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Sweet sorrow

It was a great funeral. Daddy would have loved it. We told ourselves we were prepared for his death. A visit to Nashville just a month earlier found him gaunt, gray and unable to eat. The cancer had spread from lungs to esophagus, and X-rays showed a suspicious spot on his kidney. Even then, he got up every morning, split and buttered the biscuits, set out the sorghum molasses, made the coffee and dressed in pressed slacks and a crisp shirt. Our daddy took pride in looking good and would have never let a guest go hungry.

So we returned to Tennessee to bury him, barely a month later. We had missed the worst of it. He'd entered hospice then checked himself out to go home to his own bed and television. His wife told us he couldn't eat even a bite of Jeanette's good banana pudding. She cried when she described how small he'd shrunk, how when she asked him if he needed anything, he barely moved and just said, in a weak voice, "Let me be." Defiant to the end, he went without once uttering the words death, dying or goodbye.

We decided the Kirby Brothers up in Bowling Green should handle the body and the funeral, since Daddy would be buried in the old city cemetery there, next to Mammaw and Grandaddy in the Carpenter plot. Having outgrown their downtown funeral home years ago, the Kirbys had a shiny new brick home out on Small House Road, bordered on one side by the flat, treeless new cemetery, on the other by a truck farm with a produce stand.

I was the first to arrive, photo and comb in hand, charged with the task of making sure his hair was right. Daddy was a dandy with a fine head of hair who would've hated being laid out with it slicked back or combed over in styles he disdained. A kind man in a suit showed me the way to the chapel and offered a bowl of water. The hair wasn't pliable as in life, but we managed to ruffle it up a bit, adding the only touch besides a good-looking suit and tie that made this body faintly resemble my father. It didn't take long to realize the problem, the thing that made him virtually unrecognizable. He wasn't smiling. His eyes weren't crinkled in laughter, leaking quick tears. He was a rosy man gone ivory in death.

The guests arrived and we set to visiting -- old Kentucky neighbors, Nashville friends, second and third cousins, even a high-school buddy, James, carrying a photo of himself and our dad leaning against the Plymouth Daddy proudly owned back in 1940. A big man, James wiped away tears as he handed over the fragile photo. Our daddy looked like a movie star, his eyes shining silver blue even in a faded black-and-white photograph.

Around 2, a power outage in the south end of town took out the lights at Kirby Brothers Funeral Home, a fine building with no windows and, apparently, no supply of candles or flashlights. Aunt Sybil's three teenage grandchildren, down for the funeral from Louisville, had just stepped up to the open casket when the lights blew. Jeanette, near blind in broad daylight from cataracts, had just entered the building and had to be led by the elbow to a seat. For 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, then an hour, we milled about in the dark like blind mice, whispering to match our voices to the subdued light.

Finally, laughter erupted in the far corner of the hallway. James and some of Daddy's buddies slapped each other on the shoulder and threw their heads back. "Ain't no way ol' Bill Carpenter's gonna let 'em take him," hollered James. "Yep, Billy got the last word," yelped another. They were friends who knew our dad to be a masterful practical joker. Before the Lord took him, he'd have his way with all of us.

The service was sweet and sorrowful. The old city cemetery glowed brilliant green in the shimmering afternoon heat. Just as our hearts began to sink with the lowering of the casket into the red clay earth, a mockingbird trilled a perfect lilting tune overhead. Our hearts lifted and we retired to the Glendale Baptist Church where the ladies of the church fed us a home-cooked meal as we savored our final minutes together in memory of Daddy.

It was a great funeral, a fine feast, a perfect day in a place filled with a rare and precious affection. Our daddy would have loved it.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

This piece was published in October 2001.

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