The first to die was my father, in the aughts, age 73. Ten years younger than my grandparents, my mother’s parents, not my father’s. It was the cancer, took my father. The cigars and Manhattans hastened it, that was whence the cancer, you’d think. His choice, in the end. In a way.
Grandmother passed soon after, in her 80s. Dementia. Horrid to watch, to listen, to watch her mind go. She was a hard talk in good health, too, that accent so thick. And with her decline, no hope, not much to say, can only ask her to repeat so many times. When she repeats in her language not ours, well I only knew a few words, and she never used them.
Grandfather went next, three years later. Wanted to be with ‘mama,’ his word for his wife, his partner, 68 years. He wanted to go before his daughter, my aunt.
My aunt went a year later. Same thing took her as my dad, the cancer. Never lived a moment for herself, never left her hometown except to visit us. Drove down in the Astro Van with her family, stayed a few days, drove straight back. Traveling wasn’t safe, she said, best to stay home. That’s where she died.
I drove to New Orleans for every funeral. They were all in the same home, same guy, that bald guy telling me turn and face the casket, place my gloved hand on the casket as we lift and hold while the gurney is placed, removed, place the casket gently, glide it into the hearse, gentlemen, and remove it from the hearse, gentlemen you may face the casket, gentlemen you may remove your gloves, your grandmother is dead, grandfather dead, your aunt is dead, gentlemen, your father is dead, your mother will die soon and you wake at night considering your own death, which is coming. Your uncle is dead, now too. Gentlemen everyone is dead. Gentlemen? Hand on the casket, please.
The bodies went to different resting places. Grandma and Grandpa went to one cemetery, graves in the ground, yard full of wooden boxes, full of bodies that looked nothing like the ones I remembered, dead wax hands clutching rosaries that may or may not have been rosaries that were clutched in their lives depending on which dead body we’re concerned with. Some of them were more or less Catholic than the rest. Some of them weren’t at all. Some of them rest in peace and one is spinning in his grave from the choices I made or didn’t.
Uncle Charlie went next. He was 97, older brother-in-law to my father who died 22 years younger, having partied alone too many nights with the cigars and Manhattans mixed in the kitchen alone, near tears, passed out on the floor with the tv on and alone when I rang the doorbell wondering if tonight was the night I’d find him dead.
I left the house late, after the girls were in bed, after my wife came home from work having driven one hour west to the lake with her open container and wishing she wasn’t my wife for reasons I still don’t understand and can’t say I don’t disagree with, though. She came home and said you can go, and I did. I drove east, farther, kept going, didn’t stop till I found the grave of my aunt, the most recent, easiest to get to. The earth was still wet and soft around her, no one around. My fingers found the top of her coffin, the earth seemed to move on my behalf, doing me a favor. It moved so easily, like potting soil, and the box floated up like they do in the swamp. I pulled it onto harder earth above the grass, moonlight reflecting on its smooth, curved oak. Soon, I whispered, soon we’ll all be together again.
I got her in the truck and drove north. Uncle Charlie was next. We’ll all be together soon.