My mother died last Saturday…
Write back to me, please, I really hope you read this and get back to me…
I just don’t know what I’m going to do now.
For a moment, let’s pretend.
You’re a twelve-year-old boy. It’s the day after your father’s funeral. Family swarms your home. They cook for you. They clean for you. They bombard you.
That night, instead of sulking—which you REALLY want to do—you sit around a campfire with uncles and cousins. The fire blazes, and you wish you weren’t there. You wish you could be somewhere else.
That’s when you notice a cow is standing behind you, near the fence.
Someone stabs the fire with a stick, sparks shoot into the night.
You are as alone as a kid can be. Earlier that day, at your father’s visitation, you shook a lot of hands with very nice people. But these folks don’t understand you.
They can’t understand. They have normal lives. And after your father’s service, their normal lives resume. They take off neckties and dress shoes, but your life is just beginning.
This is what you’re thinking.
But around this campfire, nobody gives you time to be alone with your thoughts. Instead, your uncle tells a story about driving to Georgia, and how the bumps on the roads almost rattled his RV into nuts and bolts.
Another uncle tells the story about when he was three, he tried to hammer a nail into his brother’s head like one of the Three Stooges.
What’s wrong with them? How can anyone make jokes at a time like this?
While they talk, you are staring at the cow near the fence, and you feel like she’s the only one who understands you. Maybe you’re losing your mind, but you seem to understand her, too. It’s in her eyes.
She’s saying something to you with those eyes.
She’s saying: “I know, I know.”
This phrase. It’s an expression your father told you never to use. It’s rude. It sounds arrogant. If you answer a statement with “Yeah, I know,” it’s just bad manners.
Besides, nobody likes a know-it-all. Know-it-alls make life hard for those of us who actually do.
But this cow, she understands you. So you approach the fence. You hold out your hand.
She does not run from you—which is unusual, cows usually run from you. You touch her face. She lets you. You rub the patch of stubble on her forehead and feel the silk of her coat.
By now, the uncles have grown silent. They’re watching you.
And this cow. This moment. It feels so good to be known. All you’ve ever wanted is to be known.
You begin to cry. You press your face against the cow’s neck. You want to be left alone. You want to be alone for a hundred years. But you aren’t.
Soon, your uncles and cousins are surrounding you. They are mass-hugging you. You have become part of their giant human bundle.
“Ssshhh,” one of your uncles says. And, even though it is bizarre, and out-of-place, he begins singing:
“They built the ship Titanic,” he sings, “to sail the ocean blue, they thought they had a ship, that the water would never go through…”
Your father taught you this song. You sang it with him on camping trips, and at Little League practice.
More voices join.
This is utterly ridiculous, this spontaneous singing. After all, life is no musical. If it were, you would sing a much cooler song. Also, Shirley Jones would be your leading lady.
But life is not a musical. It is hard, and bitter, and merciless, and vicious, and… Why can’t these people understand this? Why can’t they just go away? Why!?
After a few choruses, you find yourself singing along like an idiot. The melody starts in your belly, and works its way upward to your mouth.
At first you feel stupid, but singing feels so nice.
And it is within this thin slice of space and time that you recall something your father said long ago.
You were doing yard work. Your father was on the porch. He told you to pick up a twig and bring it to him.
When you did, he told you to “Break it in two.”
“Why?” you asked.
“Just try it.”
So you snapped it in half.
“Now,” he said. “Go find me an armful of sticks.”
“But, I don’t get it,” you said.
“Just do as I say.”
When you returned with a bundle of twigs, your father tied them together with a shoelace. Then he told you to break the bundle.
You tried, but you couldn’t break a single stick.
Your father smiled.
“See that?” he said. “That bundle is family and friends.”
You are not alone, sweetheart. Not ever.