Post Road Magazine #23

How to Remember the Dead

Curtis Smith


A Saturday afternoon, and my seven-year-old is uncharacteristically quiet. He sits on the couch, his hands clasped. He says he is not sick, yet he doesn't want to go to the playground, doesn't want to throw the football or Frisbee, doesn't want to play a game or draw or build Legos. "No, thank you," he says when I offer to turn on the TV. "I just want some alone time." Ten minutes later, I'm ready to engage him again. I will offer a trip to the local zoo. Or a hike to see if the falling leaves have exposed the nest of the bald eagle we've spotted along our trail. Perhaps just a trip to K-mart to ogle the toy-aisle goodies. I return to the living room to discover my son on my wife's lap. He's burrowed his face into her shoulder, his sobs muffled. She holds him close and whispers everything is all right.

My heart tightens. Our boy is not the crying type. He takes his lumps in hockey and karate without complaint. He doesn't whine about school or playground cliques. If we tell him a desired item is too expensive, he won't mention it again. I rub his heaving back. "What's wrong, bud?" I ask.

He holds out a hand and unclenches his fingers. In his palm, a silver half-dollar, Walking Liberty, the coin's relief worn smooth, tarnished brown in its nooks. For a moment, I'm perplexed. I turn it over once more before noting the date. 1936. The year my father was born.

My friend is dying. The disease has spread. Lungs, bones, bladder—little has been spared. He lies in the bed from which he will never rise, his bodily functions shunted to plastic bags. I pull up a chair. He remains lucid, and we talk as men often do—teasing, joking, remembering. We exchange stories of our children and the joy they've brought to our lives. His voice fades into a whisper. The hands that guided a kayak through white water and built a house in the woods struggle to unscrew his water bottle's cap. He asks if I would say a few words at his funeral. I tell him I'd be honored.

My son prefers documentaries to cartoons. War, science, nature—give him archival footage and a passionate narrator, and he will grow entranced, his toy of the moment abandoned by his side. He drinks in facts and repeats them later with eerie precision. He will tell you the different planes Manfred von Richthofen flew. He will relate the cautionary tale of Thomas Andrews and his unsinkable ocean liner. He will break down the wind speeds that separate an EF3 tornado from an EF4.

Tonight, it's Vesuvius and doomed Pompeii, and as it often happens,

I, too, become rapt by another mismatch of man's ambitions and nature's might. A suffocation of searing ash and gas. A burial beneath a pumice flow. A decay of flesh, skeletons sealed in ashy tombs. Years pass, the city forgotten, the millennia marked by man's ever-increasing skill at killing his brothers. Then discovery, bones at first, complete skeletons cowering against death's blind rush.

A new technique emerges, plaster injected into the hollowed spaces, the hardened product as detailed as a mold. Here are no longer skeletons; here are silent and tragic stories. The beggar and his sack of alms. The gladiators shackled in their cell. The mother huddled over her infant daughter.

A commercial breaks the spell. I consider the possible haunting of these images, and I switch to the hockey game, the only sport that interests my son. The game is exciting—a breakaway and an acrobatic save, a crashing along the boards, a melee at the net that ends with overmatched referees struggling to keep peace.

My son looks up to me. "Daddy, can we go back to Vesuvius?"

I park in front of my friend's house. I'm nervous today. His end is near; he has days, perhaps a week. His wife thanks me and shows me to his room. The hospice nurse has taped his morphine pump to his hand. He manages a smile and says he'd share the good stuff if he could.

We talk about the students we knew as children now grown with children of their own. When his mouth goes dry, he sips water, then asks if I'll hold the waste can while he weighs the necessity of vomiting. As I hold the can, I recall the hot summer day we tore shingles off his roof, the morning we spread the concrete foundation of his garage. I joke, reminding him we've had our share of barroom escapades, and this wouldn't be the first time I'd seen him retch.

The nausea passes, but it's not a good day. When the spasms come, each breath becomes a struggle. He sucks his chapped lips, presses the morphine pump. The pain is palpable, a dark energy that ebbs from his body. He grows tired. I stand, and with the perspective switch, I realize I will never see him again. I want to say goodbye, but I can't. We shake, a grasping of thin, taped fingers. "See you around, brother," I say.

He smiles. "Or maybe not."

My son and I arrive at the church to light a candle for my father's birthday, the second he will miss. The candle is my son's idea—he and my father shared a bond I couldn't have predicted. The hell-bent toddler calmed at his grandfather's side, fascinated by his visitor's cane and bald head. They shared odd silences—my father with his malfunctioning hearing aids, my son with his lack of understanding—each content to sit near the other, my son often mesmerized by the glide of his fingers over the old man's papery skin.

