It was my first corpse.
It laid there, at the front of the room; Dead.
Beneath fluorescent lighting, flanked by two tall candlesticks; Dead.
It was dead.
He had been alive once, but now— in front of my little-boy-eyes, it was dead.
I starred at it, straining my brain to psychically make it move.
I wanted it to sit up, move a hand, open an eye, blink, suck air;
anything to make the chest rise one quarter of an inch.
But nothing happened.
It was dead, dead, dead. And no wishy-washy little-boy-magic would change that.
Dead of old-age or some old-age related illness, disease, or other such old-age malignity. I was four years in. It was my first corpse. Sitting quietly with my parents, toward the back of the funeral home, I moved very little in the oversized folding chair. Adults kept coming over, remarking to my parents at how well behaved I was. “He’s like a little old man,” they said of me and my childish limbs, folded in tight to my body. They were all preoccupied with the idea that children might cause a ruckus here; An indignity upon the thing lying there in that box. That thing which had once been a friend, a husband, a father, an insurance agent, a man who knew my parent’s parents, a grandfather, a link to the past for so many people— still alive.
I didn’t even want to be there. It all felt so wrong. My mother took me up to the front to see the man I had never known in life; Dead now. Plastic. Wax. Just flesh in a box. A skin tight water balloon filled to the brim by embalming fluid. Like sausage on display in a butcher shop— 99 cents a pound. Those fluorescent lights. I thought it would look nice flanked by some bright green cabbage leaves. My mother knelt down and told me I should say a prayer; “Say something nice to him,” she suggested.
“I wish this never happened to you,” I said to it.
I hadn’t understood
that this sort of thing,
happens to us all, eventually.
“That was very nice,” my mother said, kissing me on my forehead. I looked at the hands. A big golden band around a thinning ring finger. I looked directly up the hairy holes of the nose, once again willing it to breathe again. The mouth seemed stretched out; Blank. Expressionless. It was wrong. It didn’t look right. It didn’t look the way it should have looked. I knew it was wrong. I knew it. This— the thing in that box— it wasn’t right like that.
We walked back quietly, slowly, to our seats in the back of the funeral home— past the big knees and ridiculous looking high heels of the adults. While people talked, sipped coffee, ate tiny cookies in the shape of windmills over clumsy napkins; I proceeded to draw a picture of the casket. A wriggly ghost slinking up from it. I made the ghost look the way I thought the thing in the box ought to have looked. The ghost had a big curvy smile; Eyes wide open. And he was waving with big squiggly fingers to all the people sitting uncomfortably in front of it; The thing in that box; My first corpse.
My older brother and sister saw what I had been drawing and told on me. They thought it was wrong and weird, what I had drawn. And it was. But my parents, I think, understood what I was trying to do. That I was trying to take this world and return it to what I thought it should be. Both my parents took me to meet the widow. They made small talk and then made me show her what I had drawn.
“He’s smiling now,” I said.
The widow bent down; Her wrinkly skin, seeming to crackle as she did so. She took my hand in hers. It felt strange. It was soft, but not smooth; Warm, but with an icy chill. She told me what so many adults liked to tell me, then. “You’re a very talented artist,” she said. “Would you mind very much if I keep this drawing?”
I didn’t want to give it away. But I thought she needed that awful thing to be made right more than I did. So I handed it to her and returned to my seat, drawing it again; For myself. And this time, I made it smile, in that box. And the ghost said, “I luve yo,” to all the people sitting so uncomfortably in front of it.