A number of years ago I went to a funeral and left furious with the platitudes the pastor preached. My frustration gave way to a written rant which, after much revising, found form in a series of seven fictional letters written by my imagined dead to those they've left behind. The letters were accepted into an anthology that never materialized. I think about them every now and then, and last week I was at another funeral, one where I felt inclined to slap the perky pastor across the face. That, and the fact I'm reading The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, has planted death in the center of my awareness. I return to my letters, whatever they might lack, as a point to begin again a dialogue about grief and living in the shadow of death.
This week, the first letter.
Hey Mom and Dad,
I know. We all knew I took a risk. But friendly fire, who would’ve thought? Gee whiz. Is that what they call irony? Dad, please don’t keep the flag all folded up in a case on the mantle. Give it to the Eagle Scouts or Union High, someone that’ll fly it.
I finally get the thousand points of light. Kaboom! I’m a thousand points of light. In a weird way, I was ready. Not that I had a death wish or anything, but you’re packing up your gear the night before and you can’t sleep and think, what if this is it? You didn’t think I understood, thought I was too young and immature, but I did. So don’t guilt yourself. And, you’ve got to stop thinking you could’ve stopped me from enlisting, that you shouldn’t have been so do the right thing all my life. I didn’t join just for the college or because of some God Bless America recruiting booth at the fairgrounds on Fourth of July. It was something else, something I don’t have words for, I was just supposed to.
Mom, now the freezer’s full of Tupperware casseroles. You’ll be eating leftovers for a year, sorry. Maybe you could defrost them all at once, have a big old potluck in the basement at Presbyterian First. Kenny and Richie could tell stories on me, like the time we took the Civic while you were at the bowling tournament, and set out for Mustang Ranch. That would loosen everyone up; maybe they’d stop acting like I was so perfect. I don’t want a halo.
Things will quiet down eventually. My newspaper obit will come off the bulletin boards to make way for the track team’s championship photo, the memorial scholarship fund will run out of money, some of the kids won’t even know who I was. You can even decide it’s okay not to be sad anymore, at least not all the time. It’s okay with me. We had our fights and stuff, but you were the best parents.
And when people shake their heads and say, “What a waste,” tell them they’re wrong.