Our language only gives us one way to greet each other ("How are you?") and only one way to answer ("Fine"). It’s a lie. But somehow the transparency of the lie makes it easier to bear. We greet each other in the way that people do, and then we slip into silence or share silent embraces, and niceties slip away.
None of us are fine.
The relationship between cousins is interesting. Growing up, my cousins were people that I saw every few months, during holidays and vacations, for a few intense days of card games, fishing, fighting, and laughing. As we’ve become adults, several of us moved further away, and every few months turned into every few years, when we’d gather again for Christmas or a wedding, packing into the house of our mild and patient matriarch to recreate the explosive camaraderie of our youth. But my relationship with my cousins suffers from the great blessing and the great curse of all family relationships: the bond is unchosen and indelible, so in the end it doesn’t really matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen each other. You’re still family.
We’re all bigger now, and many of us bring girlfriends, spouses and children to the reunion. My grandmother is a great-grandmother several times over, and when we get together our children coalesce into a raucous mob that stirs my memories of what the get-togethers with cousins were like when I was little. Of course, our children are actually further removed than cousins, and we spend several conversations failing to remember the details of the nomenclature. Are Luke and Sophia second cousins, or first cousins once removed? Is Tasha Sebastian’s aunt or great-aunt?
It’s the little ones that keep us sane. When we gather for the wake, we take over one of the church’s nurseries and allow our kids to run wild in the play room, taking turns watching over them. They don’t understand what’s going on—for them, this is just a few days’ vacation, extra time spent playing with the cousins. Getting out of the wake and into the childcare room, to see the children shrieking and giggling, is quite a relief.
It is late on a Friday night when I got the call from my mom saying that my uncle had died. My initial reaction is no reaction at all. I immediately turn my attention back towards whatever I had been doing beforehand, and over the next few days I don’t spare much thought for the funeral, other than making the necessary arrangements to attend. There are some cracks here and there, but mostly I’m holding it together.
Then I see him in the casket. He looks really good. Not overly made-up or plastic. He looks like he’s resting. Only his hands give him away, as they seem to have shriveled and taken on a black undertone.
But I go to pieces.
I burst out crying nearly as soon as I go in to see him, and it’s a while before I can even think anything coherent. The family shares embraces, and we wet each others shoulders with tears. There are words, but they don’t matter. There’s nothing we can say that defeats the reality of the resting man in the front with shriveled black hands.
Laughter and weeping alternate like the steps of a dance.
It’s been so long since we were all together—we have to laugh and tell ridiculous jokes and insult each other and laugh at the insults. This is what we do. To do any different would cede too much to death.
The night after the funeral, we all gather in the hotel, all of the cousins and spouses and aunts and uncles, the siblings and children of the deceased, and we have fun. We eat pizza and tuna salad and cookies, and we tell stories. About Uncle Brian growing up. About fishing trips and diarrhea. Things his kids got away with. Things his kids didn’t get away with. No one cries tonight. It’s a good night.
I’ve written nearly a thousand words now, and hardly said a thing about my uncle himself. This doesn’t seem right. But it’s is partly deliberate: most of you who read this didn’t know Brian, and no eulogy I could write would communicate even a speck of who we was. But everyone knows grief and loss (or will come to know it sooner than they think), so I hope that talking about our grief will somehow connect with others who have grieved, or will grieve.
But please don’t think that we grieved in the abstract. At the funeral, we didn’t cry because someone died. We cried for Uncle Brian. And we still miss him.
The funeral lasts nearly three hours, but I don’t mind. My uncle had six children, and all of them speak. I wouldn’t trade those hours for anything.
Afterwards we make a brief procession to the graveyard, where the casket is laid out over the grave. All of the immediate and extended family have taken yellow roses, and one at a time we come and lay them atop the casket and say a final goodbye. My aunt lays her head on the top of the casket and weeps for a minute before leaving her rose. All of the children come by, ending with the youngest, a beautiful ten-year-old girl. She touches her cheek lightly to the casket lid as if giving her father a final kiss.
I’m normally rather cynical about the conventional Christian comforts that people trot out at times like this. But at the funeral my cynicism is shattered. I do not care for philosophical dithering and theological complexities. I do not care whether my atheist, pagan, and other friends think I sound stupid. I care that my uncle is with Jesus.