Daily life continued more or less normally that Monday, except that all of our standard life stressors were more firmly rooted in place than usual, plus the newest concerns for Savannah and her family were heavy on our hearts. But overall Handsome and I were going about our business plainly and productively. Our nerves were jangled, for sure; we just didn’t realize it at first. There was really nothing left to do about the wreck, so as with lots of unchangeable things in life we just funneled our energies elsewhere then wondered why we were bickering so much.
Early in the week I received a text from our neighbor with details about the funeral. It would be that Thursday. Handsome and I both wanted to attend, but when that morning rolled around it was clear he could not. He was tethered hopelessly to his office.
The man’s services were held at a large, modern funeral home just about twenty-five minutes from the farm. The parking lot was filled beyond capacity, cars, trucks, and motorcycles parked in concentric curves, filling not only every designated space but also every square foot of concrete, designated or not. I barely found room for mine. People were filing into the building quickly and in large numbers. Holding hands, clapping each other’s shoulders, smiling weakly. The sun was fiercely bright that day. Warm and windy, one of the early spring days we had all been celebrating.
Inside the building several hundred people were pacing around, finding their seats and maybe reuniting with friends or loved ones the way people do at funerals and weddings. I was offered the last open seat in an annex room with a clear view to the podium and flowers. There was no casket.
The officiant of the service was a brother of the deceased. He was tall and solid, had a strong local accent that dressed his lumbering voice perfectly. He reminded me a little of Sam Elliott and was the sort of man who deserved the word gentleman, not guy. He led us in prayer and read scriptures with so much passion, you might think he had just discovered their truth and beauty that very day! He was urgently pressing in our hearts a message of God’s love, hope for the mansions of heaven, and comfort. Deep comfort.
As is customary with such personal services, we got to hear some of the man’s favorite songs from his life. They played Dust in the Wind, Stairway to Heaven, and Whiskey Lullaby. The music piped in crystal clear, especially the Led Zeppelin guitar notes I remember, and every single lyric fell on the crowd like a deliberate weight. They pressed tears out of all our hearts. I wondered about Whiskey Lullaby, wondered if the family was still worried about alcohol having played a part in the wreck. What a burden, what a warning.
Usually a funeral service is a time to say goodbye. This service, for me, was a chance to become acquainted with the man we met under such awful circumstances. As it progressed, I was increasingly frustrated that my husband couldn’t attend. He was the one who had stayed there that night in the rain. He had the most grief to release.
I saw this man come to life in a room filled to the brim with his loved ones. Just a few days before that, the most I had seen was his white cotton t-shirt and belted jeans. Now I saw his face, smiling. Eyes literally twinkling. I saw him as a suntanned little boy in mid-century Oklahoma, often barefoot, always surrounded by his brothers and a sister. I saw him as a good looking high school football player. Then as a young adult with a magnificent white man’s Afro! When photos of that hair era slid onscreen, the room warmed with laughter. So much laughter! His most recent years seemed to be spent holding babies who were presumably his grand babies. I got to see his barrel chest draped with sleeping infants. He was always smiling.
A girl not much younger than my own fourteen year old baby spoke at the microphone. She read her own remarks from two handwritten pages. Her dark hair was just growing back in from chemotherapy. She had a voice as soft and muted as talcum powder, and it faltered into tears at almost every sentence. Though the congregation could barely decipher her quiet words, we all cried along with her. The emotion was palpable. She barely seemed strong enough to hold the microphone and doubled over in sobs at least twice. Even as a perfect stranger I ached with this beautiful little girl, everybody did.
When she finished reading, the man’s brother wiped his own tears and took both her pages and the microphone then read every sentence again. His booming, affectionate voice delivered what she was trying to tell us. That we should trust God’s plans, even when they hurt. That we should be thankful for each other and what we have. That we can do amazing things. There was much more, and I hope the family kept her written pages. I wished I could be taking notes myself. So beautiful. If the congregation was weeping a moment ago, now there was widespread sobbing. From the mouths of babes, is all I could think.
The services continued with more wonderfully loving, personal speakers. Every person held this man in such genuine affection, so much love. I keep using that word, I know, but it’s how that day felt. This man we never got to know in life must have understood how to love people. His memory seemed to braid the room together in humor, love, and affection. Even from a distance, what a worthwhile legacy.
As the funeral concluded, some of the family members stood along the front of the room accepting a parade of mourners. I debated joining the line of people and felt completely out of place, even though we had been invited by the man’s friends. Since I knew in my heart my being there was not for spectatorship but to say goodbye, to offer condolensces, I crept up to the front with everyone else and along the way tried to think of what to say.
By the time I reached the front, enough hugs and kisses and handshakes had been distributed to sort of relax the outward grief. The man who officiated the service was smiling. More of those funny, affectionate stories were clearly being shared, and at the last minbute I almost turned to go. But he smiled warmly at me so I shook his hand.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. He didn’t know me, of course. He folded my hand together with both of his hands.
“Your brother was obviously such a wonderful and loved person, and what a beautiful family you have. My husband and I live on — Road…” I thought that naming the road would be sufficient, no need to spell it our further. It was. His expression changed in a second.
“Oh… Thank you,” but his smile faltered and his grip strengthened, then he looked away. I honestly was very worried it had been a huge mistake in attending. When we released the handshake I smiled a tiny bit at the woman to his right and left the funeral home as quietly as I could.
In the days immediately following the funeral, we noticed a large collection of flower sprays placed on the shoulder of our road, weighted down by a cinder block. Roses, white gladiolus, lots of greenery. We couldn’t help but notice they were on the opposite side of the road and about twenty feet off from the site of the crash. We will probably never forget exactly that spot. I know I think about it every time we drive past.
Handsome and I only one time verbally considered moving the flowers to the correct location, in honor of the deceased man, but of course understood that was not our place. So they are still there now. Withered and brown and weighted by that cinder block.
On Easter Sunday, in the late afternoon, Handsome was outside moving animals around when he saw a car parked at our front gate. This is not normal, and we weren’t expecting company, so after a moment he went down the gravel driveway. He found the brother, the gentleman who had reminded me of Sam Elliott. They traded introductions and talked more about the wreck. Knowing my husband and having briefly met this gentleman, I can only imagine how much poise and calm was between them. The brother gave thanks for coming to the funeral and shared that yes, there had been lingering concerns about alcohol. This was a wonderful opportunity for Handsome to encourage him with the fact that he did not smell any alcohol on his brother’s breath that night and that deer are thick in this area, especially on dark rainy nights like that. It had to be a deer he was avoiding.
I am so thankful that they met. I think it’s even better than if we had gone to the funeral together. And I am also thankful he met the brother alone, because that night he had stayed with the man alone.
Sometimes life draws these perfect little circles. Painful and unwanted, sure, but still full of love, lessons, promises, and even poetry.
Drive safely, loved your people, trust God.