The Ramp

It didn’t rain on the day of the funeral, which was unexpected. Rather, it was a crisp, cool day with a brisk breeze. The sky was still laden with clouds, but the sun peeked through from time to time. It was a perfectly acceptable day, all in all, despite the giant hole in the ground, my father’s body in a box, and the social demands of a hundred or so gawking well-wishers.

My mother had insisted I bring a windbreaker, but I refused, and we bickered as we prepared to leave the house. I had driven up from Louisiana with only a light sweater in tow. I packed hastily, and managed to forget that spring in New Orleans and spring in North Carolina are two completely different seasons.

She had a coat for me, but it was three sizes too large, and looked terrible with my black fit-and-flare dress. I refused to put on another layer, because my outfit was perfect for a funeral, and I wanted to look my best as I met with family and friends. He deserved well-dressed representation. It was a way to prove to the world that he’d done a satisfactory job raising his only child. I would be proof of his good works, if only through my refusal to wear an unattractive piece of outerwear. In the end, I took the coat to assuage her, but left it in the car.

We took separate cars, and on the drive to the cemetery, I turned the stereo up and sang along to Donovan’s “Atlantis.” He owned the record as a teenager, and when I stole his records in high school, he sagely advised me to give that particular tune a listen. We talked a lot about ancient legends when I was a girl, and the song has always made me feel close to him. I needed to know he was with me still, that peculiar, stubborn, restless old man. The Spotify channel was on shuffle, and the next song to play was “Trude” – a song I remembered rocking out to 15 years ago or more. I’d forgotten the name, and had been looking for it ever since. It was my sign that he really was there. He gave me a song, and I sang along to it at top volume as I whipped my rental car into the driveway behind his hearse.

The funeral was. People were there. Hands were shaken, stories were shared, hugs were given. I endured the “Oh, how you’ve grown!” and “What do you do now?” and “Are you still in New Orleans?” with what I felt was great patience and restraint. He taught me that. My mother, of course, was late. She didn’t want to be there, she hates funerals, and she wasn’t afraid to let the general populace know her true feelings on the matter. She doesn’t like black, so she wore a navy suit and black sneakers. She received unfortunate news regarding my father’s estate (or lack thereof) before arriving, and had he been alive, he would have been quite amused at her indignation. In a stage whisper upon her arrival, she angrily told me that she was going to pee on his grave. It was the highlight of the event, as far as I was concerned. I sat next to my paternal grandmother, my Nana. I couldn’t cry. The priest was ancient, and lost his place several times. Afterwards, I talked with my cousins, all grown up and lovely. I felt lucky to be with them. We noticed that he was buried directly across from the only guy in town with whom he’d always had beef. That seemed appropriate, since it was April 1st. Our family shares a love of schadenfreude, and we snickered there between their graves.

Then we went to lunch, my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my uncle by friendship, my father’s best friend. So funny, the four of us sharing tater tots and cheeseburgers, a wheel missing its spoke. It was a nice lunch, though, all things considered.

The next day, the rain fell in sheets, and the temperature dropped another ten degrees. I was unprepared, but stoic. He taught me that, too. We had somewhere to go, though I can’t remember where that was anymore, and my mother needed help taking things out to the car. I’d brought three pairs of shoes with me from the Deep South – black cloth heels, scuffed up black TOMS shoes with no tread, and black flip flops. None were appropriate, but after some deliberation, it seemed that the flip flops were the smartest choice for the weather.

At the front of a house stands a wooden ramp. It was built for my father by a charitable organization in the year following his amputation. The structure is sturdy and adequate for its purpose, but it takes up a large swath of the front yard, eliminating access to the house’s front steps. There’s no choice but to use the ramp to enter the house, but the organization failed to add traction to the ramp. In short, it’s good enough for a wheelchair, and dangerous for pedestrians. I expressed this concern to my mother the first time I encountered it years ago, and then again upon arrival this trip. By now, the wood had grown slightly slimy from falling leaves and other debris, making it even worse. She brushed me off as being dramatic.

Walking out of the house in the rain, noting my flip flops, the standing water, and the already slippery ramp surface, I held on to the railing and walked very cautiously. Even so, I fell. I was shocked, and angry. Despite my precaution, I’d failed. Even worse, I told her that it could happen, and it did! Bruised and shaken, I got up and went to the car, then came back up the ramp and into the house. I told my mother that I’d just fallen on the ramp. We should take it down. She’s going to fall one day, and no one will be there to help! She looked at me like I was a lunatic, and walked away to finish whatever she had been doing.

I shook off my irritation, grabbed a second load to go to the car, and walked back outdoors again. This time I went even more slowly, holding fast to the railing, one firm step after another. But at the same place in the ramp, I completely lost control. It felt like the ground was being pulled out from under me. No matter what I did to hold on, this was not something I could stop. But still, I clutched that railing for dear life. My feet flew in front of me, my arm scraped down the wooden railing, and I landed square on my tailbone, the jolt shocking the breath out of me. My raincoat hood slipped down, and there I sat, in a puddle of water, arm bruised and bleeding, chilled to the bone, all the things I’d been carrying flung across hell’s half acre, down the ramp and into the yard.

