His Coughing

December 3, 2014

The old man had his viewing last night.

He lay in a plain wood casket in the west room of Gent’s Funeral Home. His was the first non-suited body I could recall, his familiar green ball cap on his bald head and a bright red sweatshirt which read: “World’s Greatest Grandpa.”

At the foot of the coffin was a wreath fashioned of bright green fir tree branches, cut from a tree in my yard. The old man loved trees. I recall him walking outside to view the damage after a three inch rain, when two mature trees, that he had planted many years ago, had been uprooted and a third, a walnut, drowned. He had been furious.

The son and daughter stood on opposite sides of the room, with fixed smiles on their faces. They can’t stand each other. A son-in-law of the daughter greeted me. He gave me a hug, which shocked me. He and his wife are the decent people of the family.

My nephew, when he was five-years-old, had danced in this very room, at the viewing of his maternal grandfather. Over and over, he and his brothers ran up to the body, yelling, “Hi, Grampy!” The little boy jumped into my arms and whispered, “Uncle Blue, Grampy is in his coughing.”

And the crowd went, “Awwww.”

I remember standing in this funeral home, four years ago, for my father’s viewing. His body was shrunken, from the ravages of lung cancer. People from his church stood in line to view him. An ancient man placed a golf ball on my father’s crossed hands. He shuffled over to me and said in a low voice, “No offense. Your old man was a son of a bitch.” “None taken,” I answered.

I was a professional singer when I was fourteen. People would hire me to sing at funerals—my mother was my agent—and as a soloist at various churches. An old gentleman from our church died and his wife asked me to sing at the funeral, and I accepted. The man had been a close friend of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in history.

At the service, my mother whispered, “Gene, the widow wants you to sing to the body. Can you do that?” Of course I could do that; I had been trained in the actor/singer’s art of appearing to look at something but not looking at all. I stood at his head and sang down to his coughing, to his face.

And looked. And he opened his eyes. And I never sang at a funeral again.

Though, I killed a woman by singing. I had driven down to Alton for Christmas, to see my sister and her family. Her next door neighbor was dying of cancer; she wasn’t expected to live through the month. Apparently, the woman had requested that I sing “O Holy Night” to her. I say apparently, because my sister might have planted that suggestion in the dying woman’s head.

We walked across the yard and entered the woman’s house. She was lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling. Her husband sat in a straight-backed wooden chair. He nodded. The woman looked at me but didn’t say a word. I strapped on Betsy, my guitar—this was my folk singing period when I played folk clubs in Chicago—and strummed and sang.

Halfway through the song, I looked down at the sick woman. Her eyes were glazed and fixed. She was dead. I strummed and glanced around the room to see if anyone else knew. The husband was rocking with his eyes closed. My sister and brother-in-law were hugging and crying. I sang on to the end. By nightfall, the woman lay in her coughing at Gent’s Funeral Home.

Last night I paid my respects and walked outside and drove to the country. Back home, I stood in the dark between the old man’s house and mine and watched the stars. A barred owl whooped in the west woods. There is no bubble in the Milky Way that holds the ghosts of the departed. It’s an absurd notion, that.

I doubt that the dead live in the sea, but it makes more sense: we come from the sea. But the infinite parallel universe theory appeals to me. The old man is alive in infinite universes, in dimensions we can’t see.

So I looked over at his picture window and saw him slumped in his rocking chair, watching television, the changing images on the screen lighting the ground where I stood. This would be disconcerting to a family which had grown impatient for his death.

And parallel woods were singing to parallel me, in parallel pitches, and in one of those universes, a bobcat jumped me from behind and tore me to pieces. In another, the three sisters from the cafe signaled to me with their sexy index fingers. In still another, ancient Indians ghost-walked.

The old man had his viewing last night.

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