The Last Visit (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a short story I’ve written many years ago, when I used to see life (and death) through the eyes of a teenager. Part 1 appeared last Monday.

My granduncle died a few weeks later. Grandfather seemed to react calmly, even with relief. But I knew better.

The family decided to have my granduncle cremated. Making the arrangements fell on my mother’s shoulders. My granduncle’s body was to remain two days in the small chapel at the asylum and be moved on the third day to the crematorium. Only the immediate family would be witnessing the funeral service.

It was a sunny day. It took us a little while to leave the house and climb into the car. My dad was already at the wheel when I came out. I had never attended a funeral and rather than sadness, I felt a sense of anxiety and anticipation.

The last to emerge was my grandfather. In full daylight, the skin of his freshly shaven face looked pink like a baby’s, in odd contrast with his black suit, slow step and stooped shoulders.

“Hey, Boss, I kept a seat for you next to me,” my father told him on a jovial tone meant to hide his true feelings and leaned over to open the front passenger door.

Dad drove aggressively, honking and passing slower cars and buses. When we arrived at the Crematorium, I stayed behind with him, while the others advanced towards the imposing, somber building.

“It must be hard for Grandpa, no matter how calm he appears,” I said.

“It’s hard, but perhaps not quite as hard as you might imagine. Life goes on,” my father said.

“I’m not so sure, Dad. His brother was totally dependent on him and with him gone, there will be a vacuum in his life.” I suddenly felt I had said too much. My father turned away without responding and I watched him walk to the building and climb the stairs, one step after the other, hands on his knees, leaning slightly forward. For the first time in my life I thought of him as of someone who was growing older.

I followed him and entered a large, dark chamber. Cold air hit me. In front, on a massive bier stood the coffin. Behind it was a semicircular balcony with a railing, like a pulpit. In the open casket, the body of my granduncle completely covered by flowers and illuminated by a single light seemed very small, doll-like. His face looked different. Had I seen him by chance, I might not have recognized him.

Two women I didn’t know occupied one of the long benches in the middle of the room. They were dressed in black. My family gathered in a corner and I suggested to my grandfather to sit down. The women whispered something to each other and moved aside.

“It’s gloomy in here,” I told my father.

The vaulted ceiling was high and the walls around us contained numerous alcoves with urns, candles and pictures of the deceased.

“A life is memorialized inside each of those niches,” I whispered. “Now, those who lost someone dear to them bring flowers.”

My father gave me a puzzled look. “That’s one way of putting it,” he eventually said.

“They do it out of a sense of duty, and to remember. I guess people must feel comforted when they come here bringing flowers.” At this moment in my young life I wanted my words to impress my father and show a mature and profound thought process.

A third woman appeared and I stopped talking. She approached the bier and crossed herself. She seemed ready to take a step back when she gave a start. “You’re not the party I’m looking for,” she announced loudly and left in a hurry.

Suddenly music filled the air. I froze and looked at the casket. The heart-rending moments were coming — the ceremony when we would say goodbye to the departed and watch him disappear slowly accompanied by the sounds of the requiem.

The day before I had asked my mother what was going to happen. “There are several levels of service,” she had told me. “Ours is the simplest. We listen to classical music for fifteen minutes, then the platform gets lowered and the casket slides forward into the fire.”

“What if the platform gets stuck?” I had asked. “I assume a person located somewhere below pushes a button or pulls a lever. What if he forgets, or falls asleep, or something?”

“How could he forget?” my mother had wondered. “Such things simply don’t happen.”

Now lulled by the music, I waited for that unavoidable moment when someone unseen would put in motion the levers and fill our hearts with sadness. I looked around: my father, his eyes fixed forward and his back perfectly straight, next to him my mother, with a softer demeanor, her head bowed, hands clasped together as if in prayer, then my grandmother, even less tall and more humble. My grandmother’s silver hair framed her face like a wispy cloud and I followed her eyes stealing worried glances at my grandfather, who sat on the front bench facing what used to be the duty of a lifetime, next to the two unknown women dressed in black and finally, in front of us, my uncle, lifeless, drowning under the layer of flowers.

Time passed slowly. The women dressed in black got up and left. They opened the door and the golden light outside gleamed like a calling. Inside, the five of us breathed heavily.

My father stood to my right. By now, he had lowered his eyes a little and on his face I read his impatience. The initial effect the music had had on him had faded, and his candid and impulsive temperament pierced through.

My mother seemed to find her strength elsewhere. She had unclasped her hands and allowed them to fall straight by her body. Her head, still bowed, suggested she had accepted her role, and certain that the helper ‘couldn’t forget,’ she was ready to follow the planned process to the end.

My grandmother got tired and she sat down next to my grandfather on the wooden bench. Her eyes seemed totally calm now and her gaze had joined my grandfather’s in a bond that led to the world of my uncle, shielded by the flowers.

The darkness and the slow passage of time were taking their toll.

A yellow rose laid next to my uncle’s face, the petals brightening his waxy cheek.

My grandmother whispered into my grandfather’s ear. He shrugged. They seemed smaller to me, as if they had shrunk under the weight of their sorrow and their pain. I had no doubt that the fifteen minutes reserved for us had passed. My mother took a step back and leaned against one of the pillars.

Only Father stood still and straight, his expression almost unchanged.

I understood we had no escape. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and watched all of them grow smaller, gradually, irreversibly, coming together into an undefined and amorphous mass, without thought or feeling, only the cloud of memories still hanging above them. Finally, I joined them and shrunk with them as well, I, the former victor, the fifth and last spectator. I saw my own struggle, passionate at first and weaker towards the end, waiting for the levers to drop and listening for my last scream brilliantly obscured by the masterful music.

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.