The Final Goodbye

I wrote this essay for a magazine class I took with the one of my favorite writers, Rick Bragg. He liked it, which helped me walk on air that day. I promised him I would keep writing, so I am putting this here as a reminder. I hope you enjoy it too!

The Final Goodbye

by Jenn Rogers Cox

In the movie Stand By Me, twelve-year-old Vern turns to his friends and says, “You guys wanna go see a dead body?” They all nod enthusiastically and set off on an adventure to find the novelty of death. Personally, my answer to that question is no, even at 41. When I was seven years old it was even more so, but at that very age I saw my first dead body. I actually had to walk up to it, talk to it, touch its hand, and lean over and kiss it goodbye.

            I know this concept is probably foreign to many people. Friends who hear this story usually recoil at least five inches and give me a look that makes me think their wine is bad. I don’t know how funerals go in other parts of the country, but we are Southerners. Here funerals are conducted with much the same fanfare as a housewarming or holiday party, and though they are far more somber events, there is no excuse for not having the right clothes, the perfect guest list and the best food. This is a very important part. Southerners eat well every day of the year, but it is a known fact that you are not a true Southern woman unless you have at least one go-to dish for a funeral. Sometimes there is music, sometimes a speaker, but always a gathering of family from near and far. And, as is proper when invited to any party, one is required to bid her host or hostess farewell when leaving.

            My grandmother, Eden, as she was forever known after my bumbling three-year-old attempt to say “Evelyn,” introduced me to the fine art of a Southern funeral. I was staying with her that summer, as I did every summer, and I was in heaven. I went to work with her every day and pretended to answer the phone at her beauty salon. In between sweeping up hair and collecting towels, I repeatedly washed and set the beautician’s mannequin head she had given me to play with. We ate steak at Bonanza once a week and went to church on Sunday. As always, I was hoping the summer would last forever. Then Aunt Sally died.

            Eden had not missed a wedding, funeral or family reunion in more than forty years, so I knew she would be making that long, boring drive to Decatur, Ala. without question. When I learned that, as a beautician, she would also be the one to “fix up” Aunt Sally for the viewing, I selfishly sulked because this meant she would be gone longer. What did not dawn on me was that, given my presence and the fact that her shop girl Wanda could not keep me overnight, I was going with her.

            There were two major problems with this scenario. First, this was a family gathering and would likely consist of every “old person” I had never met in the family. At that age, I didn’t like “old people.” They pinched my cheeks, made a fuss, and pulled wadded rolls of tissue from their sleeve. The men had hair growing out of their noses and ears. The women were covered in a haze of powder two shades too light for their skin tone, and their lips were drawn on with sticky red lipstick that reminded me of a grimacing clown.  Then there was the “old lady smell,” which to my young nose was somewhere between Vicks VapoRub and watery roses. I would come, in time, to realize that we all go down that path eventually, but then old was old.

            The other problem was really unrelated to age, as I still hold on to this little idiosyncrasy to this day. I don’t like dead. I was never the child who dragged home dead things found in the woods. When my first pet died, I cried but could not see him. I am sure I’m not the only person who feels this way, but I am convinced that my dislike goes beyond a rational sense. The knowledge that the spirit of a person, that bit of someone you know, has left this bodily shell behind is overwhelmingly and soul crushingly sad to me. And what remains simply scares me. Unfortunately, funerals were about being dead.

            In spite of my best pleading and whining, neither of these issues made any difference in the long run, and I soon found myself in Eden’s station wagon, slowly crawling up the dusty road that winds its way to the top of Trinity Mountain. To make matters worse, we were staying with my Aunt Ollie on her farm. Her dark house, always filled with the smell of stale grease, scorched coffee and cigarette smoke, was one of my least favorite places, even in the best of circumstances, and when we finally drove back down the mountain the next day, my need to get out of that house completely overshadowed where we were going. Eden had gone ahead of us to work on Aunt Sally, leaving me with Aunt Ollie. When we arrived at the church, I immediately made myself scarce in hopes of avoiding the inevitable onslaught of “My goodness, look how big you’ve gotten” comments from people I truly had never seen before.

            I spent most of the viewing sulking in a back pew, arms crossed, legs swinging, face scowling. I was trying to be invisible to everyone, especially those old ladies who knew Eden well. They all thought they knew me too, and they were definitely of the cheek-pinching type. My stomach was still a bit queasy from the cigarette-smoke cloud that swirled between the closed windows of Aunt Ollie’s Oldsmobile. From my vantage point I watched a stream of black suits, stockings and hats walk up the center aisle and back down the perimeter. At the front they would stop and stare into the casket, their lips moving as if they were talking to the nothing that was there. Then most of them would lean over the body. I had no idea what that was about, but I sure was glad I didn’t have to be that close to an old dead person. Each of them would then pull a tissue from their sleeve and wipe their eyes. As they passed me, still dabbing at the milky streaks running through the rouge on their cheeks, they would say things like “She looked just beautiful,” or “She looked just like she was sleeping.” I was pondering these ridiculous remarks when Eden appeared in the aisle beside me.

            “Let’s go,” she said, and I was so anxious, I slid across the hard wooden bench and jumped up before giving any thought to what she meant. Instead of heading toward the door, she grabbed my hand and started up the plush green aisle runner. I had no choice but to go along. Pitching a fit or making a scene was simply not allowed, and I knew my manners well enough. I stood dutifully beside her trying not to look. Then she turned and picked me up. I found myself face to face with what had once been Aunt Sally. She did look like she was sleeping.

