We rolled into Brewton, Alabama, midafternoon, a few days before the funeral visitation. Brewton is wife’s hometown. We are burying her mother soon.
The sun was bitterly hot. It was 101 degrees outside, hot enough to remind you of all those Baptist brimstone sermons from your childhood.
We drove past the town sign with its Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club badges. “Home of Alabama’s Blueberry Festival,” the sign says. We passed the downtown’s proud brick storefronts, the lamp posts with hanging begonias, and the old stone church covered in ivy.
Meantime, my wife was telling me a funny story about her mother. By the time we were pulling into the bed and breakfast she wrapped up the story by flicking tears from her eyes.
“Lord have mercy,” she said, as I held her in the silence of our car. “She’s really gone.”
Lord have mercy.
It’s been a sobering week since her mother died. Since then, my wife has been telling lots of stories.
Losing a family member is a full-time job. There are gazillions of details that need sorting out after someone departs. There are no idle moments before a funeral.
The irony is, after a loved one’s death all you want to do is hide and lick your sores. But you can’t. You must spend your hours painstakingly deciding on things like floral sprays and who will make the deviled eggs for the wake.
And the whole time you keep getting overwhelmed with this unusual urge. An urge you’ve never had before. You are in “historic preservation” mode, you have the urge to tell stories.
We left for dinner that evening. The dinner was held at the old family house on Belleville Avenue, an antique columned home where my wife’s mother spent her childhood.
My wife took one look at the old house and another fifty stories bubbled to the surface.
We walked inside. The heart pine floors were polished within an inch of their grain, the wainscoting looks just the way it did when Herbert Hoover was a household name.
When my wife touched the old wood, she let loose a lungful of more stories.
All night, these stories came from different angles, from different storytellers, from different perspectives. Nobody could help themselves. Memories hit you like groundswells and all you can do is keep talking.
After dinner, I walked outside to look at the drizzly night so that my wife could be alone with her family and talk. I sat on the porch, using my thumbnail to peel the label from my bottle, trying to think of a few tales of my own.
I looked at the ornate antique home, lit up by the moon. A home where a woman’s entire youth was spent. This is where my wife’s mother once played marbles, hopscotched on the sidewalks, climbed trees, and skinned her elbows. You can practically hear the children giggling in your mind.
In the other room I could hear my wife’s voice, talking animatedly to her aunt and cousins. I eavesdropped through the window and I smiled.
Grief is a strange thing. Nobody ever tells you that grieving feels like being afraid. Neither does anyone tell you that grief doesn’t always hurt, either. Sometimes, it’s cloyingly sweet. Like eating Domino sugar straight from the bag. Sometimes it actually feels good.
My whole childhood was painted with grief. My father ended his life when I was a boy. Grief and I are old friends.
To me, the weirdest part about grieving is that it comes in waves. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you. The emotions don’t rush at you like a river. They come in surges, like breakers on the beach, knocking you down. Just when you think you’re on your feet again, wham, another wave.
As a young man, I’d have moments when I would hurt so badly that something might as well have been stabbing me. Then, in another few moments, I’d be back to normal. Hours later, I’d start crying again. Only this time the crying didn’t hurt. This time, oddly, the crying felt incredibly gratifying. Almost euphoric. Like being wrapped in a down quilt.
I simply cannot explain it.
But that’s grief, I guess. It defies explanation. The moment you try to define grief, you’ve already missed the point. Kind of like I just did here.
Either way, the one thing I do know is that grief is not just a bunch of people boo-hooing like you see in the movies. It is so much more. And it can be beautiful if you let it.
To grieve is to hear the sound of bittersweet laughter while fingering old photographs. Grief is eating bland food and wondering when your sense of taste will return. It is trying to breathe between sobs, and trying to cry between laughs. It is hugging your relatives, and suddenly noticing how frail their bodies feel beneath your arms.
Grief is trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. A life which, because of the beatific stories that grief resurrects, now seems more rich and colorful than it did one week ago.
We bury her tomorrow. Lord have mercy.