All is quiet inside the church. Despite my best intentions, we've missed my father's birthday, even his birthday week, done in by colds and hockey practices, by the Indian summer afternoons where a playground romp seemed the most responsible course of action. Today, the low autumn sun strikes the stained glass, the cavernous space awash in light. The candles are arranged on a rack off the altar. I give my son money to slide into the collection box. Whispering, I guide him through the process, my hands not far as he uses a wooden stick to transfer a flame to a candle's wick. The flame catches. The candle's frosted glass shimmers.

I'm leading us to a nearby pew when my son stops me. "The book, Daddy," he whispers.

Beside the candle rack, a journal rests atop a metal stand. I offer my son the pen resting in the pages' opened nook. "No, you," he says.

He wedges himself between me and the bookstand, the page just below his eye level. I jot the date, and after a moment: For our father and grandfather. We miss you.

I put down the pen, but my boy tugs my sleeve. "And for the people of Pompeii," he whispers. "I want to remember them, too."

I pick up the pen and add: And a special thought for those who died at

Pompeii.

He smiles. "That's good, Daddy."

We settle into a pew. Above the altar hangs a giant plaster Christ on the cross, slumped shoulders and bony ribs, a crown of thorns for his head. The sculpture once terrified my son, and in his lifted gaze, a bit of that fear remains. I put my arm around his shoulders and study his prayer-clasped hands. My father was a complicated man, as stern and hard as he was loving. Through my son's eyes, I've been granted a new perspective, that rarest of gifts, and I join him in clasping my hands. Silence, but we're not alone. Nearby, a woman kneels, the beads of her rosary slipping between her fingers. In another pew, an old man, his face hidden in his hands.

I consider the suffering etched onto Christ's face. I think of the dead, and I think of the deeper level of death, the death born when all those I ever knew will be gone too, the earth populated by strangers. Later tonight, a priest will snuff our candle, and its dying whiff will rise to the high ceiling. There it will mingle with the smoke from other candles, each lit for a prayer or soul I will never know.

My boy stands. "Ready, Daddy?" he asks.

We head outside, squinting in the cold sun. He slips his hand in mine.

I receive the news that my friend has died on a Friday morning. I call in sick. I have no desire to spend the day in the building where we taught together for so many years. I'm writing in the dim morning light, the sun not yet above the trees, when I hear the slap of bare feet on the stairs. "Daddy?" He halts on the last step and considers me through weary eyes. He pulls at the hem of his skull-and-cross-bone pajamas. "What're you doing here?"

"I'm going in a little later." I rub his head. It's my second lie of the day, but my guilt-sensitive heart is unbothered. "What do you want for breakfast?"

Together, he, my wife, and I enjoy an unhurried morning. We eat waffles and talk about Vesuvius. He picks up the half dollar from the end table. "Still thinking about Grandpa?" I ask.

"Some." He returns the coin to the table. "What made me sad was that I know I miss him, but sometimes I have trouble remembering him." The bus comes, but instead of hustling out, we drive to school today.

On the way, we talk about how my father would be proud of the young man his grandson has become. We recount the ways my boy made the old man laugh and the games the two of them liked to play. When we reach the school, our son is smiling. His pack slung over his shoulders, he approaches the entrance, a journey made with a friend he meets along the way. In a heartbeat, he disappears into the throng.

I wake early, my night beset by odd dreams. The service starts at 2:00, almost eight hours, a chunk of time that this morning seems suddenly vast. In my office, I sip coffee and revisit the words I'll offer at the funeral. Soon, the house stirs, the Saturday-morning chatter of my wife and son. I want to join them, but I need to finish my work. I cover my ears, a whispered reading that resonates in my head alone. I am not a poet, but this morning I feel the poet's burden of weighing each word before committing it to the final draft.

Kisses are exchanged before my wife and geared-up son leave for hockey practice, but even in our now-silent home, I find myself distracted, unfocused by the familiarity of these rooms. I don my hat and coat and head out for a walk. I pass backyard play sets, nod hello to a neighbor raking the season's last leaves. A bike rider zooms past. In the air, the scent of wood smoke. Later today I will rise into a pulpit and gaze upon scores of teary faces. I will stifle my emotions and share my thoughts on the gift of remembering the dead. A man's deeds must outlive his flesh, his acts of doing a brand of kinetic energy yet to be understood by physicists. Death is one's final ripple in this sea, a current felt most deeply by family and loved ones before radiating in exponential and unfathomable ways through all mankind. I hold little hope for an afterlife, but perhaps this echoing of days well-lived is heaven enough.

I head home. I'll brew another cup of coffee and revisit my eulogy. There is time, and while I will never pin down the words in my heart, I can at least make them shine a little brighter.

 Copyright © 2016 | Post Road Magazine | All Rights Reserved