An old college friend of mine is in mourning. He just lost a distant family member back in Tennessee. However, as is true for many gays, this deceased family member doesn’t feel so distant emotionally. Sometimes it’s our extended family members—or even our friends—who become family. This is especially true when our closest family rejects us. Other times, it just means that these beloved family members, whether they came to us by blood or by a beautiful sense of some other kinship, just seem to “get” us. We love them, they love us, and that’s that.
Unfortunately, my friend—I’ll call him Matthew—now lives out west and simply can’t get away for the long trudge back home for the burial. So, Matthew grieves among foreigners who don’t understand Southern bereavement. And he feels like a believer among the lost. Now, don’t get me wrong when I say among the lost. This is no tale of Christian fundamentalism. Okay, maybe in some respects it is, but Matthew converted to Judaism years ago. He has come a long way since our Southern Christian upbringing, and so have I. But that doesn’t mean he has forgotten the old days, the old ways. Or that he pooh-poohs our heritage.
I begin to understand his becoming a Jew when I hear him say, “If my family were Jewish we would sit Shiva for seven days. People would come, bring food and, tiptoeing, whisper condolences, and sitting on cardboard we would collectively mourn, our dead being buried immediately and before sunset.” He contrasts that with our Christian upbringing: “My sister, the evangelical who praised Jesus and foretold Gary’s healing in his name, now praises Jesus as he welcomes Gary into a better place. Funny how she can have it both ways.” My friend isn’t one to push his own religious beliefs off on others, so he’s quick to add, “I only challenge her faith in my own mind.”
I’ve invested time allowing my friend to grieve to me, listening to him tell me how he longs to be there. He says, “I want Alice’s rabbit hole now, to fall quietly into darkness, to be aroused by a white rabbit, to drink tea with a Mad Hatter and to confront the Red Queen.” Matthew can do all that safely by talking with me. He needs a friend as a release valve, knowing that after a while, I will reach down and pull him back up through that rabbit hole to the real world.
But that must come later, for now he recalls his own mother’s passing, years ago. He still sees and smells the sickening, mixed aroma of those heaping bowls of food magically appearing on their kitchen table and overflowing the counters. Foodstuffs left even long after his mother was buried. Deposited even if no one was home when it was delivered. No, they didn’t lock their doors. There was no fear of neighbors who filled the now-too-silent house with macaroni and cheese. With deviled eggs. With fried chicken and other meats—mostly hams and pork barbeque. But all kinds, boiled or baked, but mostly fried. Oh and there were cakes and pies. Chess, lemon, apple, cherry pies. Peach, apple, blackberry cobblers. Food is the Southern condolence card.
Matthew knows what’s in store for the widow, his niece-cum-sister. Through it all—from the wake with its interminable wait, to the funeral with songs like “When the Role Is Called Up Yonder,” and on to the solemn procession with headlights blaring and cars stopping respectfully all along the route to the cemetery—the bereaved will endure with Southern grace all those weak attempts at consoling her. “He looks so natural,” someone always says. But nothing feels natural; there is no feeling at all except a sensation of bottomless emptiness. The emptiness of a huge hole that, over and over, wells up with a lava flow of despair. “Honey, time heals all,” says another. She doesn’t want to be healed; she wants the father of her children, her husband, friend, confidant, sparing partner, lover.
Matthew just wants to be there. To say nothing. To wrap his arms around her. To hold her close to his chest as she sobs. Offering quiet comfort like Abraham’s bosom.