The Irish call it a wake. People in Alabama call it visitation.
It is a ceremony for the living, held in the presence of the dead. A family stands like deer in the headlights as others shuffle by, hands extended, hugs offered. A surreal numbness. Asleep and awake. Time pauses, hesitates, hovers like a feather on an imperceptible breeze.
It is early and the line is long. I expected that. He was well-known and well-liked. I take my place behind a friend, a friend of this friend. We swap stories between starts and stops. Stories are the life, after all. Tales true and untrue, embellished or plumbed on the mark. They keep the memory for as long as they are told. Longer if someone takes the time to write them down. A life is brief. Words are the substance of eternity.
I turn over the words in my mind as we approach. Lift them like smooth stones from the creek bottom. Feel their heft. Discard some. Put a few good ones in my pocket. Keep one or two of the very best in my hand.
First, the wife. A natural Southern beauty who has lost a partner she has loved since high school. Built a business. Raised a family. Maintained a quiet gracefulness throughout all these last months-weeks-days-hours-minutes-seconds. She thanks me for coming. Her eyes radiate weariness in waves like heat from Alabama asphalt in August.
“I’m very sorry,” I say.
The son is a big strapping guy, broad-shouldered and handsome. Strong handshake, pretty wife. Recently passed the Bar. The future will be much brighter than the present.
“I’m sorry about your dad,” I say.
Then momma. I have met her on a few occasions, but I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with her.
I am not prepared for momma.
“Ma’am I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m –”
She stops me cold. “Of course I remember you.”
And then a remarkable thing. This sweet little lady I hardly know puts her arms around me and lays her head on my shoulder.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I told him, ‘you can’t go before me.’ It’s not right. It’s not supposed to be this way.”
What does a man say to such as this?
Should I quote some cherry-picked Bible verse suitable for the occasion? “Let not your heart be troubled…”
Perhaps a platitude. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God must still have something important for you to do.”
Maybe something just downright stupid, like “I know how you feel.”
I am at a loss. A man who places such value in words is without a good one. Hands empty, pockets turned-out.
“Yessum,” I say.
It’s the best I can do in the moment. It’s the best I can do now.