One Last Thing, Before I Go

Photo by Robert Lawton

They gather at my wake, my family and friends do, and I am surprised to find they are not alone. For in the crowd of mournful faces I spy the many acquaintances I have made along the way, long lost playmates from my childhood, as well as the beautiful women who I recognize immediately as the pretty girls I loved in my youth, each with children not much younger than we were when we courted.

Each of the assembled grievers tell a story, most of which I remember fondly and some I have forgotten with age, stories that make me laugh at how foolish I had been when I was at my most serious and some touching enough to make the eye water at the perceived kindnesses I bestowed upon others without even being aware.

And when the time for remembrances both affectionate and painful has past, my loved ones—and yes, even the acquaintances are loved now—raise a parting glass to wish me safe passage on my unearthly travels to where I do not know and as I feel myself being gently pulled away from this realm, I swim against the current of my final destiny and pass through each body gathered in this place to leave a personalized vivid memory in an effort to ensure I am not forgotten.

©2019 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

ONE MAN’S MEAT

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I tested the ripeness of Mr. Skelly’s soul more than thirty times this evening, all at the insistence of his wife, Tamara, who never left my side for an instant. I tried to explain to her that this was a delicate process that could not be rushed, but my words never reached her, as if her ears were made of cloth. Mr. Skelly’s ash gray body was laid out on the dining room table like a flesh centerpiece, table decorated with the finest cloth and place settings that she could afford.

This wasn’t uncommon. Most people were ignorant of the proper protocol in manners for a matter such as this. They would set out red wine and wafers, or specially baked bread and cakes, and some even brewed their own ales. Those trappings weren’t necessary, born mostly of superstition and old wives’ tales, but had they been presented, I would have tasted the offering.  If for no other reason than to be polite.

Her husband had come to see me some six months earlier. He was skeptical, as most people are when seeking my services, but I never believed in hard selling my skills. It was a matter of faith. Either you believed that I could do what I claimed I could do, or you didn’t. In the end, Mr. Steven Skelly did believe. He revealed to me he had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and wasn’t expected to survive the year. And the diagnosis proved to be accurate.

When I first arrived at her door, Tamara debated whether or not to let me in. Not with me. She debated with herself. A loud conversation, as if both halves of her brain, the logical and the emotional sides, succeeded in separating themselves from one another and exercised shared control over the body. A conversation only the bereaved could have had and still seemed sane.

This was nothing new to me, in fact, Tamara’s discourse with herself counted amongst the tamer exchanges I had been witness to over the past ten years. I remained silent, taking no side in the argument, and was prepared to comply with her decision, either way. If she declined my services, I would have quietly tipped my hat and walked away.

When she quieted down, we stood there, me on her porch, unmoving, and she wedged in between the narrow crack of her door, unspeaking.  Then, she shifted aside slightly, which I took as an invitation to enter, and squeezed past her as politely as I could manage in the limited space provided.

As I stated earlier, Mr. Skelly was laid out on the table in the dining room, dressed in his Sunday best, a Bible laid on his chest with his hands folded upon it.

“Mrs. Skelly, I wish you hadn’t gone through all this trouble—”

“Tamara, please, and it was no trouble at all,” she smiled kindly as she touched her dead husband’s face.

“No, what I mean is, we’ll have to remove your husband’s clothes. I can’t perform my job this way.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought—”

“It’s all right, you didn’t know. How could you know?”

Mr. Skelly was a tall man, a sturdy man, and even cancer couldn’t rob him of that, but it made his dead weight all the more difficult to manage. How Tamara succeeded in dressing him all by herself in the first place was remarkable. Where there’s a will, I suppose. In silence and in tandem, we stripped the corpse, being as respectful to the man who was no longer with us as we could have managed.

“How long?” Tamara asked.

“Excuse me?”

“How long will it take for you to do your…thing?”

“There isn’t a set timeframe for this sort of thing, Tamara,” I took one of her hands in mine, and she let me.

“Most people believe that life and the soul are one and the same thing. This simply isn’t the case. Life ends when the human body shuts down completely. The soul is eternal. The soul doesn’t power the body. If that were the case, we’d all live forever.”

Tamara looked at her husband, hopeful. “So, you mean Steven’s soul is still here, with us?”

“His soul hasn’t released itself from the flesh yet, so yes, in some way, it is still with us.”

Tamara pulled her hand free of my grasp and rushed over to the table and caressed Steven’s face gently. “Honey? Steven? Are you still in there? Can you hear me? Give me a sign if you can hear me!”

I moved behind Tamara, placed my hands on her shoulders and whispered into her ear, “It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.”

She turned on her heels and was in my face suddenly, like an attack dog. Delicate hands balled into fists and pounding on my chest. “Then why are you just standing here? Why aren’t you doing what we paid you to do?  Why aren’t you helping my Steven? I can’t bear to think of him trapped in there like that, helpless!”

Her energy spent, she folded herself into my chest and I held her.

“He isn’t trapped, Tamara. He’s in a transitional stage, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. If you can imagine a spiritual chrysalis, enveloping his soul, molding and shaping his essence into what it needs to become in order to move on, that’s what’s happening now.”

