Jennifer Kerske

 Grief Jar

          I went to a funeral a month ago with my boyfriend, John.  The man who passed away was his ninety-one-year-old grandpa, George.  People who die of old age, as George did, are truly wonderful people, if for no other reason than that they don’t force us to think about our own inevitable deaths.  When someone dies in a car wreck or finally gives up fighting a long battle with cancer, I can’t help but think about the fact that it could have been me.  With every floral arrangement that comes through the funeral home’s double doors, I imagine my last name on the envelope.  After “before her time” funerals I spend the next three to six months over-analyzing every close call on the freeway and allowing extra shower time for more thorough self-exams.

        Our drive to the wake at Gardner Funeral Home was a silent one.   John’s grandpa was the first death we experienced in the five years we had been together.  Just past the second set of railroad tracks that meant we were almost to Gardner, I looked at John’s glassy eyes and was overcome with envy.  John felt things like most people.  He laughed at Jim Carrey movies.  He cried at the end of Marley & Me.  He knew how to act on days that included funerals.  I laugh when people trip over chairs and then look around trying to see if anyone saw them.  I cry when I am running late for work and I can’t get the pickle jar open to finish making my lunch.  The only thing I know about funerals and sad things in general is to try not to say anything to offend anyone.

        The funeral home looked just like a regular house on the outside.  The inside smelled like pine needles.  I decided I could think of worse smells.  The place was wall to wood-paneled -wall shag carpeting.  It reminded me of George’s home.  I had only been there one time but I recalled John’s mom saying that it had been redecorated just after her mother passed away.  I realized at that moment that George had outlived his wife by more years than I had been alive.

        Other than one that said Staff and one that said Restroom, there were no doors in the whole place.  There were only arched wall sections to separate one area from another.  Down the middle of everything, there was a pea green wall that I could tell was collapsible.  It seemed like a status symbol.  I wondered if when I died the wall would be in place or folded up, tucked away at the end where it met the back of the funeral home.

        I felt awkward as I watched the people around me mourn appropriately.  Two women, each less than five feet tall with a combined age of somewhere around a hundred and seventy-five, embraced in front of corkboards filled with snapshots of set up scenes from a half-century ago.  The people who knew George the best talked about the weather or sports or dinner or anything except George.  Those who didn’t know him seemed to think about all the little interactions they had with him to try to sum up his life in one or two sentences.  Based solely on the drink he bought her three years ago, George was the most generous man Shirley DuVan had ever known.  Melanie Adams’ brother-in-law saw George at church every Sunday which clearly confirmed George’s meaningful relationship with the Lord.  That’s how all of us can find common ground with the dead without facing our own mortality.  We take all the memories we have of the person in the casket and put them in a jar.  The memories become our grief allowance.  Bonus points are granted for photos of ourselves with the deceased.  The person with the fullest jar is the one who gets to feel the worst.  Everything is a contest.

        “Do you want me to go up with you?”  I asked John, referring to the customary trip to look at the dead body and remark on how good it looks.

        “It’s up to you,” he said.

        If it was up to me, the answer was no.

        “I’ve got to run to the bathroom, quick,” I said, hoping I would take so long that he would be through the line before I had to revisit the question.  It actually worked.  Well, kind of.  When I came out of the bathroom I went through an archway to my left, expecting it to be the area where the family was gathered, socializing and trying to forget why they were there.  I found myself on the opposite side of where I meant to be.   I was face-to-open-casket with Grandpa George.  I didn’t have time to question the Gardner Brothers’ lousy floor plan because I found myself fumbling through my purse for tissues to catch the tears that immediately fell from my eyes.  At once I was alarmed and relieved to be having a normal reaction.

        At that moment John’s sister, Kate, who must have just gotten there, came through an archway and heaved her black blazer-clad upper body on top of her dead grandfather.  I had taken off my glasses to deal with my tears so I couldn’t actually see that it was her, but I knew it was.  The sound her jeans made when her thighs rubbed together announced her arrival even before her fake Georgia accent and southern sobbing began.

