My Cousin’s Funeral

My Cousin’s Funeral

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My Cousin’s Funeral


I dreamt once that I was in love with my cousin Rob Campbell. In the dream, he was rosy and cherubic. When we kissed, he was soft. In the morning, my lips remembered Rob’s kisses. I felt the sensation dancing quietly just above my skin, woven and brushed, like a cashmere sweater.

I talked to my dad over instant messenger and told him that I had a dream that Rob was my lover. I didn’t want to tell him this, embarrassed, but something seemed to propel me forward. He typed his response, slowly. I waited. “That’s O.K,” the screen read. “I dreamed a lot about my brother when he died too.”

My grandfather Hank died one day in my living room. He fell out of bed and called to my mom, singing on the night air, “Peggy, Peggy...” No one heard him until it was the cusp of dark and light. There was a moment when he died. He was a fountain of coagulation and mucus. He was very pale and his skin looked like a molded piece of white rubber. I was 16 but I felt like an infant in that moment when my grandfather took his last breath.

At Rob’s visiting hours, there is a reception line. His mother and father and sister and brother stand up next to the casket. My dad and mom—his uncle and aunt—are up there too, along with my paternal grandparents and my dad’s brother Mark. I sit in the back with my brother and his wife and my boyfriend. I watch as the room fills with people. The line toward the casket is jumbled and when people first enter the room, they don’t see Rob. They see Debbie and Paul and Becky and Aaron first. Then, as the line straightens out, they see Rob, white and chalky. I watch as mouths open, lips quiver, eyes close, Rob’s apples jump, breaths halt. I feel bad watching their pain so I watch their hands instead. Hand to hand. Grasping hands of my dad and my grandfather. Strangers. Sweaty hands, clammy hands, nervous hands, sad hands.

At one point, my grandmother leaves the receiving line. She is wearing the purple flowered dress from J.C. Penney that she wore to my high school graduation. “Susan, I’m glad James and I got the flu shot,” she whispers to me on her way to the bathroom.

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She holds out her veiny hand, and I see it is pumping alive with purple. “I’m touching everyone’s hands.”

I took a painting class once and was quite a beginner. The teacher, a graduate student, was talking about color. I couldn’t name the primary colors. I told her I must have missed that day of kindergarten. She tried to tell me about complementary colors. She said, “When you look at something red for a long time, close your eyes and you will see green.” I wondered if it worked the other way too, but I was too afraid to ask. Later, in the passenger seat of the car, I stared at the grass as it zipped by and closed my eyes. Inside, I saw the spot on the carpet from my grandfather’s bleeding head. I could see red lines darting along my eyelids like a heart monitor.

I have this one memory of my father. He was standing at the kitchen counter of my apartment, looking for something to eat. It was summertime and hot. He took a russet potato from a bowl on the counter. He ran it under the tap and wiped it with a paper towel. He took a bite, white potato crunch hitting white teeth. I was astonished. “What are you eating?” I asked. “A potato,” he said. “Raw?” I asked. “Why not?” he said.

I think about my dad and his raw potato a lot. Someday my father will die. I try to figure out what I will remember about him and what I will forget. Once, I asked my dad to make me a tape of some of his favorite songs. Cat Stevens’ lyrics of “Father and Son” hit me like the potato did:

‘I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy
To be calm when you’ve found something going on
But take your time, think a lot, why think of everything you’ve got
For you will still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not.’

After listening to the tape for the first time, I told my dad that I liked it. I told him I could tell that he selected the songs carefully. After Rob’s funeral, we listened to this song on the car ride home from Batavia. My dad was driving. I asked if I could play this song at his funeral. My dad nodded and sniffed and wiped his nose with a white hanky. His left hand steered. His right was on his knee. I put my left hand on his right hand and we drove home through Pennsylvania.

Dinnertime at my Grandma Grace and Grandpa James’ house in Sherman, New York is a memory that doesn’t fade. Aaron and Rob were good kids at heart, but at the dinner table their goodness was intercepted by mashed potato football fields and broccoli forests. Conversations were singed with 11-year-old boy bathroom stories filled with unsurprisingly sharp visual imagery and descriptions. One summer, after dinner, all the cousins—me, my brother, Becky, Rob, and Aaron—went down to the creek to look at crawdads and snails. I found a crayfish and took it back to my grandparents’ house in a Cool Whip container. When I wasn’t looking, my cousins found my new pet, Mr. Henry. Aaron wound up and pitched Mr. Henry, and Rob hit Mr. Henry with a plastic wiffle ball bat.

Three sons and brothers have died in my dad’s family in the past three generations. They were never fathers. My grandfather James’s brother Luke died when he was 17 in a motorcycle accident in Mayville, New York. My father’s brother Donald Luke died when he was 28 in Jamestown, New York, after being drafted for Vietnam and arriving home with sudden-onset lung cancer. My mother told me once in a low voice that they suspected his gasmask was defective during training exercises. It was a secret. Rob, at 21, died secretly too. He said goodnight to his sister, Becky, on an early December morning, and Debbie and Paul found him several hours later in a snow bank. When I heard this I suddenly thought about Rob’s death certificate and the words on it. Rob Morris Campbell, it would read. Cause of death: Unknown. Location: In a crimson snow bank, Batavia, New York.

