I’ve never really liked dead things. One time, I had a rabbit named Grace because, of course I had a rabbit named Grace. Anyway, she died. I was about eight years old when I found her chillin in her rabbit pin, stiff as a board. We got her from the flea market near our house where most things are half dead to begin with, so it was kind of a miracle that she lived as long as she did. Anyway, when I found Grace, I grabbed her and attempted to shake her into life again, but it was pointless. Grace was dead, and I was breaking down. To be fair, I had a pretty ugly road with death at a young age because my mom’s parents were 46 and 60 when she was born, so a huge portion of my family starting dying before I could really understand what that meant. That, and I had watched Titanic pretty recently, and that whole Rose lives to be really old and then dies thing really got to me as well.
Because death happened so often, I didn’t really understand why it happened–to me, death was kind of like getting a cold. People got death, and then you just kind of died. The whole thing was really unfortunate, but it happened, and in my mind, it was only a matter of time before I caught it myself. I carried Grace to resting place that my parents dug for her, and I said a prayer over her tiny rabbit body, and then I placed her in the grave. I wiped the tears from my face, and then I realized: I just wiped DEATH all over my face. Great.
As soon as it hit me, I lost it–like full blown 8-year-old panic attack. My mom grabbed me and tried to explain that my rabbit was with mamaw and papaw and all the other half-dead animals they had gotten me at the flea market, included but not limited to: my dog Sable, my dog Roxie, my cat Tiger, both of my turtles Jo Jo and Urkle, my dad’s old dog Amos, and a gerbil that I had once named Conway that died because he got a penis infection. I’m not kidding. But I wasn’t worried about Grace’s eternal soul, because her name was Grace for God’s sake. I was worried about my fragile mortal body that had been exposed to death–not just exposed really, but slathered in it. I wiped my face with dead rabbit hands, and clearly, if that wasn’t terminal then I don’t really know what could be.
My parents spent the next 16 years trying to persuade me that people don’t die by being exposed to death, but I’m not entirely sure that they’re right. Regardless, I’m still here, fighting the good fight and trying to stay away from death and all his friends. I actually became kind of numb to the whole death situation. It’s been years since I had been to a funeral because a whole generation of my family passed away before I was 16 years old. Instead, I just focus on the random diseases that could kill me instead of actually catching death itself. I call my mom weekly or so to check in because I’ve convinced myself that I have anemia or a tumor on a lymph node. For a while it had gotten out of hand, and then she eventually called me a hypochondriac. Now, I’ve blocked WebMD on my browser, and my fear of sickness and death has gotten easier.
Funerals, at this point, are just hurdles. Very sad hurdles, but hurdles, and as my generation has grown up, we’ve all also grown apart. I haven’t seen my entire family together in one place in a long time, let alone the super-extended family. We never did a great job of keeping up with one another because people were having babies or going to jail or in my weird case, relocating to a new location entirely. But I was able to make a stop home after work trip out to California, and when I arrived my mom asked me the dreaded question. “My nephew Stanley died. Will you go to the funeral with me?” I mean, of course I would go to the funeral with her, but the first words out of my mouth were, “I had a cousin named Stanley?” That’s the tricky part of being separated from some of your cousins by 30-40 years–sometimes you don’t know they exist until they’ve passed away or in the newspaper for doing something really absurd.
As I pulled what I imagine was probably an illegal U-turn in the middle of the funeral home parking lot, my mom said, “Oh look. There’s Roger Dale. I wonder how life’s treating him now that he’s out of prison.” I wasn’t sure if she was being sincere or just being a smart ass. Either way, I chose not to recognize it as I attempted to pull my dad’s giant truck into a parking spot made for a smart car. That, and for some reason, I kind of wanted to be friends with Roger Dale. He’s one of the few people in my family that’s around my age–and even though he was supposedly an accessory to an attempted murder, it’s nice having friends, ya know? I finally got the truck parked, and my mom looked at me and said, “No more than 20 minutes. I’m serious. 20 minutes–in and out. Let’s go. Oh, and your aunt Wanda got you a souvenir from her trip to the Amish country, so don’t forget to grab it before we leave.”
I wasn’t expecting to go to a funeral while I was in town, but then again, I don’t think anyone ever expects to go to a funeral. It’s not something you etch into your planner months ahead of time. Stanley was 55 when he died, which is really complicated to explain because that makes him older than my mom. But in short, my mom had siblings that were legitimately having children before she was even born, so she was an aunt baby.
As we walked up to the funeral home, a whole bunch of people sat on the porch in white rocking chairs that overlooked the parking lot/duck pond combo below. I didn’t recognize anyone on the porch, but I didn’t really expect to recognize anyone anyway–kind of like when you go to a party with a friend. So, as we walked up the steps, I nodded to them and said hello, but they just kind of gave me a really annoyed look–kind of like when you go to a party with a friend… and you try too hard. Come to find out, there were two funerals going on, and I was trying to speak to people that actually weren’t in my family (which at funerals, is poor form).
