Speaking to Death


My wife and I waited in a line that snaked down the church steps. We were there to pay our respects to the family of a friend. The funeral director approached us. Even though we no longer lived in the town where I grew up, our paths had not been totally different since high school. I eventually ended up in radio. He found himself in the funeral business by way of country music.

We spoke about the friend who had passed, he hugged my wife, and then the funeral director said, “Tell your mom I’ll put that dented coffin in her garage.”

Perhaps my mouth hung open.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” my old friend said. “It still closes and it’s never been used. It’s just got this big dent on one end and I told her I’d give her a real good price.”

Just for the sake of saying something I asked what it looked like. The dented coffin was white, and offered a plush, pink interior.

I immediately wondered if my mother was trying to get more mileage out of her lifelong companion. Maybe she planned to prop that coffin on two saw-horses in the garage. He would see it every day as he left for work and when he came home, just in case he was getting a little life weary. She was probably betting my father would live another twenty years just to keep from being buried in anything pink.

I didn’t have more time to consider my mother’s dented coffin because we entered the church.

The family we had come to see stood along the front, meeting person after person who filed past to pay their respects. The woman who died had been smart, opinionated, beautiful, and wonderfully Southern. When we reached the front of the room, I looked into to the eyes of her husband and tried to imagine myself on his side of our exchange. I could not. The burden of what was before him and the weight of what he had endured was etched in his face. He had seen and was seeing things I could not comprehend.

I had no idea what to say.

At these times, there are few among us who really know what to say or how to say it. My wife does. But many of us stumble down the line, mumble something about loss, and try to get clear as quickly as we can. On this day, the father who was about to bury his daughter bragged about some cheese-straws my mother had delivered to the heartbroken family. The mother who had lost her child hugged me and thanked me for taking the time to come. And the woman who had just lost her sister asked about my family, calling me by name among the hundreds who were lined up to pay their respects, even though we had not seen each other in years. I offered little, other than my physical presence. I could not think of anything to impart that was close to worthy of what they had lost. And, they sensed that discomfort in me and compensated for it. That’s how funerals go sometimes. The bereaved work hard to ease the comforters.

And I’m not being hard on myself. Having been to plenty of funerals, I’ve seen those who are trained to provide solace struggle to speak about loss in a meaningful way. I often wonder if the mourners in the front of the church, staring up at whoever is delivering the eulogy, only hear the teacher from Charlie Brown and a dull string of noises that mean nothing. Or are they clinging to every word because it is the last time someone will speak about their loved one before they are lowered into the ground?

I don’t know. It is probably a little bit of both.

Throughout history, it meant something for people to say you died well after you were gone. I will not die well. If I have time to consider my coming demise, I am going pass from this world like a kidney stone. Even now, when I enter a room, I check out the people in it to see who I do, and do not, want providing resuscitation should I pass out. I constantly keep a mental score of exercises skipped, fried meals eaten, and drinks imbibed, hoping that my behavior, or lack of it, might have a direct impact on my day of reckoning.

Despite the problems I think I have, and the fact that we all exist on borrowed time, just being in the church that day made me want to live longer and better. I didn’t comfort anyone at the funeral, but, indirectly, it comforted me. I’m still here. I’ll speak to death at as later date, even though I know it is waiting. Not unlike a dented coffin, on two saw-horses in a garage.

Vacation Truth



When I go on vacation I always tell myself this will be the time when I get my life together, even if only for a short while. Somehow, I will escape the crazy and chaotic life I lead and enjoy one week of a calm and serene existence. I will exercise on the beach before dawn. There will be sessions of yoga, where I will learn that Downward Dog is nothing to be ashamed of if I accidentally type it into my Internet browser. There will be bran cereal, yuck, but being regular helps with the calm and serene. (And then I remind myself to go easy on the bran since I never eat the stuff and there is nothing calm and serene about being TOO regular.) So, that is what I imagine the yearly family trek to the beach is going to be like.

But, in reality, my vacation always becomes a jail break from responsibility. There is hair of the dog instead of Downward Dog. There are little nephews screaming a dirty phrase in unison again and again, not because they know what it means but because they heard someone scream it… maybe me… six hours before the hair of the dog thing. There is not a shred of bran but plenty of Pop Tarts and Frosted Flakes. And, instead of a new me returning home, it is an older, exhausted me after my vacation becomes a parenting Studio 51 with sand.

I tell myself what I want in life is discipline, but that is only another word for control. I want to eat right, take long walks with my wife, sleep through the night, and generally end each day with hope for what the next day holds and how brilliantly I will manage it. But I’ll probably never get it or do it. Time is going to keep plowing forward. My kids are walking, talking adults when just yesterday they were the Dennis the Menace twosome that are now my nephews.

I also imagine the vacation experience will be moderately high brow, otherwise I would have vacationed in Daytona. Mostly it isn’t. There is late night heckling over vicious games of dominoes, steamy beach reads in well-thumbed paperbacks that are banned in libraries across half the country, and statements yelled down from the balcony at other family members that the Kardashians would consider crass. I heard a couple of gems this past week, like this one from the back seat of the minivan as we traveled there: “Hey Dad, sorry but I gotta drop a deuce. What can I say? You sleep, you eat, you poop. It’s the circle of life, dude.” Or the one that sounded like a Darth Vader imitation as I passed a darkened bathroom with the door closed. Someone was clearly enjoying the echo in the small space: “Yup, I’m peeing in the dark. And from the sound of things I’m doing a pretty good job.”

Now, perhaps you are noticing there is a lot of potty content. I wiped the butts of these little creatures which meant I was involved in every “movement” they had and yet what is currently happening with our digestive systems seems to be even more conversationally relevant now than when I was chasing them down the hall with a slightly uncomfortable but thankfully clean Pampers knock-off. And I know this will not get better as I age. Hell, I might be closer to those diapers than they’re away from them.

I don’t know. Maybe it is time for me to be a little more honest with myself, and with my writing. Truth be told, I am a lazy writer. I start great, I finish not so well. Clearly, lack of sleep or alcohol are not steroids for the sport of writing, despite what some scribes would have you believe. I can barely focus my thoughts long enough to write a check, let alone a novel. I am not taking care of myself. And sometimes I look the other direction when it comes to proper parenting. In some ways, with both my writing and my life, I feel like I’m nearing the point where Picasso cut off his ear. (Except right now I write and live by the numbers, and I have pretty big ears, too.)

And despite all this complaining, I would not give up a single thing I have now to achieve whatever the hell I think I am seeking when I set off on a break from my day to day life. I am desperately in love with my wife. I am so proud of my kids it is probably a little nauseating for those who have to hear it. I still enjoy the company of my extended family. I get satisfaction out of my job. And, at the end of the day, I feel pretty good about the person I am trying to be.

So maybe vacation is supposed to be exactly what it always is for me. A jailbreak from the responsibility of being a husband, a father, and a decent person. (I am not talking about full blown debauchery here, but it ain’t things I’m doing on a typical Tuesday either.)

And now the family unit is setting off for another vacation with the other side of the extended family for the 4th of July. Maybe as we pack the car I will make the same lies to myself about peace of mind and exercise and discipline. Except I’m not sure this crew we’re visiting practices a ton of yoga, and I can’t wait to hear what they say if I ask about bran cereal.