Unless A Grain Of Wheat Falls

The flowers are what I remember most. They were everywhere. In pots, on wire stands, on chairs, the piano, the organ—everywhere. I specifically remember one arrangement that was so tacky that even at the young age of eight I recognized it as such. It had white carnations stuck into a round foam wreath with a red silk ribbon draped across the front that read: In Remembrance of Howard. For some reason it really struck me as unusual. The circular aspect of the wreath gave it a nautical feel—like a porthole or the helm of a ship or something—while the draped ribbon called to mind the ridiculous Miss America pageants that the girls at school always went crazy over. I thought it made Howie’s box look like a cruise ship. I kept watching the door at the side of the room wondering if Captain Stubing would suddenly walk in and climb aboard. He never did. Neither did Gopher. The whole thing just really confused me. Howie would have loved it though. He loved to pick flowers. He loved boats too.

But more than the actual floral arrangements, what really stood out to me that day was the smell. It reminded me of Grandma’s bathroom. Being the conscientious woman that she was, she always made sure to have rose-scented air freshener on hand. In theory, it was supposed to mask the daily odors that humans release behind bathroom doors, but mostly it just seemed to add one more smell to the mix—one that didn’t belong. I would certainly have preferred the scent of roses to excrement, but smelling the two together somehow made the situation that much more disgusting. And so the scent of roses on the day of my little brother’s funeral only gave me the impression that something was being covered up. Something shameful and repulsive.

I sat next to my dad; my mom sat on the other side of him holding Sarah. I was relieved not to be next to Mom. The way she had been acting just plain scared me. When she wasn’t crying she appeared to be in pain, and when she didn’t appear to be in pain she was sleeping. The creepiest thing though, was how she looked at other people, myself included. It was as if she just looked right through us. I told her a couple years later that at the time she appeared to me to be sleepwalking in the midst of a nightmare after having stubbed her toe on the wooden leg of the living room sofa. In a way, I guess the whole situation had temporarily blinded her and left her in a crippled state of shock. It was just so sudden and unexpected. She didn’t see anything or anybody for a good six months after. She just looked through it all.

My dad, on the other hand, was as tough as nails. That’s not to say he was cold and emotionless, he just handled himself in the way he thought best. We all needed it. With his right arm he held me to his side, but not the way Mom was clutching Sarah to her breast. The way Mom held Sarah gave people the impression that there was a wild animal snarling and foaming beneath the pew in front of her, watching and waiting for the right opportunity to leap from the shadows and rip the helpless baby from her powerless and grasping arms. My little cousin Emily actually looked under the pew to see what the problem was. Mom just looked right through the back of her head.

Dad’s arm was like a fortress—a wall of protection. It was there, it was sure and it was strong. I watched his brawny face as he nodded and thanked all of the people who stopped at the edge of our pew to whisper condolences in his ear. I studied his bright black eyes, the rise and fall of his shaggy brows, the slight wrinkling of his forehead that occurred upon acknowledgement of another person. Some of the men attempted to shake his hand, but the walled fortress refused to release its grip upon my bony shoulder. Instead, Dad offered the men his left hand, despite the awkwardness it invariably produced.

I was even more thankful for dad when I saw Aunt Margie, or heard her I should say. For a moment I thought someone was castrating a bull in the back of the church, but then I turned and saw Margie stumbling down the aisle, my cousin Jeff holding her left arm to keep her on her feet. She was gasping and wailing and holding on to the sides of the pews for support. All of the commotion caused Sarah to start crying, but the sight just sickened me more than anything else. I had thrown fits like that before and lived to regret them, but this one was coming from a grown adult. Margie finally sat down a couple of rows behind us, moaning and snivelling the entire length of the service. I burrowed my head deeper into dad’s broad side and thought about what modifications I would make to the tree house that summer. I decided it would greatly benefit from the addition of a crow’s nest and perhaps a zip-line.