            “Tell Aunt Sally goodbye,” Eden said as she dangled me over the casket like a rag doll. Desperate to end this madness, I said goodbye to this person I never remembered saying hello to.

            Holding me with one arm, Eden placed a hand on top of Aunt Sally’s hands, which I later learned were sewn together to keep them in place. With her other arm she held me solidly against her hip. “Go ahead,” she said. I immediately went rigid. There was no way on earth I wanted to touch a dead body, family or not. No way, not going to happen. But as I looked down at Eden’s warm hand on top of Aunt Sally’s cold ones I found myself reaching out. I placed my tiny, sweaty palm right beside Eden’s on top of Aunt Sally’s. She felt solid. As I looked down at the three hands, mine young and chubby, Eden’s wrinkled and roughened from years in a shampoo bowl, and Aunt Sally’s, though the oldest of all, so smooth and hard, it occurred to me that her skin looked just like the hard plastic of my beautician’s mannequin.

            “Well kiss her goodbye, “ Eden whispered in my ear.

            Now I began to squirm. It was one thing to see a body, and one thing to touch it, but kiss it? No, thank you. Even at that young age, I was adamant. Well, as adamant as a seven year old can be.  In spite of all the manners I knew I should display, it was time for a scene. I clamped my mouth shut and turned my head. She was still holding me and started bending me toward Aunt Sally’s face. I turned my head the other way. She shifted. I whipped my head back. She shifted. So I did the only thing I could do. I began to cry. When her grip didn’t loosen, I moved from whine to wail, directing my loudest straight into Eden’s ear. She put me down. Then she leaned over, gently brushed Aunt Sally’s now-smooth cheek and pressed her lips to it. “Goodbye, sweet lady,” she said. And we walked away.

            I’d like to say that I was proud of my little temper tantrum and the fact that I actually gotten my way. I didn’t have to kiss that dead old lady after all! Instead I felt disappointment. I had let Eden down. In the car during the processional to the gravesite, she was silent. I am sure now that this was due in part to grief, since she actually did know Aunt Sally, but I think part of it was from the simple contemplation of the finite nature of life. I guess a few decades can put a new spin on things. At the time, however, I was convinced I was in trouble. She wasn’t calling me “Angel,” her pet name for me. She wasn’t even looking at me.

            “Eden, I’m sorry I didn’t want to kiss the lady,” was all I could think to say.

            She took my hand and smiled at me. “It’s alright, Angel,” she said. “You will someday.”

            I was so elated that she called me Angel, which meant I wasn’t in trouble after all, I didn’t think anything more about the rest of her words. Why would I ever want to kiss a dead lady?

            Thirty-five years later, I completely understand that what Eden wanted me to do was a sign of respect and love. We live in a world, at least in the South, where family is the most important thing. From the times when plantations or farms were run by family members to the family reunions my parents dragged me to every single summer to swelter at some picnic ground, there is a sense of continuity we derive from family.  When someone leaves us we hug him or her warmly, with wishes of being together again soon. When someone leaves us permanently, we feel the same way.

            I have, unfortunately, attended several funerals since that first with Eden, many for family and some for friends, a few that were expected and a few that were far too premature. With each passing, I struggled with how to act, what to do and what to say. I did eventually learn to walk to the casket, holding tight to the image of Eden paying her final respects to someone who deserved to be remembered. I have even managed, in the case of my grandfather when I was nine and my Aunt Sarah when I was 30 to place my hand over the cold, hard plastic shell of those that once held such warmth. But I have always stopped short of kissing anyone goodbye. Well, almost always.

            In 1995, cancer took Eden from me. Weeks of chemotherapy and radiation had whittled her body down to a nearly unrecognizable shell. Her eyes and cheeks were hollow. A blue and white bandana had long taken the place of her once brilliant silver hair. The strong and beautiful woman who had instilled in me a sense of pride and family, who had taught me to make cornbread without a recipe, and who taught me to strive for a standard I still struggle to live up to, had disappeared. When she breathed her last breath, her spirit was long gone. That same familiar sense of overwhelming sadness settled in, but this time it wasn’t enough to repel me. I sat by her bedside long after she stopped breathing, holding her hand and stroking her forehead while my own tears blinded me to the fact that she was no longer there.

            For the funeral, which was to be open casket of course, Eden had wanted to look as much like herself as possible. This meant a good wig and the proper makeup. Having managed to peer into a few open caskets over time, thanks to Eden, I knew that the hired beauticians would do what they could, but that the inevitable over painting would result in a body that looked less like my Eden than she already did. So the little girl who was terrified of old people and of death, the brat who would not kiss her Aunt Sally goodbye, the one who could only manage a cursory pass through a viewing salon, sat in a room alone with the body of her departed grandmother and carefully applied just the right amount of rouge and lipstick, the way she had shown me. Then I lightly dusted her face with powder, in the correct shade this time. The wig, which I had already styled into her familiar hairstyle, slipped easily from the wax mannequin head and onto hers. With a couple of adjustments I knew that every person who walked up to her ivory satin-lined casket would say “Doesn’t she look beautiful. Like she’s just sleeping.” She really did. She was my Eden. As I stood and looked at her, my streaming tears turned to sobs. The ache in my heart turned to a burning sense of grief so overwhelming I thought I might faint. At that moment, I did the only thing I could possibly think to do. I leaned over, put my arms around her neck and held on for dear life. After a moment, the tears subsided. Eden, in death as she had in life, had quieted my fears with simply a hug. I straightened her wig, freshened her lipstick, and kissed her firmly on both cheeks. “Goodbye, sweet lady,” I said. “Goodbye, my angel.