Last night the viewing at the funeral home took place. My nephew's self-portrait was framed and put up front, a surprisingly life-like sketch showing him staring down, while around his head images and symbols and thoughts and dreams swirled. My nephew understood himself very well, which is perhaps an elusive gift at 16, or at 61.
Where I was raised, the visitation at the funeral home is a mildly stylized event. The family makes a sort of greeting line, and the visitors come in single-file line, passing through the line of relatives, offering consolation and shared dismay, and then viewing the departed, and signing the book.
Last night was much more informal, in a good way. The visitation was in the funeral chapel. Some people came in and sat in the back pews, just being in the moment in this awful moment. Some people came and hugged my brother and sister in law and cried with them. Some kids brought a single flower, others came and just talked.
So many people have been so kind. Work friends, relatives near and distant, social acquintances--everyone has been so steadfast, and so caring. My brother and his wife are not by their nature "social" people, and my nephew was extremely shy. But they wove an interdependent web with their community I admire and am so thankful to witness.
That experience of seeing a loved one up close for the last time is so riveting.
I had seen him at the hospital, of course, after the brief last, unsuccessful battle. He had a serenity then, for all the signs of recent struggle, though he had not yet been "restored" or placed in the new dress suit. Last night he looked so mature, and so handsome, and so much someone I would like to have continued to see movies with for years. At the same time, he was gone.The viewing is, for me, always an experience. I always imagine I see the rising and falling of the chest, the signs of breathing. I never do, of course, but it's that patient, quiet moment of sensation--there has been a mistake, a bell will ring, the reprieve will come, the governor has called. The breath goes unbreathed, though. The moment passes.
I shook hands with my nephew's girlfriend, who said "I heard a lot of nice things about you". I was so pleased to hear that simple assurance. I also made a point to seek out my nephew's best friend, a charming young woman I'd met before. I told her how much I appreciated the wonderful quote from her in the second news article about my nephew's passing. I had not seen her since I visited their D & D game a few years ago. I had always intended to make a guest-starring role as a non-player character on one of their Friday evenings. But time flies, and before you know it, time has ended. Tempus terminus.
Last night after the visitation, my family and my sister in law's family gathered at my wife and I's home. We had dozens of folks, parents, children, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, friends, my nephew's friends. My two aged lhasa apsos had more attention lavished on them in one evening than in the usual month. We watched a DVD of my nephew and his friends, in a fantasy short they made as a school project. My nephew played the evil wizard in the red cape.
My sister and her husband brought my niece and nephew from Arkansas. I am very, very close with my nieces and nephews. I am their absurd, eccentric, fun Uncle Bob. In order to keep today from being just funeral and being cooped up inside all day, I made a point to wake them up at dawn, load up in my car, and drive them out to Park Hill Prairie. The turnoff sign on Highway 36 was gone, so we had to wander a bit. But we found it. My niece wanted to fly a kite, while my nephew wanted to fish the pond. I helped my niece assemble a dollar store kite, and soon we had it in the air. She tangled it in a tree, but we put together another one for her. She got it in the air herself, and flew it for an hour--quite a feat for a 7 year old.
Meanwhile, my nephew was having the mother goose of all fishing days. He had soon caught dozens of bluegill, green, and pumpkinseed sunfish. I joined him, keeping an eye on the flying kite to keep an eye on my niece at this near-abandoned park (one poor fly fisherman was around, but left, no doubt mildly troubled by the echoes of my 10 year old nephew--"Uncle Bob! I got another one!").
I began to fish, and swiftly caught 7. My nephew caught a nice bass, which made him happy. We were using worms and cane poles, fishing as I was taught to fish when I was 5, and in the way I, despite ample gear in my garage, still prefer to fish. My fishing was interrupted by "Uncle Bob! I can't get the kite string to reel in!". Soon, I devised a Solomonic solution. I walked the kite all the way around a pond, while keeping it flying in mid-air. Neither my niece nor my nephew appreciated that this was a mild aerodynamic feat. They expect such things from Uncle Bob. They also expect to always get lost on trails.