~      ~      ~

I stood by dad outside as well. We were standing on a swath of green indoor-outdoor carpeting that was spread carefully beneath a tarpaulin tent canopy. The carpeting reminded me of putt-putt golf turf. In fact, there was much there to remind me of putt-putt golf. There were obstacles, a sand trap and even a hole. Howie was suspended over the hole by an aluminum-framed contraption that had a platform made out of seatbelts and a huge crank bolted to its side. I imagined putting multicolored golf balls into the great hole. I decided that if I could get a good enough bounce off the leg of Grandpa’s metal folding chair it might just make it through the preacher’s legs, up the slight grade and into the hole. Another option was to whack the ball at the side of Aunt Margie’s head. If I were to get the angle just right, the ball would shoot up through opening in the center of the tarpaulin, roll down the incline of the roof and then plop right in. That would have been the most enjoyable shot by far but also the most difficult.

The preacher said “amen” and then moved to the side to signify the end of his homily. That was the cue for the lowering of the casket. My putt-putt daydreams fled away and my heart began to ache as I saw Howie’s box disappear into the hole. It was much deeper than I had imagined—too deep.

Prior to the funeral, I had overheard several people telling my parents that I would probably not understand what was going on because I was not yet old enough to grasp the concept of permanence. They couldn’t have been more wrong. I completely understood death. I had learned it from nature. I knew that when you smear a lightning bug on your face like luminescent war paint it never flies again. Just like I knew that if Uncle Jerry shoots your dog because it’s dying of leukemia she will never again fetch a Frisbee. That’s why when I heard that Howie had fallen from a tree and cracked his skull I knew what to expect. I knew that the days of football and forest explorations were gone and would never return. I cried for two days straight when they first told me he died because I knew very well what forever meant. What I didn’t understand at that time was love. The majority of my tears came because something that I enjoyed had been taken away from me, like a child who’s candy has been stolen. Five or so years later though, when I slowly began to grasp the ineffable concept of love, I grieved for Howie all over again.

Soon after the casket had ended its descent, my father stepped forward to the graveside, stooping to pick up a shovel on his way. He then proceeded to throw in a shovel-full of dirt while my mom tossed in a red rose. After the thump of the dirt, all was silent. A mild spring breeze unsettled my father’s short, stiff hair, his face as strong and composed as ever. My mother was an endless fountain of saltwater.

Finally, we turned in unison to exit the tent, but not three steps on and something inside turned me around and forced me back to the graveside. Kneeling down, I shoved my hands deep into the loose, fragrant soil and threw a clod of my own into the abyss. I stood a moment looking in and wiping my hands on the pockets of my blue blazer. Then, looking up, I saw that dad was there beside me. He wasn’t angry. In a way I felt like he was proud of me, like I had done what a man was supposed to do or something. We then turned to leave, his fortress of an arm deposited once more upon my bony shoulder.

Of course, all of this was too much for Aunt Margie. She screamed and then passed out cold on the cemetery lawn. The preacher was first at her side. He looked about him in shock, wondering why none of the family looked surprised or bothered to respond. Eventually Grandpa made his way over and nudged her with his foot and then told her to get up and to quit acting like a damn fool.

~      ~      ~

It was standard family fare at Uncle Jim and Aunt Carol’s: rolls with sliced ham, potato salad, green bean casserole, somebody or another’s famous meatballs. I grabbed for a roll, but Grandma sent me to the bathroom to wash up first.

My hands were filthy as were the sides of my suit jacket. I took a damp washcloth to the pockets to try and clean them up a bit, but that only made things worse. Now instead of just looking dirty, my coat looked damp and dirty. My hands were just as difficult to clean. Beneath each fingernail laid a stubborn crescent moon of dirt that was next to impossible to remove without a utensil of some kind. I searched through the bathroom drawers and behind the endless walls of half-used Avon lotions that cluttered the medicine cabinet but to no avail. By this time Uncle Joe was pounding on the door and demanding access to the facilities so I quickly abandoned my search and headed out.

Joe apologized about rushing me and noted as I passed that I’d understand one day when my prostate is the size of a cantaloupe. I just ignored him. I was still concerned about my fingernails. Seeing my dirty hands poking out of the ends of my navy, brass-buttoned suit sleeves embarrassed me. I felt out of place. Everyone else looked so nice and polished, so sincere and reverent, and then there was me, the little boy with dirty hands. I kept them inside my damp, dirty pockets for the remainder of the day and ate nothing.

