like his dad. Jesse, who is the first to graduate from college in his family. Jesse, who suffers from the same illness as his dad. Jesse, whose intelligence and work ethic is the product of generations of struggle.
Legacy. He is who it was all for.
Judah busts into the room with some witty remark. Lorelai dances her way in, singing some tune she’s made up.
Legacy two and three. Music and brains. Art and logic.
Jesse stared up at the ceiling. “No pressure, right?”
And I could swear I heard Death scream an anguished sound.
I knew then why Death was so afraid of Granny. Why he shrunk from this little old woman. Why he cowered in his great cloak.
Legacy. She had built a Legacy. Something that would live on when she was gone.
She had made herself into something immortal.
And her Legacy stood by her, next to the casket of her daughter.
Her Legacy sat next to her as she grieved.
Her Legacy put its arms around her when she could not maintain her balance as she mourned.
Her Legacy gave her a strong arm when her hands shook.
But Jesse hung the moon, after all.
And she would not be afraid.