It isn't until the funeral service begins that I look around and remember: I've been to this cemetery before.
During a Thanksgiving in my younger days, a curiosity about death, especially when coupled with the violence inherent to the adventures of my beloved superheroes, inspired me to ask Mom to take me walking amongst the graves. Mom's an intermediate genealogist, so we bought a few rolls of butcher paper and a box of crayons at the Wal-Mart down the street and did some grave rubbings.
It was freezing that morning, a temperature most people don't associate with the south. These are generally the same people who think that southern hospitality is a cover for latent racism. These people are wrong. And they would have known it had they tiptoed above the pine caskets in southern Alabama that November morning. They would've felt the chill against their face and down their spine when reading the names of those below, the final resting places of people they will never know, people that lived lives and sang songs and loved someone more than they ever thought they'd be able to understand.
The entire cemetery itself couldn't be more than two acres of land, but it felt like the graveyard at Antietam to a ten year old. I'd never seen a headstone in real life. The only person I ever knew that died was my great-aunt Mabel, a women I only remember meeting once in what memory (perhaps inaccurately) tells me was a stuffy room in a sterile resting home in suburban Texas a few years prior. But because I didn't have much of a connection with Aunt Mabel, I didn't really foster a connection with death. It was an abstract that was kept at bay by Spider-Man and personal inexperience.
I was good at math when I was younger, and whenever I came to a grave, I wanted utilized the $20 calculator watch that Dad had bought me at the University Mall's Radio Shack to figure out how long these people lived.
"Subtract the year they died from the year they were born. The difference is how many years they lived," Mom said.
Most of the people were old. The longevity of southern folk spits right in the face of any conventional wisdom regarding fried food, cigarettes, etc. These are people that find themselves living well into their eighties on a diet of nicotine, black coffee, and sausage gravy and who pass on with no regrets and as I see the names of these deceased, names like Mabon and Floyd and Gretchen and Lillianne, I realize, even at ten years old, that these are people who were mourned, people who were cried for, people who had funerals where guests brought ham hock and Jello salad and for-once-aptly-named funeral potatoes and everyone hummed themselves hymns. Someone misses all of them.
Most of the grave markers were moderately sized and modestly ornamented, documenting the location of a loving husband, caring mother, generous friend, etc.
But Abel's was different. It was small, about four by six inches, like a postcard from Heaven placed directly in the ground. It was more a stepping stone than a grave marker, and I was caught off-guard by its size. I began to enter the respective years of the deceased's birth and death, but the beeping of my watch stopped halfway through when I realized that they were identical. Abel had lived for two months before leaving his infant body behind him.
I asked Mom why Abel didn't live to see his first birthday.
"Well, actually, he did see his first birthday, because he was born," she said. "How old were you on your eighth birthday?"
"No, you were seven. Because your first birthday was the day you were born," she explained. I stopped in my tracks, math and metaphysics swirling together in a bewildering whirlwind. "Your first birthday is the day that you get here. When you get to Earth."
"Then why didn't Abel live to see his second birthday?" I asked.
She stood still. She had to have known this was coming. Her eyes darted across the sky as she summoned her answer.
"Because sometimes people die."
"Do people die because they do things wrong?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Does," I stammered, "...does God make people die because they do things they shouldn't have done?"
Mom's eyes look right into mine in a way that they hadn't ever before. Her eyebrows raised just enough to be noticed, telling me more with a twitch than she could've with a monologue.
"People die because their bodies stop working," she said, taking my tiny hand in hers. "Whether or not that's because God made it stop working isn't really for us to say."
Twelve years and one month later, my grandmother would pulmonarily aspirate and choke to death after a fairly routine surgical procedure.
And that's what brings me back here.
There's a much larger crowd here than I assumed there would be. Not that Gloria wasn't loved--"loved" was toward the top of the list of Things That Gloria Was--but I didn't know who was going to go so far out of their way to attend the burial of an 82-year-old former Navy librarian/Sandra Bullock fan/Robert Redford devotee/grandmother. Watching people, especially those that I don't know, trickle into the crowd like raindrops to a puddle is inspiring and validating and makes me feel at peace with a world that, at least in part, recognized the beauty in this woman to the point that its inhabitants are willing to watch her be put into the ground.
