The funeral spread over three days; the first night the vigil, the next day the Mass, the third day the burial in Lawrence. My brother John and I drove in from Denver to attend.
Cousin Jim and I were the same age. As children he was my companion and ally, harassed as we were by our older brothers John and Tom, but we also shared a sensibility. On summer nights we would lie curled up inside the huge tractor tire tube that doubled as a trampoline by day and speculate on the stars, of which there were gazillions to see thanks to the dry air of western Kansas and the distance from light pollution. We were stargazers and earth lovers. We would have not used those words.
Other than express wonder and unease at the vastness of the cosmos, I don’t know what we talked about those hours. We were budding mystics, not astronomers, and silence brought more to bear than knowledge.
About the time we reached the precipices of teen-dom, his family, Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen’s, moved from the farm to Olathe to be near the School for the Deaf. Patty, the second child, was born deaf, as were Gary and Jodi, the fourth and fifth children. It was too traumatic for all involved to drive them the five hours to Olathe and abandon them there, which is how it must have seemed. Jim and Tom quickly became fluent in sign language, whereas none of my siblings nor I ever did.
My family seldom made the long drive to visit, so my closeness to Jimmy dimmed considerably. It probably would have in any case. Neither of us was someone who shared much of our internal lives, both (I am projecting) beset by the confusing currents of adolescence. By college he was a font of religious pieties and I was going full hippie.
From then on the news I got was about him, not from him. He married a good Kansas girl, had a kid, then another and another. He worked for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, a job I could not imagine myself having, ever. After a long run they sacked him, for a reason I never discovered because I didn’t ask. My opinion of him went up, or at least had more depth. When I did see him at occasions, weddings, funerals, the like, we talked about…gardening. Once he told me earnestly about a men’s group he was helping start, a brotherhood of the faith, and gave me a card. My pretense of being interested was transparent. He never brought it up again, though that was probably because it died on the vine.
During a long period the dispatches I received were about his son Paul. Paul was shot by a hunting buddy, his body riddled with pellets that couldn’t be removed. The stupid accident in its agonizing aftermath had the depths of tragedy. To this day Paul suffers the effects.
Though you would not know. There he was at the podium the night of the vigil, along with two of his three brothers, reading the eulogies he and his siblings had written to honor their father. Three poised, handsome thirty-some men, whose words of tribute were composed and eloquent. There were no tears from the three. In their place I would have been an Artesian well. A brother and a sister remained seated, perhaps too emotional to read their contributions themselves.
The locale of the vigil was half auditorium and half makeshift church, tucked inside the new parochial school complex. A real church is in the planning stage. On either side of the altar were two screens flashing photos. Jimmy bundled up in a snowdrift outside the farmhouse on the Plains, Jimmy in a homemade go-cart with a cardboard cab. Jim on the deck of a cruise ship in Alaska, his modest smile, so familiar it could have been a mask. By far the most resonant photos were the grainy old black-and-white ones from farm days. I could not tell you what moved me about them, except that it was not nostalgia.
The images flashed by four seconds each, thirty or so and the sequence repeated. The priest said some blessedly brief words and we said a rosary. I watched the vigorous sign interpreter repeat the same gestures again and again. Fifty times to be exact. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. She was getting a workout. Now I know the sign for womb, if I ever need it.
A year ago July, John and I made the same drive from Denver to Olathe for a few days. John stayed with Tom, to whom he has remained close, and I stayed with Jim’s youngest sibling Jodi, with whom I do have actual conversations despite my rudimentary signing skills. I never once thought to contact and visit Jim and Kathy who had moved to Olathe to take care of Uncle Joe in his last years. Jodi told me about Jim’s diagnosis, though she had been asked to keep it secret.
The last night of that visit to Olathe, Jim and Kathy drove over to Tom’s where we cousins had supper together. I never mentioned Jim’s diagnosis, and neither did he. He told us that he intended to drive combine for our still-farming cousin during the milo harvest in the fall and I blurted out, “Are you sick?” Driving combine is not guaranteed fun—it can be pretty miserable—and it was meant as a joke. He flinched. I didn’t mean to hurt him.
We played cards. It was a very Schwarzenberger evening. Pleasantly unmemorable, except for my stupid faux-pas.
In the faux-church the rosary was winding down with a Hail Holy Queen. The vigil over, we transported ourselves over to Austin’s, a nearby sports bar in a mini-mall, where Tabby, Jim’s niece, is manager. Tabby has charm to burn—she arrived at the banquet table bearing a pan of roasted and seasoned sweet potatoes and announced, “This is for the vegetarians,” just as I was making my choices, of which there were plenty. Remarkable. There was even good wine. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. It felt like a party. I walked around asking, you’re whose son?
That night it rained a mini-hurricane, waves lashing the motel window for hours on the outskirts of Olathe where John and I were staying. Earlier I had tried to open the window, irritated that it was screwed shut. There were cicadas outside. There was still some wild nature to be experienced.
Cicadas. Maybe curled inside the inner-tube Jimmy and I talked about the cicadas. In August at twilight they drilled holes into your head, echoes lasting into the night. I can still feel the vibration.