And so I screamed into the rain. God fucking damn it. Fuck this. Fuck you. You stupid piece of shit ramp and this stupid fucking yard and this goddamn rain and all of this fucking shit go to hell and…

Then I sat there. I sat there until I was soaked through and shivering, and I wailed into the storm at the top of my lungs. Eventually, the front door opened, and my mother was beside me, checking me over like I was a Little once again. She told me she was sorry, so sorry, and she didn’t want me to hurt, and she’d do anything to make sure I was OK. That she was talking about more than a fall went unspoken.

So I got back up, and together we gathered all of the things I’d dropped, and took them to the car together. On the way back, I took the ramp barefoot. She walked with surety in the same ugly black sneakers she’d worn the day before.

Later, she blamed my falls on my shoes, which sounds logical, but isn’t true. I live in a rainy town, and walk around in those flip flops regularly. That ramp is dangerous. It’s going to hurt someone. It already has. But even now, I don’t have the strength to argue. That was his job, and now his time has passed. We have to let the world tilt as it will, and spill us across hell’s half acre if that’s what it wants to do. It doesn’t do a soul good to hold on too hard. I have to learn to let go.

No Use Crying…

My grandfather died when I was 17. It was quick, though not painless. I stood in his hospital room on the night he died, listening to his ragged breath and morphine-colored moans, thinking that maybe there was still hope. Maybe he’d get better. I was young, and I know now, monumentally stupid.

The visitation was like a scene from the beginning of a horror movie. The funeral home was old, dusty and dimly lit. The smell of lilies was stifling, and I didn’t know it then, but the emotional charge of the room and its inhabitants would have been similarly overpowering for me as an empath. I felt wobbly and faint. My adult relatives stood in small groups, speaking in whispers. My cousins – all under 10 at the time – played around. The old ones were quiet and mostly respectful, but two of the younger ones ran around and yelled in the room where Granddaddy’s coffin sat.

“Anna, come look!” one little cousin cried again and again, “He just looks like he’s sleeping!”

I wanted to scream at him to stop being so nonchalant about the gaping hole in my heart. But he didn’t know. It wasn’t his fault. I hated him then, though. I hated them all, save for one. If we’re going to get truthful here, that didn’t change much over the years. It dampened a bit, became less about dislike and more about disregard. And there were other factors, general abuses on their part, personality and cultural conflicts, age differences all around. But in general, the way I felt about all but one of them at my grandfather’s funeral is how I feel now – I wrote myself out of their story on that day.

I don’t feel compelled to change my mind, either, especially when I remember how pressured I felt to look at Granddaddy there in his box. The kids were running up and down the center aisle of the funeral home, completely unchecked by their parents, as always. They were yelling at me to look, look at his face, look and see – he’s only sleeping! So I did. And what I saw was nothing. An orange, waxy mask that looked nothing at all like the Granddaddy I’d seen just two days before, alive and moaning in his hospital bed.

This thing stretched out before us was an abomination. Lips too red, skin too tan, suit too crisp, hands too plump. He didn’t look like he was asleep. He didn’t even look like he was dead. He didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before, or would want to see again. This thing took my grandfather’s face away from me, in memory and in real life. In my memory, Granddaddy is an empty coffin, a silver money clip, a cheesy red white & blue polo shirt worn every Fourth of July, a toothpick clenched between grinning teeth, the juicy pink insides of a perfectly-cooked ribeye, the softness of a gold toe sock, a cheap hairbrush being dragged through my tangled curls, a perfect paper airplane that would always outfly my own rough interpretation, the first desperate fizz of a Cheerwine as the top unscrewed, the sound of a Lazyboy recliner popping back.

I fainted during the burial. They put me in the back seat of one of the limos, and when the family got back to my grandparents’ house, I was put to bed in their bedroom. There I curled up on Granddaddy’s side of the four poster bed, alternating between sobbing and greedily breathing in the remains of his scent on his pillow. My little cousin, the one that I love, stuck to me like glue that day and for many more after. She insisted that she be allowed to hang out with me, and she napped beside me on Nana’s side of the bed as I cried.

Eventually, Nana came into the room to check on us. She stood over me, looked down, and angrily spat out, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” The nicest person I knew, the woman who fell in love with my grandfather at first sight as a teenager, who threw me ice cream “tea parties,” and always had time to hear out my heartbreaks, that woman was gone forever that day. I guess to her, my behavior was just as unacceptable as my cousins’ had been for me. I don’t know. We’ve never really gotten along since that moment, and she’s gradually gotten more and more bitter over the years. It’s been a couple of years since we last talked, and that’s how this particular story ends. It’s not fair – but that’s life.