He was young, the way many of them are young, and he died the way many of them die.
I did not know him well, my cousin Jeff. Hardly at all. He hailed from a branch of my mother’s family that is often not brought up in polite conversation. They do not engage in polite conversation. They were the sort of folk that we saw once a year at Thanksgiving dinner; they arrived ungraciously early, and often made off with the dinner rolls. Not because they were poor and could not afford dinner rolls; they arrived early so that Janet could genteelly condescend to my mother about what a mess her house was, what a mess her divorce was; they took the dinner rolls because they enjoyed being fat and complacent. Aunt Janet made them rich; she was not a pretty woman, not even a handsome one; but her thick fingers always glittered with real gold and various gaudy precious stones.
Aunt Janet made them rich, and Uncle Jim made them nasty.
With their only son gone, they are the most uncomfortable people to be around.
Or, they were.
Jeff’s is the first funeral I can remember attending. I was not very old at the time—perhaps seven or eight. I knew that Jeff was a soldier, that he had died in Iraq. My memory of him at the time was built solely off of those solitary Thanksgiving visits. Sometimes, he sat next to me and offered me the sorts of smiles and small talk you tote out to someone who is six or seven. He was nice to me, nice enough. Most of the time, he was a tall, clean-shaven figure who attached himself to whatever conversation his father was having.
(I remember his funeral. I remember thinking that I should be sad. I remember willing myself to cry, and feeling proud that I had almost accomplished it—never mind that I was biting my own tongue hard enough to bleed.)
I remember that it was a closed-casket funeral.
My mother maintains that Uncle Jim was always a nasty piece of work; but she says that Jeff’s death took what small decency he had left.
If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that Jim never loved anything in his life except for that boy.
There are things that you find out later; later, when you’ve grown up and people are done paying their respects. After a person dies, respect swathes them in a rich, meaningful way that it may never have in life. They become honorable. Venerated. Blameless.
I found out about the IED. That the funeral was closed-casket because there had been too much debris; it would not have been sightly.
I also found out that my cousin was a brat. Spoiled. Mean. Cruel the way school-boys are cruel. Disrespectful. He felt entitled to the world.
“Then why did he join the military?” I asked, slightly nonplussed.
My father—a third party, as much as there can be one—shook his head. “I have my theories,” he said, and then didn’t bother to explain them.
Jeff was not a nice boy. Not a nice young man. Too much like his father, it would seem.
But he died a hero’s death. And, in some ways, it made him angelic.
Janet is dying.
My mother tells me this as an addendum to a strange anecdote from work. It’s almost apropos; my mother is a pathologist, and so cancer is her bread and butter. She has just finished telling me about this very strange melanoma when she says, as if just remembering, “Oh. Janet is dying. She has cancer.”
My mother knows I do not like Aunt Janet. It isn’t personal: I simply don’t like Uncle Jim. He is the kind of uncle that teases his nieces about being pretty, and then teases them further about being heart-breakers and having slews of boyfriends, and it never feels quite innocent. The way he looked at me and my sister was oily, his dirty, grey-blue eyes watering with something mean and not quite appropriate. He was the first older man I learned to talk back to.
He was also the first person to teach me that some men like it when you talk back to them.
He was the first person I knew to dislike for their sheer repugnance.
I do not dislike Janet because of who she is, unwarranted condescension or no. I dislike her because she married someone I find completely and utterly repulsive.
Janet is dead now.
My mother attended the funeral two weeks ago. I alter my verbs to include the “-ed” ending. I disliked her.
I ask, with some measure of trepidation, how Jim is handling it.
On the other end of the line, my mother exhales a sound for which there is no named emotion.
“He’s been joking for weeks that he’s already on the lookout for her replacement. Last time I talked to him, he told me he was on a dating website.”
I think about Jim, old and fat and saggy in the face. Unattractive, uncouth, undignified, and uncaring. I have no doubt that some desperate, self-loathing woman will come to his beck and call.
They have Janet’s funeral on a Saturday. They bury her in the same cemetery, in her tidy space in the same plot as Jeff. There is a spot between them, unmarked by stone and unmarred by shovel. It isn’t a large spot, but I think Jim will fit.
Before Janet died, she would make Jim come with her to visit Jeff’s grave at least twice a year. Once on his birthday, and once on Memorial Day. If I know Jim, Janet’s funeral will be the last time he ever goes to that graveyard.
I think it may be the last time Jim ever goes outside.
I spent a lot of time wandering around in a woods and then through a graveyard yesterday. This is one of the many things I was thinking about.