Monday, February 1, 2010

A Southern Mourning, Cowboy Style

It's been a cold January. The whole winter has been, really. A dark cloud hung over my family after Thanksgiving when my Uncle Jim was diagnosed with leukemia. He was hospitalized right after his diagnosis to begin more tests and treatments. It's as if he took a nose dive health-wise during this time. His immune system went extremely low and his struggles began. He was in the hospital for about 35 days when they were getting him ready to go home for a week before he was to go to Vanderbilt to prepare for a transplant when his body caught an infection that he didn't have the strength to fight off. He was in ICU for several days on a ventilator, on all the antibiotics, anti fungal and blood pressure meds they could give him. And on Monday night, after my visit on Sunday, he gave up his fight, and, as us Christians say, the Lord called him home. God wasn't taken by surprise, he wanted Uncle Jim to drive in His wagon train.

How do I eulogize a man that, since childhood, I had a personal relationship with? How do I accept his passing? I'm still trying. He and I were like kindred spirits, both raised in a strict, very religious, home, by strict disciplinarian parents but both very much rebels without a cause. We each stood out like sore thumbs within our families.

His family had planned his funeral in the town which he lived, where he was born, grew up all his life and remained living. If you didn't know him, you knew someone kin to him or knew of him. That's one of the sweet things about a small town. He wasn't so much a church going man. I think he had his relationship with God, as most do in their own terms. I think he believed that God would do His job and Jim would do his. And he trusted that. Even in his darkest hours. I think Jim's form of worshiping God was being out in nature with Him. He thrived best there.

The night of Jim's visitation was one that the small town funeral home (they had several) couldn't have really been prepared for. There were people there, coming to pay their respects to him and to his family as they got off work. Many of them reflecting the community for which this was, a true farming community. You saw cowboy boots, cowboy hats, belt buckles worthy of the WWF championship and you saw overalls. Yes, overalls. It was very picturesque of the culture of the area. And it was real. And it was sweet. There were over 300 people that registered that came that night. They were wrapped around every possible crevice of the funeral home. The tribute continued.

I met a man that I found talking to my aunt who has advanced Alzheimer's. I have no idea what she was saying to him and as he left her I stopped him and admired him for talking to her and let him know that she probably didn't make any sense because of her condition and he said she made perfect sense. I went on to introduce myself as Jim's favorite niece and he said that he and the man he pointed to still in the line were in the National Guard with Charlie. He went on to reminisce of his fondness for him. I told this man that I had even forgotten his name was Charles and I couldn't figure out why the funeral home had his full name as I thought everyone only knew him as Jim. He said, "Oh, well, he was Charlie in the Guard." Maybe Uncle Jim thought if someone called him Charlie, he'd immediately know that person was from the Guard. The military has a way of changing your identity.

As a beautiful tribute, there were pictures of Jim and family posted on boards, every one of them where Jim was having a great time. The man lived for fun, I will give him that. Aunt Sabrina had his Head Scout jacket and cowboy hat hanging next to his casket. She also had his saddle and blanket sitting next to that. It was indeed, beautiful, like he had done everything himself. Amidst the sea of flowers that amazed the eyes, there were many arrangements that touched the heart and were great works of art and many were just beautiful tributes and sweet sentiments sent from those Uncle Jim had a connection with or my Aunt Sabrina or his children. There were some wagon wheels, one in particular had two missing spokes. That was from my mother's family. It is symbolic of my Uncle Gordon and Uncle Jim, the two missing spokes of my mother's siblings. There was a beautiful tray that had a horse at a trough with plants all around it from Uncle Jim's veterinarian, never seen anything like that before. There were the Alabama A's, many masculine arrangements with tropical flowers, and amazing planters. When you see these kinds of arrangements sent in honor of your loved one, it is overwhelming. Do not underestimate the comfort and thoughtfulness that flowers can do for someone that is hurting.