As is the majority of my immediate family (and unlike anyone else in attendance whose last name isn't "Sherwin"), my Dad is Mormon. He served for several years as a bishop at Brigham Young University ward for a congregation of married students. Because his ward was at 11 AM and mine began at 9 AM, I would often sleep in the extra two hours and attend his. As he was the bishop, he would often close a meeting with his own remarks, giving me an opportunity to hear my father wax philosophical to a group of primarily 18-26 year old newly-married couples incredibly distracted by their recently-acknowledged sex drives and terminally post-coital glow.
A group of 18-26 year old Mormon BYU students, all of whom lived in exclusively nerdy on-campus housing, is a decidedly different demographic than the mishmash of Mormon (Sherwins), formerly Mormon (Aunt Holly), Southern Baptist (most everyone else there), and back-and-forth-Mormon-agnostic-but-don't-confuse-that-with-atheist-because-I've-got-faith-in-something-but-I-just-don't-quite-know-what-just-yet (me) in attendance.
There's a light drizzle falling from gray clouds and we--me, Mom, Dad, Kelly, Nathan, Corey, Aunt Holly, Uncle Bob, Uncle Bobby, Aunt Cheryl, Great-Aunt Marney, Great-Uncle Bud, and a small congregation of reverend observers with whom I am unfamiliar--are all beneath a tarp that would look more at home covering cotton candy machines and Guess Your Weight machines. I'm standing next to Kelly and Nathan, while Corey and my parents sit on the front row of folding chairs next to the casket. Dad steps to the front of the group.
He addresses the group, introducing himself and thanking everyone for coming. As always, he speaks with a stoic earnestness I honestly can't think of having seen in anyone else. He doesn't look at those in attendance like some people would look at a group: he instead looks at each individual person, simultaneously saying these things to all of us and each of us. He introduces Gloria's children--Mom, Holly, Bobby--and the grandchildren in attendance, taking special care to acknowledge those not in attendance. He speaks briefly and accessibly of Gloria's conversion to Mormonism, about her desire for her memorial to be in the tradition of her faith, and her love of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the wonderful people from whom she has been temporarily separated. He says nothing dogmatic, shares no scripture found outside of the standard King James Bible, and manages to, again, be the only person dry-eyed. To my right, Kelly, with Nathan's arm around her, cries quietly. Mom and Holly are in tears, and Corey has his eyes closed, the water welling in the corners. I'm wiping away my own drips like I'm trying to water a garden.
I look around at the massive birches and oaks protecting this afternoon from befouling by weather, at the green grass beneath my feet, the sky that seems to have lowered its head out of respect, the sticky sweetness of the southern air, and I hear that song playing in my head.
Now I bow down to Jesus, in penitential grief.
Dad closes with a prayer. He prays out of gratitude for Gloria and what her life brought all of us. He prays for comfort to those of us left behind. He prays for our memories, that we can hold on to what she so graciously gave us throughout her years.
When he finishes, the crowd separates into smaller groups. I need to be alone.
I beg him now to save me, like he did a dying thief.
I trudge slowly through the rows of markers and, remembering Abel, try to find his plot. But I can't. The first time I ever really understood death, the first time I ever truly questioned the nature of God and existence, this manifestation of inquiry and existential uncertainty and a defining moment of my life and I cannot find it anywhere. I look through row after row and stone after stone and life after life and death after death and he is nowhere to be found.
I see a small, unoccupied bench near Gloria's plot. That's the place for me.
It was then that I heard a whisper, in a most gentle tone:
The bench is wet, but I sit anyway. The water soaks through and chills, but I'm glad to be feeling something physical, something I can quantify. Anyone would feel wet if they sat in water. This is an incredibly comforting thought.
Mom, Holly, and Bobby are shaking hands and accepting hugs and expressing gratitude for those decent enough to come. Corey's talking to Bud and Marney, their high spirits are a lighthouse amongst the somberness of the gathering. Kelly and Nathan are standing together silently, Kelly wiping her eyes and Nathan rubbing her back.
'My grace is one sufficient to save the vilest one.'
There are two men in front of me that I don't know. They're larger men. They could easily play Santa every year (do Southern Baptists think Santa is evil, like Harry Potter or John Lennon?) They're wearing stiff white shirts that look like they're made of cardboard, and their necks are wrapped in ties whose red is a little too close to blood for my taste. One is sporting a painful combover, while the other has what I assume to be a military-inspired (or indoctrinated) buzzcut.
"Gloria was a good woman," Combover says.
"Certainly was," Buzzcut adds. "Awful sweet."
This makes me smile.
"Haven't seen her for years. Never met those kids of hers, neither."
"She did a good job."
This makes me smile bigger.