Tamara looked up at me, concerned. “Then shouldn’t you be getting to work now?  Before it’s too late?”

“His soul isn’t ready.”

“But how do you know?”

I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle.  “I’ve been doing this for over ten years now. I just know.”

“And you’ve never been wrong? Never made a mistake? Not once?” Her concern was understandable but unjustified.

“Not once. When his soul is ready, when it reaches the stage just before it emerges in its new form, I’ll do what I’ve been paid to do.”

“You’ll eat his sin?” That question was the one thing that never varied in deliverance, from person to person, job to job, regardless of who said it. It always came out sounding the same. Part skepticism, part hope.

“Every drop of it.”

“And there’ll be no retribution?” she looked up at the ceiling but I understood her meaning.

“No retribution. He’ll move on to a better place and none of his sins will transfer to you.”

“And what about you? You take this all of this on yourself. What happens to you?”

“With all due respect, that’s none of your concern,” I expected an argument. None came.

“Well then,” Tamara straightened up and composed herself.  “Can I interest you in a cup of tea?”

“Tea would be nice.”

She stared at me a long moment, no doubt trying to decipher what made me do what I did. Trying to puzzle out how I came into this profession. But she never asked. I think she knew I wouldn’t be very forthcoming anyway, so she simply shook her head slightly and moved to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

©2011 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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The Space Between

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When I was asked to deliver this eulogy, I was terrified. I am not the best orator in the family, that honor goes to Arthur, my brother, who couldn’t be in attendance because he and his family lived too far away, as opposed to my youngest sister, Ethel, who simply couldn’t be bothered to pack up their families again for a repeat memorial service. You see, we buried my great grandfather Walter two short weeks ago and while I understand the inconvenience, family is family and they should have made it their business to be here, if not to offer support to those of us this passing strikes hardest, then at least out of familial obligation. If it sounds like I’m bitter, I am, and I apologize for burdening you with it but not sorry for voicing the way I feel. That was one of the lessons I learned from the person we’re memorializing today.

This woman gave life to the woman who gave life to the woman who gave life to me and I owe her so much because I have a good life. If it’s true that grandparents give us a sense of who we are and where we come from, then great-grandparents let us know how far we’ve come and the sacrifices that had to be made for us to exist.

Today, as we bid farewell to GiGiMaw Eleanor, I realize the size of the hole left in my heart and in my family. I am truly blessed to have so many strong women in my life and it is extremely rare for a relationship three generations removed to be so crucial and so enduring but then Eleanor was that phenomenal sort of person every single day of her life. And you don’t have to take my word for it, others will come up and tell stories that will make you laugh and fill your hearts with joy and hope. I, on the other hand, wish to tell a different story, one that few of you know but I think it’s time to clear the air of ghosts and secrets from the past.

Eleanor and Walter had two children, a daughter, my wonderful GiMaw Ruth, who is with us today, and her older brother, Ned, who is no longer with us. From the stories Eleanor told me, Ned, the granduncle I never had the honor of meeting, was an active little boy, rambunctious and always full of playful mischief, but he was kindhearted, especially to his baby sister. Always the defender of the weak and a paladin of justice, he had the makings for growing into someone important, someone the world needed.

When he was just six years old he was the victim of a hit and run which cut his life short. Alerted by the neighbors, Eleanor and Walter rushed to the scene of the accident and gathered up their son’s body and immediately carried him home as not to cause a spectacle. They carefully and lovingly cleaned Ned head to toe, dressed him in his Sunday best and placed him on their bed in the space between them and mourned their loss in private all through the night.

This was in a time before the dead were taken to morgues, back when it was the family’s responsibility to take care of funeral arrangements themselves. My great grandparents were poor, like nearly everyone else in town, so these two people, these two parents, dug their son’s grave with their bare hands, wrapped him in his bedsheet and placed his body into the ground, burying his corpse handful by trembling handful.

Eleanor and Walter divorced each other two months later. They were still in their twenties and chose to remain living under the same roof for their daughter’s sake, together but separated. Eighty plus years of sleeping in their marriage bed with a space forever between them where their phantom son lay, sharing an experience that was so painful that they couldn’t risk casting an eye upon the other for fear of reopening a wound that never fully closed.

But as I mentioned, they were private people who managed to keep that pain to themselves and had I not known the story I would have been hardpressed to spot their unhappiness whenever we stopped round for a visit. Up until the end, GiGiMaw Eleanor had more energy and showed more interest in my life and the lives of my children than anyone I’ve ever known. No offense, Mom.

What made my great-grandmother special? So wonderful? As the relative who lived the closest, she was always present, part of our everyday lives in such a tangible way, baking and cooking and babysitting and taking our daughters for surprise days of shopping at the mall.

You impacted my life in so many ways, GiGiMaw Eleanor, helped shape who I am, who my children are. You influenced all of us so greatly and I will always love you and save a special corner of my heart to keep you with me because you held the family together.

And in keeping with your tradition, I wanted you to know that we are not only laying you to rest today. It took some doing but we located Ned’s original burial spot and we’re having your son reinterred with you and GiGPaw Walter in the place he never ceased to exist, in the space between the both of you because family needs to be together.

©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License