But once someone directed me to the sign in the lobby, I had things a little more under control. I walked into a long chapel, and everyone seemed to be gather toward the front. I inspected the front of the room, but I didn’t see a casket. Luckily, they had decided to forego that part of the funeral process, and even though I was well aware that you couldn’t catch death, the 8-year-old inside of me was a little bit relieved. But in its place was something terrifying in a completely different way–family that I hadn’t seen in years. I was out of practice when it came to this kind of thing. I barely know what to tell my friends when they lose a family member, but it’s so much harder when it’s your own family. I tried to survey the room, but I couldn’t place any of the faces with names, so I just kept walking forward until I reached the cork board at the front of the room.
There were pictures of Stanley and his entire family, made up of people that I may or may not have met throughout the years. I followed the pictures from the bottom to the top until something else caught my eye–a giant flatscreen TV posted up on the wall with a single candle burning. The background was totally black, and the only thing on the screen was a white candle with a single flame. I’m sure it’s supposed to represent something, but for some reason, all I could think was, “I mean, could we have just not put like… a real candle or something in here? And who captured this looping video of this candle… like, how do you get that job?” I spun around and stepped on a tiny little old lady who said, “Hi there. I’m Herman’s sister. You know Herman,” I have no idea who Herman is. “You know there’s nine of us, right? Six boys and three girls. Can you even imagine?” I still had no idea who Herman was, and for a second, I thought that she might have made the same mistake that I did earlier, except she didn’t see the sign in the front directing her to the correct funeral parlor.
I didn’t know what to do, so I told her that I would be right back, but when I turned around again, there was Roger Dale. I immediately felt startled, but I was also really excited because in my mind, I kept thinking, This is my chance at a friend! We shook hands, and he had a really strong handshake, and as much as I hated it, all I could think was, “This is the perfect place for him to kill me because they wouldn’t even need to call an ambulance. They’d just embalm me and call it a day.” I froze, and I didn’t know what to say, and before I knew it, I had lost my opportunity. My mom called me over to say hello to my aunt Connie who made a grand entrance from the back of the parlor. I watched her hug my mom and dad and brother with big tears in her eyes, thanking them for coming. Then my mom said, “Connie, here’s Justin.” She immediately stopped crying and said, “You’re grown.” She pulled me in really tight, put her face against the side of my head, and then it happened. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but she just blew… blew her nose with all of her might, directly in my ear.
I pulled back with a flattened smile and touched her shoulder and said, “I’m going to head over here for a second.” I felt like people were watching me, waiting to see how I would react to this whole situation. I sat down in a pew behind my mom and pulled a kleenex out of the box sitting in the pew. I shoved it in my ear and leaned forward, quietly whispering to my mom, “Aunt Connie may or may not have just blew her nose in my ear. So, that happened.”
My mom couldn’t stop laughing, so I had to take my family outside where we congregated with my aunt and uncle that I’m closest to. By the time I got outside to join them, my mom had already lit in on the story about Aunt Connie blowing her nose in my ear, and on the other side of the circle Was Roger Dale, whose much closer to Connie than I am. I wanted to dive on my mom and tell her to stop or to cut the story short, but it was too late. I was making no headway with Roger Dale, and if he didn’t smell the fear on me earlier in the parlor, then he definitely smelled it on me now. I felt like I needed to chime in, so I said, “You know, I’m wasn’t upset at Aunt Connie for blowing her nose in my ear. I was just… surprised, which I feel like is the logical response when someone blows their nose in your ear.” Roger Dale stared at me with the blankest expression and said, “Yeah, that doesn’t happen,” and then walked away. I knew that the funeral wasn’t about me, nor was it supposed to be, but I wanted to fight back. I wanted to explain how brave I was for enduring getting a snot rocket lodged in my ear. I wanted to tell everyone how I was a survivor. But my mom interrupted and said, “Can we smoke on this porch, or do we need to go somewhere?”
Standing off the porch waiting on everyone to finish up their cigarettes, I looked back on the porch, still unable to recognize if any of the people hanging outside were actually related to me. It’s almost comical because at one point, every death felt like the world was ending–whether it was a person or a rabbit. And then somewhere along the way, I wasn’t able to even tell the difference between who was part of my family’s and who was part of someone else’s.
I still miss Grace. She was a pretty cool rabbit, but in retrospect, sometimes I wonder if I might have accidentally killed her myself. As an 8 year old, I wasn’t really great at feeding things, nor taking care of them. In reality, my parents probably should have gotten me a goldfish, or like… one of those crabs you can get from the beach that legitimately never comes out of its shell. But no matter how mortified I was by Grace’s death or the lethal rabbit death disease that she carried, it wasn’t so much that I actually, you know, tried taking care of her while she was alive. And maybe that’s the whole point of why rabbits and dogs and cousins named Stanley die. Maybe it’s about reminding you of what’s still in front of you–what you could be taking care of. Or maybe it’s just a solid reminder of how many germs you carry on your face. We may never know.