Monday, July 14, 2008

I Hate Death (Part 1)

Upon St. Helen's Day

I said in my post about Scotty: "I hate death. I hate it with a never-ending hate." Yes, I hate Death. I hate it in an anthropomorphized, very personal kind of way. I even have a face I envision when I think about Death. I feel strongly about this, but I don't really understand why.

From as early as I can remember, when I was just a young pre-school kid growing up in a small southern town of 5,000, my grandmother took me to absolutely every funeral at the two "white" funeral homes. (Yes, those were the days of segregation. We knew all the white people – or at least knew their children or cousins. But white and black people went to different schools, different churches … lived in different worlds.) All these funerals were of "Old People."

Occasionally, I would grumble. "Why do I have to go to the funeral of this person I don't even know?" The answer was something along these lines, though probably not so articulated: "Because someday there will be a funeral for someone you know and love. You need to learn the routine so you can run on auto-pilot when that's needed."

Mind you, I did not grow up in a liturgical church. Alas, I was raised in the Southern Baptist church. But they were right to take me to all those funerals, to get me familiar with the ritual of death.

The first of those funerals was when I was in high school, for the older brother of a classmate, who had killed himself. I didn't really know Alan very well; I was a classmate of his brother Mark. It was a weird service, but at least I knew the drill. I got through it. … Years later, I keep looking back on Alan's death. I have a hunch that he was probably gay. I suspect he's one of those statistics – one of the gay teenagers who kill themselves rather than disappoint their parents and community. But that was the early 1970s. We didn't talk about that kind of stuff.

The first profoundly difficult funeral for me came when I was 22. This was the first funeral that called on all my early learnings. It was Helen's funeral. Helen was my parents' age, but she and I had had an incredibly intense, deep relationship for nearly a decade. I felt she was a soul mate. Looking back now, I realize that I had a huge crush on her.

It was Helen's habit several times a week to ride her bicycle the mile or two into town to visit people who were sick or sad or suffering. Often she would end the day at my house; we would visit, and (especially if it was dark or dusk) I would drive her home. But I wasn't home on July 14, 1977. She rode her bicycle home on that July evening as dusk fell. Two 20-something brothers drove by her on that lonely country dirt road, stopped her, threw her into the back seat of their car, and slashed her to death with a gazillion knife cuts. Her body was found late that night in a ditch by the side of the road, in sight of her home.

The boys were caught within hours, and one confessed promptly. He said that, during the whole time they were torturing and slashing and murdering her, she was praying – even praying for God's mercy on these two crazed boys.

Our little town was unhinged. There was talk of lynching those boys. I was devastated and nearly paralyzed by her death. That was the first funeral when all my early training came in handy. I went to the funeral. Tears fell uncontrollably down my face throughout the funeral. Even now, it breaks my heart. I was devastated at the time. Why did this happen? How could she have met such an ugly, violent, heinous death? But I knew the drill. I wanted to scream and go hysterical when the soprano soloist sang "How Great Thou Art." (I still despise that song!) But I knew the drill. I knew how to behave.

She was murdered on July 14. For me, this date will always be St. Helen's Day.

1 Comments:

Anonymous JCF said...

I arrive late, but prayers ascending for "St. Helen" . . . and for you, Lisa.

7/25/2008 1:02 AM  

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