Life Giving Death

by Veronica Elam-Hills

When we are faced with death, be it the death of a pet, a friend, a sibling or a parent, we find that we are not the same afterwards. Sometimes this change is permanent but most often it is temporary. Once the crisis is over, we return to our original selves. When I was faced with the death of my father, I found that I changed profoundly. It was an unexpected change. I viewed my father's passing with little emotion or regret. For almost all of my life, I had an inner struggle of whether to love him or hate him, and hate usually won out. I disliked him and had by my late twenties, begun to tell myself that he was not genetically responsible for my existence. It was with this frame of mind that I received the call from my older brother, notifying me that our father had died. I paused and waited for grief to come into my heart, but it did not arrive. Although in poor health myself, having just had an operation to repair a valve in my heart a few days prior, I made my way to my tiny rural hometown, to take part in the process of burying the patriarch of my family.

At the interment, my mother sat somberly. She stares straight ahead, looking at the minister who stands beside the silver coffin. The hot July sun is so intense that I feel like I am melting as sweat runs down my forehead and back. Dressed in all black, eight adult children sit beside their grieving mother, who is similarly attired in mourning clothes. Her grief is not mirrored by those who the closes to her. Laying in the beautiful silver coffin, dressed in a new chocolate brown suit, with a silver and tan neck tie, and brown and tan Stacy Adams, also new, no one had ever walked on their soles, and no one ever would, is the husband and father of those nine individuals, who sit in quiet bereavement.

Thirty-eight years cry out before us as we glance from one parent to the other. For me, it is loud and unchallenged and refusing to be ignored. I look to either side in an effort to gage if my siblings hear the same cry that is overwhelming me. They appear to only hear the minister as he drones on, reading some obscure scripture that is intended to comfort. No one will remember what he said once we exit this space.

My mother's face is stoic in demeanor but regal in shape. Her carefully crafted jaw line is tilted up slightly as her eyes twinkles; like stars in desert sky, with unshed tears. In her hand she holds a white lace handkerchief that she uses to dry the sporadic rebel tear that escapes her poignant eyes.

Two men in overalls approach the coffin. It is then that I realize the internment service is over. The funeral director stands behind my mother's chair, waiting to help her rise to her feet to leave the cemetery. My siblings and I prepare to rise and trail after our beloved mother as ducklings that are following their mother duck to safety. We rise from our seats, partially, but pause mid stand. Our mother has not risen from her mourning post. The director leans down and whispers something not audible to us in her ear but she still does not rise to a standing position or acknowledge that he has even spoken. Unsure of what to do, eight children retake their seats under the burgundy canopy that has Bostick Funeral Home, written across it in bold white letters.

We each lean forward, as if on cue, and look at Mommie. Her eyes remain steadfast on the long, silver, rectangular box that holds our father. Her eyes bore through the metal and cushion and even death, it appears, as she connects with her husband of over three decades. Time stands still, not just for her but for me as well, as I contemplate what I know of the union of my parents.

My father was a hard man's man. He had great deficits in his soul. His mother abandoned him at the tender age of 6 years old. He ran away from an abusive, share cropping, paternal grandfather to the big city of New York. He was reared in harsh conditions being from the rural, tobacco hills of Virginia. My father was one of the foremost consumers of alcohol. My first memories of him are of him intoxicated. He possessed a split personality. He was quiet and withdrawn without "spirits" but vocal and "the life of the party" when he had been doing a little 'tasting" and had "tied one on". Not only did he become vocal but aggressive and physically abusive.

My parents met and married in New York in the mid 1960's. My mother was a nurturer and my father was extremely needy. They were a perfect match. Her for him love was a great love it transcended all manner of hurt, disappointments, and poverty. I never understood their marriage as a child and I understood it even less in my adult years as I tried to conduct my own marriage. I never understood why my mother remained married to a man who cheated on her, hit her, belittled her verbally, and often refused to work, thus keeping us in abject poverty. Even in my marriage, I mimicked a lot of her behavior but still did not understand it.