        I made a quick dash back into the bathroom so that nobody would see me crying.  I’m not the type of person who really cares if someone sees me crying but there it was different.  The guy wasn’t even my grandpa.  If memories in grief jars were pennies, I only had like two cents.  As I sat on the bathroom counter, blotting my face with a cold piece of rough paper towel, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and felt ashamed.  If I learned anything from my mother, besides the time she told me to take my rings off before I give someone a hand job, it’s that you can’t be upset about things that you’re not entitled to be upset about.  It’s not always about you, she’d say.  She said it so often that eventually I started telling myself that she was really saying she loved me, in a language that was just ours.

        I didn’t cry at her funeral.  I guess in the ten years since her death I haven’t gotten past the anger stage of grief.  My therapist says it’s because I avoid thinking about my mother whenever I can.  She says I avoid thinking about her because “it must have been so hard to lose your mother at 17.”  It was hard for a lot of reasons, none of which was having had to grow up without a mother.  She had a drug problem and a sex problem and a bunch of other problems that made her less than a decent role model and even if she hadn’t been in a car accident (which was her fault) and died I wouldn’t have been any better off.   I grew up long before 17.  I avoid thinking about her because then I would have to think about where she is today.  In my mental courtroom, the jury hasn’t decided whether she’s feeding the hundredth generation of worm families or dancing around in heaven, snorting cocaine with some crazy disciples or something.

        “We’re here,” John said, the next morning when we arrived back at the funeral home.  There would be a meeting there to discuss final arrangements, and then the actual funeral would take place across the street at the Catholic Church.

        I resisted complaining about the fact that he parked in the middle of a huge puddle.  He would have just tried to say that he needed to park there to be in correct order for the procession.

        The funeral service was typical.  I spelled out states in alphabetical order in my head.  Around Nebraska I got distracted by John’s four-year-old cousin behind us.  She was asking her mom if we’d be throwing candy from our cars.  It served that mom right for saying that after the funeral there would be a parade of cars.  I imagined myself throwing chunks of dehydrated meat from the window of our orange Ford Edge.  I had brought a bag of beef jerky from home to eat on the way and it was the only thing that resembled food in our car.  Then I envisioned some random person just walking along, seeing my Hansel and Gretel trail of beef bits that ended with a hearse at a graveyard.  I buried my smile and stifled a laugh in the sleeve of my black cardigan and started the states over again.  Then I quizzed myself on the state capitols.  I was just about to ask John if he knew Tennessee when a bell rang.  It was time for all the Catholics to go eat the body of Christ and drink His blood.  Since I’m not Catholic, I stayed in my seat and watched everyone else go up for Communion.  I looked around as people came back to their benches and got down on their kneelers to pray.   John’s mom was wiping her eyes.  Her jar was the fullest.  She was there when Grandpa George died.  She was holding his hand at the exact second his heart stopped beating.  John’s dad had been there too and I overheard him at the wake telling John that just before he went she said, “Mom’s waiting for you,” and she even called him “daddy” the way I imagined she probably had a million times as a little girl.

        The moment of death is the saddest to me.  When I accidentally think about my mom, the moment of her death is where I go.  It was mid-December and we hadn’t gotten any snow yet, which was odd for Wisconsin.  I was at work, trying to earn enough in tips to get the electric company to turn our lights back on.  Mom was out drinking on the money that would have covered it while I was cleaning up sticky orange soda spills and jamming someone’s idea of 15% in my apron pocket.  I was washing the last of the dishes and getting ready to go home while she was leaving the Elbow Room.  On my drive home I cautiously pumped the brakes as I noticed the first flakes of the season start to come down.  An article in the local paper said my mother was going 50 miles per hour in a residential area when her car struck a telephone pole.   She probably hadn’t noticed the snow.  It was probably 20 degrees outside.   I wonder if she was cold.  She was a mess of blood and teeth and hair when they found her, but she was so drunk she probably didn’t feel a thing.  Mostly I wonder if she was thinking about me.  In her last second on Earth did she think about me?  Even if she never wanted me, I was all she had.  The only real thing.  Was I enough?  Would I ever have been enough?  But then I remember it isn’t always about me and think about something else.

        My thoughts were interrupted when John’s brother Joe and their cousin Shelly started to sing Ave Maria.  Row by row we emptied the church.  As we drove away from the funeral home it started to snow.

        “Slow down, John,” I said.


Jennifer Kerske is currently majoring in Computer Science and Business Administration and minoring in English at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Her interests include fort-building with her son, human interface design, and writing. bio-jena