I lay unsleeping in bed. Five shrill beeps pierced the silence between rumbles of thunder. A tornado alert? I rolled over which was as much as I cared to do in response. My left toe was killing me, swollen, inflamed. Gout, a devilish joke played on a devout vegetarian. (The beeps, we found out the next day, were an AMBER ALERT, a child gone missing in Raytown Missouri, fifty miles away. We were profoundly grateful, I assure you, for being alerted.)
My angry toe. Before bed John mentioned he had some Oxycodone he keeps with him in case he ever again has a kidney stone, and asked if I wanted one. Oxycodone! Speak of the devil. I said no. At three a.m. I said maybe, and three-oh-one I said yes certainly, and at three-thirty I said maybe one more. At four I slept.
At breakfast the food tasted like styrofoam and was served on styrofoam. I am ashamed to say I ate breakfast in the motel and added my contribution to the trash barrel.
For the funeral Mass in the morning the partition in the church was moved back, and the space felt more like a typical boring suburban church. The chairs (not pews) were full. The priest eulogized Jim as a good man and a good father. He didn’t overdo it. The evidence was in attendance, his children, his wife, and his fellow parishioners who cooked and served the lunch afterward, like the Altar Society did back home, back in the day.
John remarked later the funeral would have been well-attended if only their side of the family was present. Kids, grandkids, greatgrandkids out of the woodwork. By contrast our side of the family, what with two nuns and the gay number, has not even come up with replacement population: 8 siblings, 7 nieces and nephews, no other issue. You could congratulate us.
My only tears of the weekend were shed that night when Quinta, Tom’s wife, told me how she ran off a lobbyist at the capitol in Washington who was trying to get their union to accept a bad deal in their struggle to regain the pensions stolen through corporate malfeasance. Mild, sweet Quinta yelling for the third time at the lobbyist doing his best to ignore her, “Did you hear me? I said you have to leave.” How when the bill they introduced passed the House of Representatives, the representatives in favor, Democrats all, applauded them in the gallery. How Nancy Pelosi applauded them. That was moving.
In the course of the conversation Tom revealed that Jim and Kathy were Trump supporters. Now here was a conversation I wish I could have with Jim, to discover what about the philanderer, liar, and despoiler of nature he found palatable. Even if I had had the opportunity, I might not have asked.
Saturday morning we drove through the green hills to Lawrence for the burial. Why was Jim being buried in Lawrence, where he and Kathy never lived? Because Lawrence has the only “natural cemetery” in Kansas. A natural burial means no embalming. No metal. No plastic. Something, I’m sure, Trump would mock given the opportunity.
We gathered at the edge of the traditional cemetery with its lawn and granite gravestones. Kevin, the eldest son, announced that his father’s gravesite was a short walk into the wild, wooded area adjacent. Kathy spoke, thanking us for coming and thanking “God for giving us such a beautiful day.” Nonetheless, nature was keeping its own agenda which included mosquitoes, so Off was offered and mostly declined. This wasn’t a swamp in Carolina.
It was indeed a spectacularly beautiful morning. The grass, an electric green, was wet from the rains. Soft, leftover clouds floated overhead. The walnut casket, glimpsed at the funeral, was a deep soft brown, impeccably constructed by Trappist monks in Iowa. Fitting, in all senses. Walnut was the wood Uncle Joe and my father used more than any other to make their clocks. The casket was placed on the trailer.
Not far into the woods there was a rectangular hole and a mound of clay nearby. A wild rose snatched at my clothes and skin. I put my hand against the foliage of a nearby tree trunk before deciding it was poison ivy. But it wasn’t poison ivy. I saw one mosquito. And no ticks, though later we were warned about them. Ah nature. You’re only safe underground.
Young men, cousins, lowered the casket with ropes into the hole, and dropped the ropes .
The priest said a few words about how we will one day be reunited with Jim. In heaven, presumably. Kathy and her children shoveled the first loads of dirt from the mound into the hole, the wet clods thudding on the casket lid. It’s hard work, Paul remarked after a stint. I took a turn. It felt good to do it, a way of expressing what I felt, as if I was finally keeping faith with my cousin, fellow stargazer and man of the earth. Humus, humility. Relatives relayed each other using the six shovels. In twenty minutes the mound covered the grave. Over time it will level with the neighborhood.
My two brothers and I drove back to Olathe. Both Lawrence and Olathe are spreading out like a cancer, subdivision after subdivision with names like Greenwood Estates. The hillsides that remain un-estated are rapidly being overtaken by scruffy junipers. The junipers march westward at an astonishing rate, already extending beyond Salina. At this rate in fifty years the eastern half of Kansas will be suburbia in juniper. The wood is sometimes used for “cedar” chests, places to store stuff away from the moth that corrupteth. I have two such chests my father and I made.
My brothers and I decided on a return trip to Austin’s for lunch. This time we were seated in the main area. Thirty-eight televisions, we counted them, lined the walls, indoors and out. All showed football games. No wonder people go crazy in America, especially young men.
Driving back to Denver after it was all over, I said to John, “Listening to those relatives of ours, it’s as if they really believe in an afterlife. I wish I could. Do you?”
“I don’t know one way or the other,” he said, and we didn’t talk about it any more.