Before I forget the long autumn that killed him I should remember it once more, clearly, for the last time. It was a humid, perspiring season that was gradually born out of the closeness of August. Autumn came and kept the heat of summer and stayed months, creating its own stifling weather. Temperatures remained high and the skies were clear, but the air had the clammy caress of a high fever consuming itself before a fatal chill. There was no wind.
The trees and grass were motionless amidst the heavy, lulling play of shadows and light at the equinox. He had trouble breathing in that steamy fall which was almost jungleÃ¢Â?Â?like in its tenacity and intensity. The days did drag on as long as the nights. Neither promised relief. Time seemed suspended as the orange and yellow autumn months wore on endlessly.
I received a letter that said the unusual heat and humidity were sapping him and so had returned home for the first time in years since his illness. He had changed for me back then when he had first become sick, and I wondered if I would remember him, if he would remember me, in a tender light.
I saw him for the last time when the leaves were still overlong green on the trees, half mottled in blushed hues, and no leaves had yet fallen in that stillness without breeze. The grass was green and unadorned with withered harvest shapes and like the dry grass he was fading.
The last time I saw him alive he was sitting in his kitchen eating a bowl of beans, looking clean but tired, stiff and thin. Looking at him, I remembered him as he once had been years ago. Despite his great age, as the golden autumn haze from the open window shone on his oiled and combed hair, he appeared somewhat younger, his hair was still full and its color dark. Perhaps this was what momentarily belied the years Ã¢Â?Â? I had prepared myself for an almost empty shell, a dry flask of a man, whose voice would be a stranger’s, lacking the familiar intonation and vitality of a healthier man.
Still, I noticed that he had lost weight, that he moved slowly, lifting his spoon to his mouth and placing it back in the bowl carefully, his face shifting in tired lines of wrinkles and loose skin. He was not overjoyed to see me.
We stood there amidst an awkward silence and it was only too easy to leave him after a few moments, a few sentences and a passing hello, this old man I didn’t remember, this sudden stranger whom I had thought I’d known all my life. I said good-bye after awhile and never realized the finality of the word.
When next I saw him, two weeks passed and too late, he wasn’t there, only that stranger’s shell was left behind, lying so still that I almost didn’t believe a man had been there and gone.
At the cemetery I wasn’t the last one glancing back at what once housed him. We left it lying there in a square and deepÃ¢Â?Â?cut hole in the ground. The sky was crystal blue, and bright flowers were thrown in the rich earth of the grave. I could feel the summer still in the air, vaguely commingled with the heavy press of the humid autumn. All around were row on row of gray tombstones, marking the silent places of well and less remembered, the forgotten, dead. The sky remained clear and the ground was green except where the brown scar of the open grave lay. To the right of where his final place would be some workmen dismantled a faded red and green canvas canopy that sagged in the warm air for lack of a breeze.
When we stood about the open grave and waited for the prayer, I couldn’t see the coffin, it was set so deep and smothered beneath a mound of flowers near some white roses where a yellow jacket nudged about. Death wasn’t here, only that which comes after the dying and remains with the living. At that time, as I remember now, it gathered about the congregation of the living who waited to hear the priest give it a voice, not long and drawn out, but quick, like a final gathering reluctantly waiting to see him lowered into the ground. The long box, polished and shining in the afternoon sun, sank slowly into the hole, leaving no afterÃ¢Â?Â?image or memory of him.
A workman, casual and uninvolved, climbed into the grave to extricate the wide leather straps that lowered the coffin.
As the limousines pulled away, like a flotilla of black ships leaving a silent shore where only ghosts remained, I noticed my two young cousins gazing rapt and solemn without tears, at what we were leaving behind. My last sight, as the car turned the narrow curve on the roadway running between the ranked fields of the dead, was the sight of the big mound of brown dirt heaped up beside the grave. I watched tombstones pass until we came to the final gate and entered again the roadways of the living.