We set my niece's kite up beside my nephew and I's fishing. I then took over the kite, while I insisted she fish. She likes to fish, and I did not want her to miss an absurdly productive day. After all, each time I put the hook in, a fish jumped onto my line. Sure enough, she soon caught 13 fish of her own, all fine keeper sunfish. We threw everything back. "Uncle Bob!" is not really much of a fish cleaner these days. They would have made what they used to call a "mess", though.
I finished with 13 sunfish, my niece with 13, and my nephew with 46 + the bass, all in a little over 2 hours' fishing. She lost the second kite to a tree, but I got it out (the first kite, she lost when she let the kite reel go--hint for the novice: hold the string tight).
We all drove back, and got a little lunch before we got ready for the funeral. My wife and I's wonderful friend Donna came to watch our house and ready things while we were gone. One neighbor I don't know brought us a dish to eat, which was so kind I was almost without words. Our kind across the street neighbor sent her cool teen daughter to help out, which was a big help. Dishes and condolences continued to pour in.
My second cousin from Tupelo, MS got up at 3:30 a.m. to drive the 8 1/2 hours to attend this funeral. He arrived around noon. Other aunts, uncles and cousins came in at a steady pace all day. My sister in law's family also showed up in full force, and I was so moved by all the single-minded solidarity the families showed.
The funeral was very moving. The attendance was very substantial. My nephew had finished all his Eagle Scout requirements, so they awarded it to him posthumously. His Scoutmaster spoke a few words of eulogy, then the Scoutmaster asked all the Eagle scouts among the attendees to come forward. One of my law partners, who touched me by coming, strode among the dozen or so men who went up front. I never passed Tenderfoot, so I was not among them. They all said the pledges, and then the scoutmaster asked them all to say their name and when they attained their eagle. The dates ranged from 1954 to 2004, and the people ranged from kids to the older-ish minister. When they got to the people in the middle, right by the casket, the Scoutmaster broke in with "Will Nunnally, 2004". It meant something to me when the scoutmaster gave my brother and his wife the pin that parents wear when their son earns his Eagle Scout designation.
My nephew's church youth group leader and student ministry fellow told the kind of stories that were recognizably my nephew--quiet, bright, very individual. I have always seen so much of myself at his age in this nephew. Now I will not see him again.
A man my nephew's age sang "Amazing Grace" in an unadorned, non-histrionic a capella rendition. The minister gave a simple, homily-type sermon. It was just right. There was a song I don't recognize that closed out the service--it moved me.
We went to the graveside, where we all hugged my surviving nephew, my brother and my sister in law. After the brief service there, everyone drove to our house to be together.
My wife and I are not "social" in this way. We usually have a couple or two over at a time. We must have had over 50 people, and perhaps as many as 70. It went off without a hitch, thanks to the kindness and patience of all. Even our poor dogs, too old for so much attention, rose to the situation, and smiled as they nosed around the rooms.
Finally, all our families have gone home or to hotels. We have no more sleepover guests, no more functions to plan. We are drifting in the sargasso of love and loss. Tomorrow I will find the website his friends set up for my nephew, and log my remembrance among the dozens I've been told are there. I'll rest Saturday, and maybe go to a farewell party for a charming woman who is moving away.
At the end of a week like this, what is there to say? Life writ large, life writ out, but nothing, really, to say.
When my departed nephew was 12, I took he, his brother and my sister's son to Dinosaur Valley State Park to go hiking. At my suggestion, we tried to deviate from the trail as a shortcut. It was a disaster. We got lost in a thicket of cedar trees, and my brother's younger son brushed up against a cactus, getting spines in his ankle. My three nephews were at length perturbed. They asked me "have you ever been lost before?". I told them that I got lost almost every time I hiked, which did not inspire confidence. My oldest nephew, now my late nephew, helped me figure out the way out, and calmly guided us back to the trail.
I wrote a poem about that day. It's over in gurdonpoems. It is important to me tonight, though, and I'll set it out here:
Will You Come with Me to a Place where I am Lost?
We'll leave the well-marked path,
oblivious to the weeds,
we'll march among the cedars and thistles,
stepping lightly around prickly pear.
I thought you knew I get lost
almost every time I hike;
I make my losses a sacrament,
a kind of religion without scripture.
I wander, not knowing the way.
I stumble when the brush thickens.
When we reach the clearing,
we'll think we have home in sight,
but when I am lost, with you,
I am home.
Rest in peace, my nephew, whom I love.