East of Normal
I dreamed I was asleep
I don’t know that much about what awaits us in the next world. Wait, strike that, I don’t know anything about what’s to come after we drop our bodies, like you just did. I like to think that it’s a world free of worry. (You always did worry so much.) But I don’t know. Maybe they put you in charge of people still living, and you worry for them. Maybe in Heaven it doesn’t hurt to worry.
I do believe in Heaven, some sort of justice, because your last years were staunchly purgatorial. A week ago today I got called to do the two-hour drive home to Kentucky and see you because “it won’t be long now.” Three times the nurses cried wolf inside of two weeks, and three times I made that drive back home. And there you were in that medical bed at the nursing home, your face etched with pain, you more panting than breathing, unable to eat or drink, worn down to nothing, your heart somehow still beating, hands cold, feet like ice. I came, I saw, and I was ready to bid adieu and go back to Nashville, but for some reason I stayed and slept on my sister’s couch.
At 2:45 a.m., the phone rang. You were gone. At long last, after years of arthritis, years of being unable to stand, after years of not knowing who anybody was, years of being lonely, trapped in an outlived body and mind, you were gone.
By 3:15, I was at the nursing home with bleary eyes, furry teeth, and a greasy face, and I was struck by your face; the pain was gone. All gone. You looked 10 years younger —which, let’s be honest, still left you pretty damn old. Your face was much fuller, your brow no longer furrowed. Who knew that you could improve a body so much just by leaving it? And I swear, in your gaping open mouth there were the faintest traces of a smile.
I preached your eulogy — what was it — two days later? Five days ago? It feels like a month ago. You looked good. They’d put your dentures in and your mouth was stretched a little funny because of it, but your hair was done and your outfit was happening. You’d picked it out ahead of time. Way ahead of time. Like years ago. We chose a casket that looked a bit like the wood the dining room table was made of, a deeply dark cherry or burgundy color. A fellow I don’t know sang a couple of hymns you’d picked out. (Years ago, as well.) He was good. And the preacher at the Brier Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church deep in Muhlenberg County, Ky., served as my opening act and the leader of the closing prayer.
There was a lot of food afterward. Every church has a squadron of old ladies who live for bringing food to the church when things like this happen. Southern green beans, chicken and dressing, bean salad, meat loaf, new potatoes, chocolate pie — I get hungry all over again just thinking about it.
When you get this age, you have friends tell you about funny things that happened after soand- so died, how little hellos were called out from the other side. I always thought, oh, that’s nice. And then, my first night home, you came to me in a dream. Some might say, “Oh, that’s just a dream,” but dig this: I was dreaming that I was in bed asleep — people don’t dream they’re in bed asleep! You came to my bedside and woke me with your stirrings as you bent over and hugged me. You looked good. Your hair was done and you were even wearing a little makeup.
And your outfit was happening.