It seemed to have come in stages, that final good-bye to him. I remember the funeral itself, the long ride from the corpse house and how I helped carry the body in. The final viewing was over quickly, a turbulence of tears from which only I remained removed. I recall walking about the rooms of the funeral home with my boredom for company. Whatever remorse I felt for his passing escaped me long ago. I couldn’t remember the stranger that lay flat up there in that large room, unmoving and waxÃ¢Â?Â?like and cold like a statue on display. A part of me realized that the mourners’ tears I saw were real, but another part couldn’t help thinking that each of those weepers were performing for each other, submerge themselves in remorse and pity.
I moved about like a judgmental shade, an observing ghost, through those silent halls of the wake house, away from the frail emotions of the viewing room. I noticed that after the initial shock of seeing him dead and laid out, his friends and family spoke loudly, cheerily, and the tears came thereafter in cycles with each fresh bouquet of flowers and wreaths that were brought in and arranged along the walls.
Two days, four times in all, eight hours, was the time allotted for saying good-bye and seeing him propped up there on the pedestal of death, a cold monument and poor indeed. The heavy, cloying odor of dying flowers filled the room and the lights were soft and the carpet worn. I saw the rows of seats, each seat with a crushed and limp cushion, each a reminder of all the countless, patient, and wasted hours spent waiting in vigil over the dead. Death is a waiting business, and that viewing was for most a way of saying good-bye. My good-byes had been said to a living being.
There was no one to watch as they closed the coffin. They, those men who make a living out of directing funerals and dressing in black, ushered us out and into another room, staring blankly at each other, observing our grief. They closed the doors, and we waited in a silence punctured only by sharp wails
and soft tears. They called me after awhile to help carry the wood, to balance the box on my shoulders. When I picked it up outside and we slid it into the dark limousine, the muchÃ¢Â?Â?used hollowed cavern of the hearse, it felt light to me, as if it were empty and the man who was supposed to be inside was somewhere else. I didn’t believe that he was stretched out in the box then. I didn’t believe it afterwards and maybe I do not believe it now. What I realize is that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter at all.
When they called me in the middle of the night and said that he was dead I felt relief. There were no tears and great tragedy where life was going on. I had been aware for a long while that he would die. It had been expected. Maybe that was why he was a stranger, because I had said good-bye long ago. Better that he was dead than the call in the night be a tale of woe for someone else, someone younger or healthier. Still, I was unprepared for the ordeal ahead, that would in turn seem endless and, when it was over, like a flash of light.
I remember the interminable ride in the hearse and carrying him into the church, the ritual of the mass another prolonged good-bye, and the high, deep, sighing- singing that echoed with organ music in the vast and cold confines of the church. We walked in slow cadence, pushing the casket alongside us on its wheeled cart. A white cloth was draped over the wood, and we set the box motionless in the middle of the aisle. It remained there with us, almost as if what was inside lying down was still part of us.
At the end of the mass we walked out in small steps, solemn and stiff, and hoisted him up to carry him down at a slant to the waiting hearse and the waiting ground.
I grasped the smooth polished edge of the box and lifted, feeling the weight hardly at all, and I couldn’t help feeling that I was deceived. The hearse accepted him, and my part of the ritual was over. It had been over long ago when the long autumn began.
Then, as we left that place of the dead and I glanced back to where he had been lowered, I could see only the heaped mound of soil and I couldn’t imagine it as his final resting place. There would be a tombstone there to say that he lived and died, but I wouldn’t be deceived that he lay there. My cousins looked back with me as we drove away from the flat green fields beneath whose trimmed grass skeletons rested. They were young, my cousins, much younger that me. And they didn’t really understand. They thought that we were leaving him, but it was nothing, nothing at all, only a ride to and away from an unfamiliar place. There was nothing there behind us and the man had fled before the wood enclosed him.
The grave fell away behind us, concealed by the turn and curve of the road. When we came to the gate I recalled the smooth feel of the casket standing in sunlight and how the wood looked dark and rich and the casket was closed and sealed. I couldn’t imagine seeing into it, just as I had never seen into the soul of the man we all thought it housed. As we passed out that gate and everyone was silent inside the black car, I didn’t believe that he had ever lived.
I wonder if the man had been real, and I can still see him sitting there in the kitchen, suffering as he died in the humid autumn, the Papa, I thought, hating me for being young and whole and me feeling neither hate, nor love, only indifference.