In October of 1947, two young people made a promise to each other. Over the next several years, they would raise a family of three boys and three girls. My dad would end up marrying one of those girls. At age nineteen, my mom gave birth to a baby boy. I suppose that were it not for that promise made back in 1947, there would be no me.
In October of 2000, my grandfather and grandmother were separated for the first time in over fifty years. Over the last two years, his world had shrunk all the way down to a bed in a nursing home. Everyday, a relative would take my grandmother to that nursing home and she would spend the better part of her day sitting beside him. Then at night she would get a ride back to her home ≠ a rundown trailer where two little Chihuahuas danced for joy at her return.
I got the call on Sunday night. I usually talk with my parents about once a week. Since my mom had just called me the night before, I knew something was up when I picked up the phone and it was my dad. When someone is in a nursing home and not in good shape, then hearing that they died does not come as a great shock. However, the sadness that accompanies saying goodbye comes still the same.
It is a three-hour trip to where my grandparents and most of my relatives live. I drove behind my cousin and his wife. They are both around my age. My brother and his girlfriend had left earlier. We got there around 2 a.m. My parents had already arrived in their motor home and had parked in my grandmotherís driveway.
The next morning, we all drove to the funeral home to make arrangements. My grandmother was in a daze as the mortician asked her lots of questions about my grandfather and the family. Fortunately, the rest of my relatives managed to come up with most of the information the guy was requesting. He then passed around a sheet containing the prices of the different caskets and vaults. It ranged from a pine box costing a few hundred dollars to a premium copper coffin costing twelve thousand. This was on top of his standard service cost of three thousand dollars. After we looked over the piece of paper a while, he led us into the room where the caskets were.
If you have ever been involved in the funeral arrangements of someone who has died, then you are probably aware that there are certain times when the fact that they have "really" died intensifies. That first time often comes when you walk into the room of caskets and you are left with a decision. Tears that my grandmother had held back until now ran down her worn face.
We walked around and looked, but there was really no reason to. Most of my motherís side of the family is poor and the "economical" casket was $1,400. As we gave it the once over, we were informed that this particular one was non-sealing. I am the curious type, and gave in to the temptation to "feel" the inside of the casket like I would if I was testing the softness of a bed. This immediately caught the attention of my brotherís girlfriend. She quickly stepped up to me and whispered, "What are you doing?"
My cousin quietly added the rebuttal, "I donít think heís going to care how soft it is."
"I know that," I shot back ≠ slightly embarrassed that I would "give in" to what some funeral directors overly capitalize on. What I was really bothered about, however, was my initial thinking that this casket would not be for me. It was if something deep within me said that I came from a middle class family and deserved a middle class casket. It is times like these that make me question how close to Christís heart I really am. Do I really see people like he did? Am I very humble? And have I even begun to really deal with my own fear of death? Obviously something is up if Iím feeling the inside of caskets to see how soft they are.
Anyway, the thing came in two colors and my grandmother chose blue. We then went to the local floral shop and picked out flowers. After that, we went back to my grandmotherís trailer. Visitation was scheduled for the family at 4:00 p.m. and it would open up to everyone else an hour later.
We talked about my grandmotherís trailer and about how nice it looked since everyone spent an entire weekend last month working on it. Prior to that, the trailer was in really bad shape. I canít believe we waited so long to help out. My SoulForce group (led by the lady I met at WoW2000) was going to Ohio for a conference the same weekend that my family scheduled work to be done on the trailer. I really wanted to go with them, but I am so very glad that I decided to help out on the trailer instead. We had ripped up old carpet and put new down in its place. We had installed a new storm door, light fixtures, furnace, and toilet. Aluminum siding was screwed back down and everything inside and out was given a new coat of paint. This all brought a smile to my grandmotherís face ≠ something I hadnít seen since my grandfather was put in the nursing home.