Even as I watched her face and witnessed her loss, I viewed my father's death as a blessing. He wouldn't hurt or cause us any more shame with his selfish self-indulgent ways. I didn't know if my siblings shared my sentiment but his death had not caused me not one ounce of pain or grief.

The two workers with a signal from the funeral director- began to lower the casket into the cool dark earth. As my father was slowly descending to his final resting place, my mother's tears flowed freely and unabated. Her grief radiated from her heart outward. It was tangible and heart wrenching. Her gut churning, almost inaudible, stricken moan, tore into my core. I saw their marriage flash across her face and the sorrow and loneliness reached out and shook me from my emotional coma. As I viewed her sorrow, I felt like I was in an intruder on something deeply personal and divinely private. I witnessed and felt her love for my father as it seeped from every pore in her being.

I could not help but reflect on my own situation. At twenty-nine years of age, I had been a wife for the past eleven years. In my mind, I imagined my husband and I in this reality like my parents. I dug deep into my soul to see if I could mourn him this profoundly. Would I feel the kind of love that my mother feels for my father? Would my heart visible break, as I witnessed him being taken from me for all eternity? Would all who came to mourn with me, like I felt my mother's pain and, as I was sure my sibling felt her pain, feel my grief? If not in that intensity, at least a tenth of it? Tears flowed freely down my face as my heart cried out a resounding "NO"! I could find no emotion that strong in my heart for this husband with whom I had cohabitated and loved for over a decade. Didn't I deserve a great love like what my parents enjoyed for thirty-eight years? I wanted that kind of love in my life; I needed that kind of love. Didn't my husband deserve a wife that loved him with that intensity and beyond compare?

As the workers began to shovel heaps of sun kissed earth onto my father, we watched them take away the man my mother loved more than anything on this planet. I was transfixed and spellbound by the epic love story I felt radiate from her heart to his still being.

Once the worker had thrown his last shovel of earth, my mother rose and knelt at the fresh grave. With total disregard for her clothing and social protocol, my mother extended her hand and patted the mound of dirt. I had seen her do this for all my life when she was being affectionate with my father. She would do this to my father's chest, She said in a soft loving voice, with her hand resting on the warm freshly upturned earth, "You rest now Edward and don't you worry none. I will love you until the day I die and then all of eternity after." At that moment, my heart broke. Barely a moment after, a pervading feeling came over me and I finally smelled the freshness of the newly upturned earth, the bountiful aromas of the nearby flowers, I felt the heat of the scalding sun, and the warmth of my own blood coursing through my veins. I felt alive with my grief for my mother but also for my father and surprisingly for me.

I grieved for all that he and I were not to each other. I grieved for the little six-year-old boy who waiting beside the road in rural Virginia for a mother that never came back for him. I grieved for the teenager who fled unbelievable abuse, still feeling alone and abandoned. I grieved for the man who consumed alcohol to numb himself to his pain. I grieved for the man who was unable to express his love to his children for all of their lives. I grieved for the man who loved a woman without measure but was unable to languish in that love for fear of being abandoned again. I grieved for all that could have been between my father and I if only we had been more tolerant and more effective communicators. I grieved for myself as I grieved for my husband as I came into the birth of the knowledge that my existence with him was being buried along with my father.

With one last thrust from the matrix of life, I emerged just as I my mother rose from her kneeling position beside my father's grave. In turn my siblings and I rise, we are each overwrought with emotion as my mother's tears cease to cascade down face. She smoothes her black mourning frock with calm steady hands as she turns and walks purposefully toward the waiting town car that will take her and his offspring away from the man she will love for all eternity. This father, this man, this child, this husband, this friend, this uncle, this man, who I did not know in life, had truly given me the greatest gift I have ever received, a new birth. He, through his love with and of my mother and hers of him, sprung me into a life that held promise and that I felt would be steeped in love without condition. We trailed Mommie like ducklings following a mother duck to safety. I was inexplicably altered.

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