~      ~      ~

The next day was Saturday – planting day – and Dad started it like it was any other. To him the setting of the sun marked a break in time that was final and irrevocable. At the new dawn all actions were in a forward motion that refused to look back, the time for reflection being over. He used to say that looking back and living in regret made one as useless as Lot’s wife. Mom, on the other hand, didn’t possess this level of fortitude. Her tears turned her into a pillar of salt that didn’t leave its bedroom for six months. But even Dad’s seemingly endless fortitude, we would later find, could not be sustained forever. Not too long after Mom recovered he would experience his own “dark night of the soul.” He never spoke a word about it, but Mom and I could both taste the salt in the air.

I wandered out to the kitchen around seven or so, just in time to see Dad rise from his seat, down his last sip of coffee and fold his newspaper all in one fluid motion.

“You better get yourself some breakfast and get dressed. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He said this from the sink without turning his head to look at me.

“Yes, sir,” I said and then headed over to the cabinet to procure a bowl and a box of cereal. Mom usually cooked breakfast on Saturdays, but I knew it was a lost cause that morning. I crunched my Honeycomb alone. Later, I tiptoed into Mom’s room and kissed her and Sarah before heading outside.

It saddened me to see Mom in such a terrible state, and I began to resent Dad for going about his business in such an immovable and seemingly insensitive manner. But by the time I was dressed and headed out the door I was thankful for the normalcy as well as the distraction that it provided.

“Grab a pouch of corn and start on the next row, Cole.” Dad pointed toward the wheelbarrow, which held within its scuffed metal belly an array of miscellaneous garden utensils as well as a rusted coffee can stuffed full of heirloom seed packets. I shuffled through the packets until I found the corn and then knelt down in the cool soil and prepared to get to work.

“Remember to drop them in about an inch and a half and about a foot apart, okay? Do you remember what and inch and a half looks like?”

“Yes,” I replied while waving my index finger in the air as confirmation.

“How ’bout a foot?”

“Yes,” I replied pointing to my forearm.

The sun was just peaking over the eastern tree line, and I could tell by the feel of it that it would be a perfect day for planting. It was. We were half finished before we even felt the need to roll up our sleeves.

Conversation was sparse as I remember; just instructions and questions pertaining to the job at hand. I mostly daydreamed about the tree house and went about my work in silence. Eventually I grew bored and began pretending I was a seed-planting robot complete with clunky motions and sound effects. This went on for quite some time until I looked up and could see that Dad was getting annoyed. I retired my act and asked a question instead.

“How do seeds work?”

Dad thought for a moment. Then, struggling to conceal a grin he replied, “Magic.”

“No, really. How do they work?”

“Magic. Just like a said.” Dad laughed and then proceeded in a more serious tone, “And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I thought for a moment about whether or not to take Dad seriously. He loved to pull a person’s leg, but the last comment had been stated so seriously that I couldn’t decide what to make of it. He gave me a moment to dwell on this and then, sensing my confusion, offered a further explanation.

“Everyone knows what a seed needs to grow: soil, water, air and sunlight. But no one I know can explain why a seed grows. It’s dead when you put it in the ground, but add the right ingredients and it shoots right up. Your science teacher wouldn’t be happy with that answer, but I’m not a scientist and I’m also not afraid of a little mystery now and again. I guess I just choose to view at least a portion of it as a miracle—or magic if you like.”

I smiled and laughed. I liked this explanation from my father. It was so unlike him and yet now as I look back, it explains so much. Silence ensued once more, but just as our planting was about to converge in the middle of a row a thought occurred to me.

“Is Howie like a seed? Is that why we put him in the ground?”

Dad sat back on his haunches and contemplated the dark soil at his knees. His right hand shook up and down methodically as he rattled a group of seeds within his closed calloused hand. Then, with invisible tears welling behind squinting eyes, he looked at me and stated firmly and with great resolve, “Yes, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I remember the look of our hands that day. They were filthy and yet at that moment and in that place it was the most natural thing on the planet.

Mark Bowers is currently a student of St. John's College of Nursing. He enjoys literature, music, art and time spent with his wife and six-year-old daughter.