When 4 oíclock came, we were back at the funeral home. This was a very small town, so the funeral home was just that ≠ a large home. The people who owned it lived right next door. I didnít explore it all that much, but I only saw the one visitation room. There was a spacious "meeting" room before you entered the visitation room and it had lots of old furniture. The kitchen, where everyone gathered to smoke, was in the back.
Just outside the visitation room was the book for people to write their names in. I glanced at it and then over to the black sign with its fancy pull-string light and little white letters. They, of course, were arranged to spell my grandfatherís full name. I stared at it and in my mindís eye the letters morphed to spell Jamie Douglas McDaniel. Then they changed into the names of some of my family and friends. I wondered whose names I would end up seeing on little black funeral parlor signs. I recalled a scene from Star Trek: Generations in which Soran (a humanoid whose race had an life span of several centuries) said concerning death, "Weíre all going to die sometime, itís just a question of how and when. Itís like a predator ≠ itís stalking you. Oh, you can try and outrun it with doctors, medicines, new technologies, but in the end, time is going to hunt you down and make the kill."
Now, back at my apartment writing this on my computer, I recall something I had written when I was in college that relates to this. It was my one and only guest column in the campus newspaper.
Earth. Such an insignificant part of the universe in terms of size. Yet, this lone world is the one known place in all the vastness of the universe where something called life exists.
Still, Earthís inhabitants one day are not the same the next. New life arrives while others leave. The Earth breathes with each generation.
Iím looking at that newspaper right now. I wrote that as part of a larger article that was included in an issue where the viewpoint page was of a religious nature. The date on the newspaper is October 3, 1996. I was a different person back then ≠ caring, but arrogant. Happier? Maybe, but happiness tied to the fact that people seemed to like who I was trying to be. Little did I know that over the next three years my mask would grow frail and break. I would frantically glue it back together and after a while it would break again. Caressing the tattered pieces in my hands, I longed to go back to the time when the mask brought acceptance. I cannot say enough about how much of a struggle my first steps towards coming out have been.
And here is something that I now find very ironic. One of the readersí letters, positioned right above my article, is titled, "Gays are Godís children, too." I wonder what went through my mind back then when I first read that personís letter.
Anyway, back to the story. I turned from looking at the sign that had my grandfatherís name on it and the time of the funeral. I walked into the visitation room with some of my family, and there I saw the casket and my grandfather. He was dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt. A suit certainly would not have looked natural.
In the front row were a cushioned chair and a couch. Behind them were several rows of wooden fold-down chairs. My grandmother sat down in the cushioned chair and stayed there the entire evening with a tired, saddened look on her face. People would come up to her occasionally and extend their condolences.
I walked around and talked with some of my relatives. A few hours went by. I found a piano near the meeting room. I recently bought a Yamaha keyboard to learn on. Itís a good one too, a PSR-540 costing nearly $500. I am just learning to read music, but I have managed to memorize a couple of songs. Not wanting to disturb anyone, I quietly walked up to the piano and gently played the simplified version of Amazing Grace, missing more than one note. A minute or two later, my uncle found me and informed me that although I could not hear it, that piano was connected to the speakers in the visitation room. Oops! At least what I played was relevant. Thanks be to God from whom all blessings flow that I did not play the other song I have memorized, which is the Imperial March (alias Darth Vader intro)! Could you just imagine?
Around nine or ten at night we left the funeral home. My brother and his girlfriend apparently could not get out of class or something the next day so they drove back to Lexington. My parents and I went back to my grandmotherís place along with everyone else.
At some point, as I was participating in various conversations, the topic of the Southern Baptist denomination got brought up. Now my uncle is the pastor of a small country church in Kentucky. He and another guy would be conducting the service tomorrow at my grandfatherís funeral. I overheard my uncle saying how some churches were leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. Just last Sunday, I myself had attended a Baptist church in Lexington that voted to leave the SBC. The SBC, of course, is ultra-conservative and so the churches that are considering leaving are of the moderate sort. I donít know if this church that I went to would be accepting of gay people or not, but while walking out I saw a car with a rainbow bumper sticker that read "With God, all things are possible." The rainbow wasnít of the normal red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple variety, but still I think I know what it meant and I felt a surge of hope. I may go back to that church and see.
