Fall

This fall, I’ve known six people who have died.

None of them were close to me. I was a secondary mourner for all of these deaths: a cousin-in-law’s brother-in-law, a great aunt and great uncle I had never known well, an old friend’s father, and my aunt’s parents, who both died in the same month.

I didn’t go to my great uncle’s funeral, or my great aunt’s, though I would have, if I hadn’t been overwhelmed. Our family returns to Nebraska for funerals, Nebraska our happy hunting ground (literally for some), our blue heaven.

I went to my friend’s father’s funeral. Well, the event at which I clenched my stomach to keep from crying, and felt my body puff up with pain, secondary pain, holding a paper plate of grapes and yogurt dip and seeing people you’ve known forever broken by one of the things that breaks absolutely everyone and then driving away telling yourself you did what you could though now they have to have Thanksgiving this year without their dad.

My aunt is one of the most hospitable, thoughtful people I know.

Her parents died just weeks apart.

Yes, they were elderly and unwell.

That didn’t mean I couldn’t taste her grief from the front of the church.

Here’s where I’m going to throw my mom under the bus: I was up, dressed in black, and walking in the church door at exactly 9 am, when I ran into absolutely no one because the visitation started at 9, not the funeral.

Being on time is an odd condition for me, and I never know what to do with myself.

I was there for immediate family time, when I was merely the niece of the deceased’s daughter.

But I took a few more steps in, and turned a corner, and my uncle was crouched down with his granddaughter and I’ve already used so many relative descriptions you’re now like who are these people anyway, but they’re important people in my family.

The little girl had eyes blown open in distress.

“People just kind of lost it,” my uncle said. “So I was taking her away for a minute.”

I crouched down, too, and said hi. “Your grandpa died. It’s very sad,” I said.

Little girl was not comforted by this, at least partly because it wasn’t a comforting thing to say. But she didn’t freak out, either.

A funeral is being in the room with the dead person until it sinks into your subconscious, your still living bones: this person is dead.

Like, really dead.

No, they’re gone, and no one can fix it.

No money, no wishes, no genie, no new diet, no anti-aging serum, no exercise regimen, no drug will make the person not dead.

I went around saying hi, watching the memorial slideshow, and generally feeling like a lost sock, until my mom arrived and I could accuse her of lying to me about the time of the funeral.

My cousin read the same lesson I read at both my grandparents’ funerals, ye olde Ecclesiastes being all, oh, there’s a time for everything, a time to step in dog shit, a time to find a $20 bill. A time to have your leg amputated after a car accident, and a time to eat chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.

A week later, Thanksgiving was clouded by a different kind of death. My stepsister is getting divorced. She and her daughter brought the dark cloud of divorce to the holiday. It seemed a bit darker to some of us because my parents separated at Thanksgiving 36 years ago.

I wanted very much to hug them and be with them and distract them and listen to them. On the other hand, I had begun to feel, emotionally, like I was traipsing through the deserts of Iraq through a maze of burn pits.

“I can tell my depression’s not that bad if I have bathed in the last few days,” my stepsister said.

“I can relate,” I said. Once I turn the water on, I can get it done.

We played badminton, if you could call hitting a birdie back and forth with no nets using tennis rackets “played badminton.”

We lost each other in the crowd at the city’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

My stepsister told me some terrible things her husband said to her.

We had plenty of mashed potatoes.

We went to the zoo. The penguins had several nests going. We watched them bite at each other. We watched them tick tock around like little fat metronomes. They all followed a zookeeper who brought a shovel down into their reserve snow and dumped it near them.

My niece said penguins were one of her favorite animals.

I remember when she was three she liked to lie in the grass and see the clouds, and she brought my dad a pine cone and begged him to help her plant it so she could see a tree grow.

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