The Prayer March

Last summer, a young boy in Milwaukee was killed in a drive-by shooting. He was running up the stairs of his grandmother’s house to say goodbye before he went fishing with his dad. He died on his grandma’s stairs.

This fact hit me hard. Reading about the shooting in the paper made me sick. All the little boys I’ve known in my life – my sons, my grandsons – could have been this little boy. So when it was announced that there would be a prayer march in the neighborhood where the boy was killed, I deeply needed to go.

I wrote about the experience in this piece called The Prayer March. The version published here by the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review is the umpteenth revision. Never have I worked and reworked a piece like this one.

That it was absolutely true was essential. And, here, it was very difficult – separating out what I saw and what I believed to be true, what I felt and what existed in the real world, everything bound in the gauze of race and age, gender and history.

Once it was published, I worried that I’d gotten it wrong. But I didn’t. This is what I saw and felt that day last summer, walking in a prayer march mourning the loss of a young beautiful boy. It still pains me to think of him. Reading my essay again, I am back there standing in the street in a crowd of people, each of us with a broken heart.

Bringing the Box

Red's Wrap

“I don’t want to go all the way to Chicago with your dad in a box on my lap.”

“Where am I supposed to put him? If I put him in the trunk, the box could tip over. Just hold him, it’s not that big a deal.”

It’s a big deal. Maybe I should drive and my husband can hold his father on his own lap. But he wants to drive. It’s what will make it feel right, being in control of the car, of himself. I feel the weight of my father-in-law’s ashes on my legs, the cardboard box too flimsy for its job, if I lifted the lid, I’d see the heavy plastic folded over the gray dust. It feels too familiar, too familial. How well did I even know him? How would he feel about me holding his ashes? Be careful where you put your hands, I…

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Elegy

FullSizeRender (13)

Stand with 10,000 ghosts

Hear their last words

Hurrying to the river

Running into the trees

Shedding this life for new

 

Drop your envy and yearning on the ground

Nestle your love in the rocks’ mortar

Be part of the wall that stays behind

Shelter the lost and the growing

Reach your arms to the sun and the blue

 

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Photo taken at Tuzigoot National Monument in Arizona. Written to honor the passing of the son/grandson of two long-time friends.

The Daily Post: Footsteps

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing the Box

“I don’t want to go all the way to Chicago with your dad in a box on my lap.”

“Where am I supposed to put him? If I put him in the trunk, the box could tip over. Just hold him, it’s not that big a deal.”

It’s a big deal. Maybe I should drive and my husband can hold his father on his own lap. But he wants to drive. It’s what will make it feel right, being in control of the car, of himself. I feel the weight of my father-in-law’s ashes on my legs, the cardboard box too flimsy for its job, if I lifted the lid, I’d see the heavy plastic folded over the gray dust. It feels too familiar, too familial. How well did I even know him? How would he feel about me holding his ashes? Be careful where you put your hands, I tell myself.

On the way out of town, we stop where my son and his girlfriend are living. The August air is hot and thick even with the car’s air conditioning running. The box sticks to my pants so I lift it up, my pants wrinkled and stuck to my legs. Finally, they stumble out of the house, our son tucking his polo shirt into his pants and his girlfriend limping in very high heels, both looking put-upon as if two days’ notice of when we would meet wasn’t nearly enough. We caravan onto the interstate, their car rumbling behind us. I know without looking that neither of them is wearing a seat belt. So typical of my son, risking his life when I am already holding a box of ashes on my lap.

At the cemetery, I sit while my husband comes around to get the box. I won’t carry my father-in-law to a crowd of people waiting at his grave site. There could be glory in it, faux importance as if he’d picked me to be his single pallbearer, but everyone would know the truth. I was better than the trunk, that was my qualification. Besides, it is his sad son’s job.

The cemetery is flat and treeless. Efficient to mow but you could be anywhere or nowhere looking for someone’s grave. When did it become too much trouble to mow around a headstone?

My mother-in-law is here already, buried in one of the flat indistinguishable graves, a plot with her former husband’s name on it right beside her. I have to hand it to her, she never gave up on reconciliation. He may have wandered off but she’s got him now and for eternity.

I can feel her telling us we should have made better arrangements to bring him here, some transport more distinguished, a hearse with a driver in a black suit. How cheap and casual to bring her beloved to his grave in a box on my lap. My husband would shrug this off but her imagined words sting me.