"I no longer consider myself a Southern Baptist," I informed my uncle.
I canít remember what he said at first, but it caught him by surprise I think. He knew that I had been working as a youth minister at a Baptist church. Most people in our family only have a superficial understanding of Christianity, and so whenever we do something like pray at a family gathering, everyone looks to my uncle. Really, I canít remember anyone else ever praying before the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, except the year before when he asked me to do it.
I was glad I had said it, but now my uncle wanted to know why not. My uncle has mellowed some in his later years, but I have memories of how he disciplined my cousins growing up. He certainly took literally that proverb about sparing the rod, spoiling the child. It could be my childhood memory that is skewed, but I would have classified these "whippings" as beatings. My dad had whipped my brother and me, but not like I remember my cousins getting it from their dad.
Anyway, now I was a little nervous because how was I going to successfully explain this and not drop the BOMB at this rather inappropriate time and yet still not be upset with myself for having "lied" again. So I rambled on about how the SBC had been taken over by fundamentalists and how I thought they were moving towards exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness.
This went on for a minute or so and then my uncle stated that liberal denominations were allowing homosexuals in the church and even allowing them to be ministers, all of which the Bible says is an abomination.
It was nothing I hadnít heard before, of course. "The Bible says" is the trump card that gets thrown down in discussions like this, usually by those who identify themselves as fundamentalists. Sometimes it is a variation such as, "Well, I believe the Bible." I have come to wonder whether or not people who are too quick to say, "I believe the Bible," ever actually spend much time reading it. Now donít get me wrong - I desire people to read the Bible, especially the gospels. Itís just that Iím beginning to think that if you just use the Bible as a moral reference, if understanding it is not a struggle for you, if you donít wrestle with some parts while being comforted by other parts, if you no longer question the book and be questioned by it, then maybe the Bible isnít really all that important to you - despite your saying that it is.
I, however, do believe that the Bible is important to my uncle. His throwing the homosexuality issue out in the open made this conversation pretty intense for me. He threw it out so quickly that it makes me wonder if he suspects that I might be gay. For years my relatives have asked me about my love life at family gatherings. I always dodged the question or, if really pressed about it, just said I was still looking or something.
Maybe I should have come out at this opportunity. Given the situation, though, I donít think so. Generally Iím not all that of quick thinker. I like to dwell on something a long time before I make a decision or give a response. However, I was able to counter my uncle by saying that the Bible also says eating pork is detestable. My cousin, who was listening, screwed up his face. Instead of seeing what response they would give about the "sinfulness" of eating pork, I offered up that passage in Acts chapter 10 where God tells Peter not to call unclean what God has made clean. I stopped short of saying it, but I see a correlation between that and people who are considered "unclean" or "abominations."
I moved towards ending the conversation shortly after that, but Thanksgiving and Christmas will probably be interesting now. My uncle will no doubt have some questions for me.
The next morning we arrived back at the funeral home around 10:30. Like she had done at the nursing home everyday, my grandmother took her place in a chair beside my grandfather. Their devotion to each other has been awesome. He called her "Granny" and she, along with the grandkids, called him "Papa".
I was a pallbearer for the first time in my life. I can now say that having several pallbearers is not just for show. There were seven of us and we each grabbed onto one of the side handles. We loaded the casket into the hearse. The funeral procession drove from the small town out into the country until we reached a gravel road. At the end of that gravel road was a small cemetery. I think the burial sites there cost ten or twenty dollars.
My grandmother will miss her husband of fifty-three years terribly. I know her heart aches to be with him. As I walk this journey of mine, I wonder if, along the way, I will ever have a companion "till death do us part."
Jamie McDaniel lives in Lexington, Kentucky. If you want, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.