When the Role Is Called Up Yonder

An old college friend of mine is in mourning. He just lost a distant family member back in Tennessee. However, as is true for many gays, this deceased family member doesn’t feel so distant emotionally. Sometimes it’s our extended family members—or even our friends—who become family. This is especially true when our closest family rejects us. Other times, it just means that these beloved family members, whether they came to us by blood or by a beautiful sense of some other kinship, just seem to “get” us. We love them, they love us, and that’s that.

 Unfortunately, my friend—I’ll call him Matthew—now lives out west and simply can’t get away for the long trudge back home for the burial. So, Matthew grieves among foreigners who don’t understand Southern bereavement. And he feels like a believer among the lost. Now, don’t get me wrong when I say among the lost. This is no tale of Christian fundamentalism. Okay, maybe in some respects it is, but Matthew converted to Judaism years ago. He has come a long way since our Southern Christian upbringing, and so have I. But that doesn’t mean he has forgotten the old days, the old ways. Or that he pooh-poohs our heritage.

 I begin to understand his becoming a Jew when I hear him say, “If my family were Jewish we would sit Shiva for seven days. People would come, bring food and, tiptoeing, whisper condolences, and sitting on cardboard we would collectively mourn, our dead being buried immediately and before sunset.” He contrasts that with our Christian upbringing: “My sister, the evangelical who praised Jesus and foretold Gary’s healing in his name, now praises Jesus as he welcomes Gary into a better place. Funny how she can have it both ways.”  My friend isn’t one to push his own religious beliefs off on others, so he’s quick to add, “I only challenge her faith in my own mind.”

 I’ve invested time allowing my friend to grieve to me, listening to him tell me how he longs to be there. He says, “I want Alice’s rabbit hole now, to fall quietly into darkness, to be aroused by a white rabbit, to drink tea with a Mad Hatter and to confront the Red Queen.” Matthew can do all that safely by talking with me. He needs a friend as a release valve, knowing that after a while, I will reach down and pull him back up through that rabbit hole to the real world.

 But that must come later, for now he recalls his own mother’s passing, years ago. He still sees and smells the sickening, mixed aroma of those heaping bowls of food magically appearing on their kitchen table and overflowing the counters. Foodstuffs left even long after his mother was buried. Deposited even if no one was home when it was delivered. No, they didn’t lock their doors. There was no fear of neighbors who filled the now-too-silent house with macaroni and cheese. With deviled eggs. With fried chicken and other meats—mostly hams and pork barbeque. But all kinds, boiled or baked, but mostly fried. Oh and there were cakes and pies. Chess, lemon, apple, cherry pies. Peach, apple, blackberry cobblers. Food is the Southern condolence card.

 Matthew knows what’s in store for the widow, his niece-cum-sister. Through it all—from the wake with its interminable wait, to the funeral with songs like “When the Role Is Called Up Yonder,” and on to the solemn procession with headlights blaring and cars stopping respectfully all along the route to the cemetery—the bereaved will endure with Southern grace all those weak attempts at consoling her. “He looks so natural,” someone always says. But nothing feels natural; there is no feeling at all except a sensation of bottomless emptiness. The emptiness of a huge hole that, over and over, wells up with a lava flow of despair. “Honey, time heals all,” says another. She doesn’t want to be healed; she wants the father of her children, her husband, friend, confidant, sparing partner, lover.

 Matthew just wants to be there. To say nothing. To wrap his arms around her. To hold her close to his chest as she sobs. Offering quiet comfort like Abraham’s bosom.

1 comment to When the Role Is Called Up Yonder

  • Matt

    Thank you for this.

    When a death in the family occurs, like all deaths, you’re never ready. Despite your best efforts, despite the emotional preparation, despite the gray and empty void you walk into, you’re never ready. It’s being in the eye of the storm. You’re eviscerated, raw, open and bleeding. You’re there, shaking hands, hugging when appropriate, and saying “thank you.” You would rather scream, cry, set fire to the barn, beat a chicken to death, kick the dog, drive the car very fast, drink moonshine till you fall in the dirt and puke.

    You won’t do any of those things … because you just don’t. You will wear the same suit you wore for the last four deaths, in the same funeral home, where all your others passed. You will go to the same lounge, same knotty pine paneling with pictures of deceased catfish. Everyone will sit and talk in hushed tones for fear of disturbing … who? There will be coffee and donuts provided and not itemized on the bill. You will be gracious, smile, sneak out to smoke and come back to repeat the same.

    You will eventually encounter “the couple.” He is thin, wearing a sharply ironed western shirt with non-descript bolo tie, jeans, and boots … cowboy of nature. She is frumpy, but wearing an outfit that can only be described as festive, ruffled skirt in calico, ruffled collar. That big skirt with ruffles that would twirl magically to the beat of a Virginia reel. Oh, and black shiny shoes. They sit apart from the rest, and all of the funeral home attendants acknowledge them as they walk through, going about the business of death, most lucrative. Curiosity in-between the cigarettes and coffee overcome your grief. You want to know how they touched, were touched by your recently deceased loved one. Introducing yourself, you shake hands and ask ….

    “Oh, we didn’t know him at all, but we got a new truck, and there wasn’t nothin’ on the TV tonight, so I said to Jewel … lets go on down to the funeral home and see who passed. She had this new dress, and we like to square dance, so she dressed up.”

    Death in the south, it’s a do-si-do away from the most admired funeral arrangement you can get in those parts. It’s on a green metal stand and has mums. Not just any mums, but huge f*ckin’ “hogs head” mums. They are bright orange or “yeller” … either way, screaming. They surround the frame and a ribbon wide with glitter trim. This supports a large and open Styrofoam book, pages etched with gold glitter. Yeah, actual gold glitter. At the top of this blinding edifice, you will see a telephone, in the basic model, made of Styrofoam. With the deluxe, you get an actual princess push-button model. The book is open, with the phone at the top. The football-orange mums crawl up one side, accented by the ribbon … sort of an orangey/lavender/glittery thing. The piece de resistance, you might ask? In script, in gold glitter are the words … “JESUS CALLED.”

    Thank God there is Breece’s Café for escape, just two blocks away, with a pecan pie to die for. Something that makes mourning the dead worth coming home for.

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