"It's too bad she deserted Jesus when she became a Mormon," Buzzcut sighs.
"Yeah," Combover agrees. "She deserved to go to Heaven. It's a shame she can't."
This pisses me right. the fuck. off.
I rise to my feet.
"What did you say?" I call to them, taking steps that feel more like lunges. The men turn around. Buzzcut's eyes open wide when he sees who I am.
"Are you one of Gloria's grandbabies?" he smiles weakly, offering a handshake. I slap his hand down and it cracks like thunder.
"What. The fuck. Did you say. About my grandma?" I demand. "Repeat yourself."
"Now, hold on just a sec--"
They stare at me in shock. Buzzcut straightens his shoulders and his smile disappears into stern disapproval.
"Gloria joined a cult. In the Bible, it clearly says--"
"Fuck the Bible and fuck you, you sanctimonious piece of shit. We just put her in the goddamn ground and you're already making judgments about where she's going to end up like it was any of your goddamn business." I look at this man and wonder if his tie is made of nice enough material that I could use it to strangle the life from his throat.
Combover steps forward, standing between me and Buzzcut, one arm extended toward each of us like he was directing traffic. "Now, there's no use for that kind of--"
His attempts at arbitration are stifled when I punch him in the mouth.
"How dare you," I scream, my now-bloodied hand trying to shove him to the ground. "She took shits that deserve better than you."
Nathan is the first to hear the commotion. He runs over to the scuffle, his 6'5" frame bobbing up and down like Donkey Kong chasing a barrel. People are starting to look over, and everyone stops talking and tries to decipher what's going on fifty yards away.
Buzzcut puts his hands on my shoulders to try and pull me off of his friend. I reflexively turn back and give him a straight shot to the nose. He starts bleeding, and for once in my goddamn life, I'm proud of myself. I've finally stood up for justice and defended the good name of Gloria North Perdue from the savage men that would sully it with their sick misinterpretation of Christian Grace and I've done the right thing and I feel myself grinning, my eyes opening wide to absorb the whole visceral gratification of having sustained the honor of a good woman that deserves respect above all and it's all interrupted when Combover sends a solid right hook to my cheek.
The world goes red. Nathan arrives and holds my arms behind me.
"Calm down, Andy," he says, but I can't. I can't get free, I can't calm down, and I can't punish these bastards that have decided to speak for God regarding things they couldn't possibly understand and I scream and I gnash my teeth and I say foul, vicious things to these men and Corey runs over and helps Nathan restrain me and he covers my mouth with a strong hand but I don't stop screaming and now I can neither move nor speak and I wriggle and I'm exhausted and I want nothing more than to put these two men in the hole dug for my grandmother and bury them alive and see how God sorts things out then and eventually I run out of energy and my legs give out and I can feel the color drain away from my face and the blood from the cut on my face makes its way to the corners of my mouth and it's too much and this isn't how things are supposed to be and people aren't supposed to die if they're good people and no one can make this all better and it's not fair and it's not how everyone told me life was and in the distance I can see Mom and Kelly and Holly sobbing and I can't flail anymore and the only things keeping me from collapsing are Nathan and Corey's arms and there's no justice in the world and they let me go and I fall to my knees like a pentecoastal and it's not right it's not right it's not right it's not right it's not right it's not right it's not right.
The majority of those in attendance graciously turn their heads to the ground and pay me no attention. Combover helps Buzzcut up and gives him a white handkerchief from his breast pocket, which Buzzcut uses to wipe the blood from his nose.
That handkerchief should've been soaked with tears, I think to myself. Not blood.
Nathan runs over to Kelly and takes her hand. They walk to their car. Dad's holding Mom, Bob's holding Holly, and no one but Corey will even look at me.
"Come on, get up," he says. He pulls me to my quaking feet and hands me a mess of tissues.
"Thanks," I stutter. The cut on my upper cheek has caked, so I use the tissues to wipe my nose and eyes. Corey pulls my arm around his shoulder and helps me walk to his rented Taurus in silence. I trip over my own feet, but Corey's arm around my side is strong enough to hold me up. He props me up against the side of the car and opens the door before guiding me in. I buckle my seatbelt and wait for him to close the door, but he doesn't. He just stands there, looking at me, with a facial expression I can't decipher.
"Have you ever been in a fight before?" he asks.
"Just once, in high school."
"Did you win that one?"
"More or less." I sniff the drips back into my sinuses and stretch my jaw.
"Huh," he grunts. "Watch your toes." He shuts the door and we take the long way back.