The next day the funeral was at my Aunt Sabrina's church, Bethany Baptist Church in Horton, Alabama, the community my uncle lived in. It looked as though this really very nice, traditional yet new church was set smack dab in the middle of all this farm land. Jim's family planned a simple yet meaningful service. My cousin Sherry sang two songs acapella. She was flawless! I was amazed as I didn't even know the girl could sing! The pastor sang Amazing Grace in the traditional arrangement, some sang along. One of Jim's friends, James, this blind Jewish man that Jim knew through the Alabama Wagon Train gave a beautiful eulogy. He spoke of Jim's earnestness to keep everyone safe on the rides, especially him. He said Jim always seemed to be worried about him. I began to know my uncle's heart a little deeper. He told of the time that Jim and Sabrina took him all the way to Minnesota for a ride that was taking place up there. Well, Jim was probably looking for something to do. He ending his eulogy with -they were always looking for how much further to camp where they can rest. It was always "4 more miles".... Jim is at camp and we have 4 more miles. To finalize this beautiful send off, my Uncle Ray led his brothers and sisters in an old, most like post civil war hymn, "He's My Best Friend." Hearing the tune, the twangy Southern voices sing sweetly this hymn was a very moving experience. It was their send off for their brother, in their way.

Emotional, sadness that cannot seem to let up, the family leaves the sanctuary to escort the casket to the hearse or so I thought, when in actuality, the casket was placed on the back of a buggy which my Uncle Jim had built himself. The driver took it in the pouring rain and sleet to it's final resting place. We gathered in the rain for the final prayer and dismissal. With our umbrellas dripping, sleet that had begun to bounce around and our shoes that were sinking in the ground, we made our way back to the church.

The attendees for the funeral were invited to lunch provided by the church women. What I experienced here is like that you hear in some stand up routine of a comedian making fun of Southerners, Baptists and funerals. We arrive in the fellowship hall and find about 75 different dishes AND a dessert table and the meal wouldn't be complete without tea, sweet and unsweet which was sweet anyway. There was chicken, ham, chicken casseroles, potatoes of many kinds, vegetables singular, salads, greens, and have you ever had cornbread salad? The dessert table was filled with coconut cakes, fruit things, fried apple pies that were critiqued personally by my mother, the fried apple pie queen. The extent of what it took to prepare a meal for my mourning family touched me deeply. I had intended on the family being together for lunch that day but wasn't sure how it was going to happen until I found out this meal was planned. Never underestimate the comfort of food to someone hurting. Many times it take more effort to prepare a meal for yourself than you're able to do especially if you are emotionally exhausted and under duress. I am speaking from experience.

It was wonderful that we all got to eat, got to chat, reflect, visit and relax and not have to worry about anything. I am grateful for the women of Bethany Baptist Church of Horton, Alabama. There are many that laugh at the covered dish and how it is revered, but I hope it's a long time before I need it again.

Thank you Uncle Jim for visiting me in the hospital when I had my tonsils taken out. I was only three but I remember you and Uncle Gordon trying to raise the bed up and half scared me to pieces. That was back when you hand cranked those beds.

Thank you too, Uncle Jim, for taking me to the Talledega 500 for the first time. I think I was like 13. I was already showing my rebel teenager side and you exposed me to a little bit of the world that it's likely Mom wouldn't have wanted me to see. Thank you for getting sober before you took us all home. I think the infield had cleared out by that time and there wasn't any more traffic on the highway. It was the next year that was most memorable, I just had to sunbathe in the infield and ended up going home with what turned out to be sun poisoning. You were worried that Mom would be mad.... well, that wasn't anything new. Sun poisoning visited me some years later and would remind me of Talledega and you, once again.

So as the Cowboy Prayer was prayed and they told of you riding off into that last sunset, I began to accept the finality of it all, the bitterness that remains and memories of you, and the lesson of 'make your life fun, you won't be here forever.'