At ten years old, I had never seen a dead body. My childhood hadn’t been tarnished nor brushed by death’s slicing blade, only the brief mention of my grandparents’ long-lost friends entering eternal peace in their beds or in a hospital all alone – friends that they hadn’t seen since high school. But the summer before my fifth-grade year, things changed. At that age, the thought of death seemed far off, like marriage or children of my own, only a whisking ping of a concept in my naïve and simple mind, still spending precious hours watching Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel.
I remember that steaming summer day in July, everyone packed into that church like a can of sardines. We had been waiting in that line for hours. The dress my mother had squeezed me into became increasingly uncomfortable with the blistering humidity, but still we waited. As the line inched, my mother’s hand clenched mine harder and harder. At the end of the line sat a coffin of dark brown wood, glossy but small, about five feet in length. The line inched forward, and my heart rate increased. The people around us began to cry more, the things I saw became more vivid, his mother and father and brothers and sisters standing next to his wooden bed, embracing each friend and family member, one after the other, his mother’s eyes, puffy and red, got clearer and more visible to me as we approached. I could feel my chest aching.
My parents, brothers, and I rounded the church pews, not nearly as welcoming as I recalled them. I remember it now, how I felt, in a much different light, my mind now being more exposed to the sufferings of the world.
I was nervous.
My palms sweated and my eyes grew wide. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to look into the coffin, say my prayer for him, touch his hand—I knew it would be cold, but I had no idea what it’d be like otherwise. Most importantly, I didn’t want to give his mother a hug, hold that grieving woman in my arms, have her hold me, a child not much younger than him in her arms and wish, even subconsciously, that she was holding her own, living son. I wasn’t ready but I had to be, for myself, for my family, for him.
My mother and I approached the coffin and my heart dropped to my feet, past the floor, and into the dirt beneath that church. His head, the face still swollen from all of the chemo, lay on that silk-covered pillow, his eyes shut in a state of seeming sleep but not quite. At any other time, I would have looked at that young boy in that state, thinking he would be dreaming of baseball or golf or basketball just beyond those eyes. But I knew that no game or match or quarter would play behind those perpetually closed eyes, not anymore. I looked at my mother and, for the first time, I saw her eyes closed as well, but I knew she wasn’t dreaming behind those eyes either. A single tear fell from her right eye and landed on her folded hands; my left hand still grasped between hers. I tried to wiggle my hand free, her tears and the heat making my hand uncomfortable and damp, but she refused to let my little hand go. I now know why.
The young boy, just shy of his thirteenth birthday, wore an orange – his favorite color –and white striped polo and tan khakis. Sports memorabilia sat around his motionless body. As I continued to look on, I studied his face more. It wasn’t the face I remembered. Cosmetics dolled him, making his cheeks pink with false life and hiding his distinguishing freckles. It didn’t look like him. I didn’t like that he wouldn’t look like himself when he went to wherever he was headed, thinking, as a child would, that when I would get there at the end of my life, I wouldn’t recognize him. He was someone you would want to recognize and smile at whenever you could. After a little while, my mother released my hand and reached out, brushing her shaking fingertips across his hands, one on top of the other, falling across his little chest. Unknowing what to do, I did the same.
And a shiver ran down my spine.
I had felt the hands of others on a cold winter day, felt snow sneak its way onto my bare feet through the rims of my boots in the winter months, and had ice cold water sprayed across my warm body on those long summer breaks. But nothing had ever felt like his hand, even in the brief moment that mine had touched his. The thought of my hand, warm, sweating, damp from that heated day, brushing past his, void of life, unresponsive to the smoldering atmosphere. I quickly retracted my fingers and brought my attention away from his body at last. In all that time, barely even a minute but feeling like ten, I hadn’t even noticed the tears streaming down the sides of my cheeks, mixing with the sweat from my forehead.
I brought my gaze over to his mother. Her arms spread and embraced me. She had always been a wonderful hugger but this one felt different. Her black dress, an odd choice for the weather, the material being extremely thick but soft, hung on her shoulders, her back warm from the endless arms wrapping around her sunken body. She held me for a long time and whispered to me as I, which I now noticed, began to cry, and heave into her left shoulder.
“Shhh, it’s okay, love. He’s happy now.”
For that woman of such strength and now, suffering, to comfort me at the funeral of her own son. For that mother, watching and losing her first born to an illness that wreaked havoc on his body and mind. For that human, to put her own griefs and troubles aside to just hold me in that moment and stroke the back of my hair, in the way that only mothers can, broke my heart into a million shattered pieces, like a Lego plane falling out of a little boy’s hand on Christmas morning, those blue and white bricks scattering, falling under places never to be seen again.
She loosened her grasp on me and embraced the next guests. In a pew, further away from the crowd, his brother, a classmate of mine, sat alone, his tie loose around his neck and his shoulders slumped, his eyes staring ahead to a place of nothingness, a place he’d much rather be than there.
I think that day changed both of us for good, launched us into a stage of our lives that was inevitable. I looked at that still boy in the coffin and it showed me that death, seeming like a distant thing to my childhood, was around every corner, a force to be reckoned with, a power to be feared but, eventually, accepted. It wasn’t this figure of my imagination, a plot point of a murder-mystery novel, the topic of some random song sounding through the static on the radio. It was real now, a tangible sight I still can’t shake from my head. His foundation-covered, sleeping face still etched in the hollow, empty gardens of my mind.
As for my classmate, his brother and friend, I am at a loss of what could have possibly gone through his mind that dreadfully hot day in July. But I do know that the boy that I had seen on the last day of school, not even a month ago, was long gone. That boy, notorious for his mischief and wise jokes, was just a vacant, abandoned motel on the side of a backroad, long dismissed of its smiling couples and adventurous families, its young warriors trekking across America in their father’s station wagon, its runaway taking shelter for the night, using a fake name to make sure their parents couldn’t trace them. As much as he tried to come back to the way he was, his old self was dead and buried with his brother in that grave that looked out onto the mountains of the town.
I guess death can do that to people, shape them into newer, truer, rawer, and vulnerable versions of themselves. Maybe that’s why we all die. So, we die as our most natural models, ready to enter those pearly gates or oblivion with nothing left on our hands but the calluses of a long life. But as for those who die young? Well, I guess whoever reigns sent them here to walk among us, to guide us, to make us smile, laugh, cry, to make us human. To make us the kind, sensitive, grieving, joyous, spontaneous, flawed, and reckless humans we are, especially after we lose them. I guess we ought to be grateful for that.