At the end of the service, my husband shovels dirt on the box in the grave. He hands the shovel to someone and that person to another. From the back of the crowd, my son’s girlfriend steps up and asks my husband if she too can shovel and he says yes, although he looks puzzled. She plants one foot forward, shovels a small mound of dirt and sprinkles it on the grave. It occurs to me that she is serious about my son, maybe she loves him and wants to honor his grandfather. And I’m glad for that and for this day.

When Your Mother Dies

When your mother dies, you will take care of things. You’ll call her friends on the phone and tell them one by one that their friend has died. You will listen as they nod and wait for them to tell you stories about her but they won’t. They’ll keep what they remember until later. Now is not the time, they think.

You’ll arrange what happens next. You’ll pick out her casket, standing in the basement of the funeral home in the small town where you grew up, and you’ll waver between the burnished copper one and the one with shadowy hints of pink, thinking to yourself, what would she like, as if you’re buying her a new nightgown while she lie ill in the hospital. You want to get the right nightgown because it will make her feel better if it’s right. It’ll deepen her sadness if the nightgown is wrong, too floral or fancy, not what she would wear. She will think you didn’t consider the choice long enough or take into account the taste she showed you year in and year out for all of your life. You don’t want to err.

You’ll search through her closet for what she should wear. When you do this, every fabric will feel like velvet even the ones that aren’t, every dress will look thin and inconsequential as if a real person could never have fit inside them, nothing that she owned will seem right to you but you will settle on something because it is your job to take care of things. Standing in her room looking at her things, you will feel like a visitor in a museum that has your entire life on display, every lamp, the bedspread, the books on the table, her radio tuned to the same station for years on end make you feel like a child and you will feel a tiny shudder in your throat that tells you that it won’t be long until you are crying.

But you don’t because you need to take care of things. If there are people coming from afar to pay their respects, you need to worry about where they will stay and whether that place will be comfortable for them and represent your mother well. Everything you do for the next few days will be about making people feel welcomed and cared for; that’s what your mother would do. She would be in the kitchen making lasagna, making sure there are ashtrays for relatives who still smoke in people’s houses, checking to see if there is enough toilet paper and clean towels.

Your mother, she would take care of things, she would kick off her heels after the service and make a pot of coffee, stand in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, and talk to everyone, one by one. Maybe she’d even light a cigarette and lead people in the game of remembering funny things about the person who has died so that suddenly the kitchen is loud with laughter and the people in the living room are wondering why.

You will clean up after everyone leaves, use the last of the tin foil to cover the neighbor’s macaroni salad, and cram every leftover into a refrigerator that, until this morning, had held only a quart of milk and an old bag of carrots. The refrigerator is robust now, bountiful, a dozen people could come to dinner every night this week and there would still be plenty for sandwiches later. That’s what your mother would say, if she saw what people had brought, there will be enough for sandwiches later, she would say, always looking ahead.

When your mother dies, you will fill the space. You will replace her with yourself. It’s what she would want and, besides, you have no choice.

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Note: My mother died 13 years ago; this piece recalls some of the mood of that time.
#53/100: 53  in a series of 100 in 100

How Sad Do I Want Them to Be?

Wearing black for a year is a quaint custom but that’s what I think my husband should do when I die. I think he should wear black, eschew festive occasions, and only watch black and white TV, just the network stations, no cable, for an entire, long, gloomy year.

At the end of the year, he should go to Barbados for two weeks, sit on the beach drinking rum out of coconuts, proposition beautiful women, and come back a tanned, healthy, free man. Then he should get married again.

If I could manage his life from the grave like I’ve tried to manage it while living, that’s what I’d orchestrate for him. Intense, ‘throw your whole self’ into it’ mourning followed by the resumption of a great life.

There was a wisdom to clearly defined mourning, the custom of withdrawing from much of normal life, expecting frivolous people to keep a distance, recognizing the enormity of loss in a tangible, visible way. If I am dressed head to toe in black, it means that I am apart from you for this time, busy reflecting and mending myself. So leave me alone.

Oh! It’s not healthy to be alone when you’re in mourning. No? I think it is. We expect people to re-enter normalcy too soon after a loved one’s death. After my mother died, we all wanted Dad to join a new bowling league, have lunch with that single lady down the street, come visit us in another state. He would have none of it. He drew a tight circle and stayed in it, he traveled every week to her grave an hour away, he saw his old buddies now and then and went to the library. After a year, he started to look up and around, ready for new.

That’s what I want for the people I leave behind. For them to immerse themselves in grief and then wade out of it, come to the shore and be free to be happy.