‘A question of honor’: a healing piece of writing for Colleen

We know that the storytelling we do is effective and will stand the test of time when we feel good as we finish a chapter. In fact, it can be downright cathartic.

That’s how my longtime friend Colleen Amos felt when she finished the following story. The heat we’re experiencing now in the Midwest was of the same intensity or worse when Colleen buried her father twenty years ago. When you can make the reader feel like they’re in the scene, experiencing it just as you were, you have more than succeeded in telling your personal chapter. This tale will be something that her daughter will treasure long after Colleen herself is put to rest.

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I buried my father twenty years ago today. It was the hottest day in the recorded history of mankind and the day I learned a valuable life lesson about honor.

The two days following his passing were a whirlwind of activity.  My Type-A personality was operating in overdrive doing what I do best — planning, list-making, and organizing.  Admittedly, I’d not always honored my father well in life; I was determined to make it up to him now in death.

Overcome by a need for coffee, I stopped in at the local café and heard someone call out my childhood nickname. There they were, my father’s “posse” of good, old boys.  I knew they knew I was in town but I’d managed to elude them so far.  They had questions — questions to which they already knew the answers. I grabbed my coffee, plopped down in the empty chair and steeled myself for the southwest Missouri version of the Inquisition.

Are the boys coming?” (No)  “Why are you burying your daddy in town?  You know he wanted to be buried with his mother’s people.” (His mother’s people are buried on top of a bluff accessible only by a 75-degree incline, a pair of ruts, waist-high poison ivy, and snakes.  Not doing that.) “I hope you’re burying him in overalls.  You know he never wore the new Keys you sent him for Christmas.” (Nope, coat and tie.) “What time are you feeding?” (Not staying at the house, not expecting a crowd, not feeding.) “Who’s doing the speaking?” (A young, local pastor. I’d wanted to do it but I knew that was something women “didn’t do”.)  And last, but not least, the question I’d been dreading for two days.  “Who’s carrying your Daddy?”  I mumbled something about “calling the Gann cousins”, grabbed my coffee and beat a hasty retreat.

Before the advent of suit-clad pall-bearers and cemeteries with roads, it was customary for family members and/or friends to “carry” the casket from the cemetery gate to the gravesite.  Generally the family selected certain people to help with this — it was an honor to be asked.  If the deceased was well-loved or prominent, folks would volunteer to help.  Refusing a volunteer was a small step beneath the Unpardonable Sin. I knew the “boys” wanted me to ask them, but any participation by this motley crew of coffee cronies did not appear in the vision I’d carefully cast.

Burying Day arrived at last and the real temperature was well into the 100’s before noon.  The sky wasn’t blue; it was a shiny chrome color. I went to the funeral home and greeted/hugged/shook hands with those few people who made an effort to get out. Now it was time to get ready for the graveside service.   The funeral director helped me tuck the lining into the casket and close and lock the lid; the job of the oldest survivor present. I spent a few moments reflecting on how we’d come to this day, realizing the next time I saw my father’s face would be in another place and time.  Then I walked slowly up the aisle — and there they were, sitting quietly in the back corner.

Six pairs of overalls — the striped kind reserved for Sunday service/weddings/funerals — softly worn but spotlessly clean.  Worn over six hand-starched and pressed white shirts; all “done up”, I learned later, by a saint in a single-wide with a metal roof, solitary electric pole, deep-water well, and a box fan. Six hats on knees — sweat-stained straw Stetsons, or ball caps from auto parts or feed stores. They stood as I got closer and the man on the end stepped out in the aisle.  “We’re gonna carry your daddy today and we’re gonna  carry him high,” he said.  “Oh no,” I protested. “It’s way too hot today.  Someone will get sick or die.  I just can’t bury anyone else today.”

The makeup I’d carefully applied earlier in the day had mostly dripped off in the heat and now the rest was washed away by a sudden wellspring of tears gushing out of that secret place in every daughter’s heart.  A large hand, covered by an even larger white handkerchief, appeared from somewhere and carefully wiped my face, eyes, and nose.  A deep gravelly voice told me “Go fix your face; you don’t want to shame your daddy today.” They left and I troweled on more makeup, hid my eyes (a lost cause) behind oversized sunglasses, and left for the cemetery.

I parked behind the hearse outside the cemetery gate and got out.  The funeral director offered me his arm, but I said, “Let them go on ahead.  You know women never walk in front.” I’d let them know I knew my place and that I realized the best-laid plans of mice, men, and “uppity” daughters sometimes go astray.  I saw a tiny grin or two and heard a couple of quiet snorts. Then twelve probably achy but still-strong knees bent in unison and they lifted my father’s casket up on their shoulders — they would carry him “high”, not by the handles. I followed them up the entire length of the large cemetery to the big cedar tree where the gravesite was located.  I slipped into my seat in the tent and motioned them in under the small shade as well but they were having none of that.  They stood in a semi-circle behind me, outside the tent, bare-headed in the blistering heat.

The rest of the short service was mostly a blur — the swinging censer and the chanting of the ancient words by the Masonic Lodge; the rifle volley and the folding/presenting/receiving of the flag by the VFW; the blessedly brief words of a young local pastor reminding us that Jesus told us not to have troubled and fearful hearts.  It ended with more hugging and handshaking and then everyone was gone but the funeral director and me. My father’s casket was lowered into the narrow but deep grave.  As the eldest representative of the family present that day, it was up to me to toss in the first handful of dirt before the grave was filled in.  I picked up the biggest handful of rocky red clay I could manage and let it run slowly through my fingers onto the top of the casket. It’s a sound I can still hear even now on those nights when sleep doesn’t easily come.

I went back to the motel, turned the a/c down as far as it would go and slept for ten hours.  The next morning was hot again, but at least the sky was blue.  I gathered my things and drove to the local café. The waitress said, “The boys were in early today, they’ve already left for the sale barn.”  “That’s ok,” I said, “I just wanted to leave you this check.  Tell the boys the coffee is ‘on me’ until this runs out.”  “They’ll be tickled,” she said,  “and, oh by the way, they said to tell you to stop by the cemetery on your way out-of-town.”

I drove out to the cemetery once again and walked the length up to the cedar tree.  I looked down and saw what appeared to be some scattered trash but as I drew nearer I realized what it was. I couldn’t help myself, I had to laugh. There were 6 empty, white, foam coffee cups — 3 on each side of my father’s grave.  At the foot was a larger cup with my childhood nickname and the word “HOT” scrawled in pencil. I picked it up and headed for the car.  I put the top down on the little Cavalier, cranked the a/c down and the radio up as was my custom, and headed north.

The hot coffee scalded my throat while tears scalded my eyes as I realized then that “honor” isn’t something you seek, or something you earn; it is something you are given, and not for what you’ve done, but for who you are.  And that all the honor a man needs is to have friends who will carry him “high” on the hottest day in recorded history when his race is run.

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