Aaron Campbell grew up to be a real-live mortician. After Rob died, my boyfriend and I visited Debbie, Paul, Aaron, and Becky. I was worried about the visit: about what to say and what not to say. I sat on the side of the couch where I remembered Rob sitting the last time I had seen him in this living room. I felt his kisses burning on my lips. I touched the armrest and held his hand.

Aaron filled any pending silences with stories about college at SUNY Canton in the mortuary science program. Once, he said, he designed a t-shirt for a competition that was a knock-off on the absolut vodka ads; it featured a bottle of embalming fluid with the text below reading “100% proof.” Another time, he and a friend fashioned male genitalia—“penises, complete with hairy balls”—out of the pale clay used to practice modeling and applying cosmetic to the face of a dead body.

At the visiting hours, Rob’s girlfriend’s mother comes to the back of the room and sits down next to me. We have never met. Rob’s girlfriend was named Susan. Susan’s mother talks a lot. “Sue is very sad,” she says. (We all were.) I nod sympathetically. Then she points at Rob in the casket. “He looks perfect from back here,” she says, almost yelling. “But up close, he looks really pasty. Do you think they had trouble with the skin?”

At Rob’s funeral, his brother Aaron gives the eulogy. He looks professional, and he is. He says that he did not write anything down for his speech and prepared very little. He says that usually his brother Rob would write things for him: papers for school, youth sermons for church. Rob’s writing teacher from SUNY Brockport also speaks. He reads a poem Rob had written a few months before, a poem about struggling to find words and then, in the darkest part of nighttime, finding them within reach. A few weeks after her brother died, Becky told me that at night, late at night, Rob came into her bedroom and spread novel seeds. He talked out his next chapter. In his journal, she said, he had written furiously, with black ink. This writing was hard for her parents to read because they did not know what was fact and what was fiction.

After Aaron and the professor speak, we walk to the front of the church, right next to the olive green casket, and take communion. We dip pita bread in grape juice. My grandfather James and grandmother Grace kneel at the altar to pray. The rest of my family waits at the edge of the pew for them. They get up very slowly, especially my grandfather, and when he shuffles past his eyes look forward. He grabs my brother’s hand. Not long, he seems to say. Not long at all.

A month after Rob’s funeral I got a headache after reading a book for an entire day. That night, I woke up and vomited into a trashcan as my boyfriend held my hair. It was my first migraine. He turned on a light to guide me to the bathroom and I felt like my head was a bag full of fluid. I felt the light touching my pupils. He asked if I was okay. I suddenly thought about Rob, the night he died, shooting up in his bedroom with the words of Hunter Thompson swimming in his head, pounding: “If this is going to get heavy, I want to be as fucked up as possible.” No one knows exactly how he died, but in my pain that night, this image was strangely comforting. I put a towel over my head. Pulsating. Lines of text swam in my brain and I vomited again, into a plastic bag.

I read later that migraines are caused by the shrinking and swelling of blood vessels in your head. Foods, tension, bright lights, smells, and noises can all trigger migraines. I also read in the New England Journal of Medicine that three children aged 8 to 10 experienced migraines after spending hours reading “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Rob’s truth was part fiction. He thrived on the juices of words and the drippings of language. He ate all the trigger foods: chocolate, nuts, MSG. He waited for the flicking lights and the throbbing pain. And then he wrote.

‘All the times that I’ve tried keeping all the things I knew inside
It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it
If they were right I’d agree but it’s them they know not me
Now there’s a way and I know I just have to go away
I know I have to go.’

I interviewed my dad in January. I was gathering material for a book, something like I imagined Rob might write. I wanted to know about 1950s little league and watching a big brother change and whither and die. I wanted to learn about my dad, to know about my dad. This is when he told me about Luke, his father’s brother (his own uncle), who died in the motorcycle accident. He also told me about my uncle, Donald, and the way he looked propped up in a Jamestown hospital bed. Luke and Donald were never fathers. My dad talked into the tape recorder deliberately, slowly:

“One thing I wanted to say is that I always had sort of an advantage, I thought, growing up cause my dad was always the type that took things in stride and I always just tried to follow that. So I think that was something I learned from him, like, don’t get too excited about good things and don’t get too down about bad things. And it was always like I could just copy him . . . and, you know, probably he was like more down about bad things and more excited about good things but he just didn’t kind of show it. So that was always just something I followed with him.”

Rob’s father, Paul, is standing next to the olive green casket. He touches Rob’s hair. He convulses into patterns of in and out, sobs. He turns to me. “Rob was a good kid,” he says. I nod. I see the body’s white plaster skin. “But he was also dark. He was a real dark kid.” I close my eyes and watch as the lights fade and the colors flicker.
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