I originally wrote this short story in 2012. It’s one of my favorites, because it’s inspired by the country people that I grew up with. I hope you enjoy my inaugural Flashback Friday post. If you enjoy it, please leave me a comment and let me know you read it and liked it. Even if you don’t like it, I’d love for you to comment. Us writers thrive on feedback!
Part of the Dyin’
“Mama? You okay?”
I jerk my head up. My daughter, Annie, is lookin’ at me with that concerned look on her face. The one that lets me know I really am old. The one that I used to give my Mama before she passed on. Back before I became part of the dyin’.
“I’m fine, honey.” Even my voice has that little tremor that belongs to my mama and daddy’s generation.
“Are you sure?” Annie looks worried.
“Yes, Darlin’.” I pat her knee, and give her a smile that I know comes off as weak and unconvincing.
“Alright, Mama.” Annie heaves a big sigh as she stands up. “You just let me know if you need anything, alright?”
“Alright, Honey.” Annie squeezes my shoulder and walks away, and I am not unaware. Our roles are shiftin’. Just like I had begun to take care of my mama, now my Annie, my oldest daughter, is beginnin’ to fuss and fret over me. I can’t say that I like it. But, then again. I can’t say that I don’t.
This day has lasted forever, it seems like. I’ve had worse days. After all, I buried a baby and a husband. Somehow, this day has just drained the life right out of me. I wasn’t expectin’ that.
Jimmy Ray was my baby brother. Eleven years younger’n me. He was only fifty-eight, and in good health. Better health than any of the rest of us. We’re all startin’ to break down. Elmer’s the oldest. He just turned seventy-one. That’s older’n Daddy was when he died. Elmer has emphysema. He prob’ly won’t be ‘round much longer. It wouldn’t a hit me so hard had it been him. I’ve been tryin’ to get ready for him to go. But not Jimmy Ray. He’s the baby. I never for the life of me woulda thought we would lose him first.
“How ya doin’, Sissy?” Myrtle Jackson sits down across from me, and settles her big behind into the chair. Lord! I think to myself. She’s plannin’ to stay a while.
“I’m doing as well as can be expected, Myrtle.” I fold the pink tissue in my lap into neat squares, noticin’ as I do that my hands look just like my mama’s did. How’ve I not noticed the way I’m turnin’ into her? Thin, pale skin stretched over large, blue veins, just like hers.
“I’m glad to hear it, Sissy.” Myrtle’s eyes are startin’ to get that shiny, ‘bout to cry look. “I sure am gonna miss Jimmy Ray. He was just about as good as they come, Sissy. And I mean that.”
“I know it, Myrtle.” I cain’t really bring myself to meet her eyes. Myrtle loves nothin’ better’n to have a good cry in a funeral home, and I just cain’t deal with it. Passin’ behind Myrtle’s chair, I see my sister, Jolene, headin’ my way, and I lock eyes with her. She knows Myrtle Jackson’s affinity for hysterics as well as I do, and she is pullin’ me up out of my chair as soon as she gets to me.
“Sissy, Faye Gardner is here with her boy, Jack, and she’s askin’ where you are.”
“Lord, I’ve not seen Faye in years.” I cast an apologetic look towards Myrtle who is just beginnin’ to sniff and dab her eyes. “’Scuse me, Myrtle.”
As Jolene steers me away from Myrtle and towards a group of people, she speaks just loud enough for me to hear her. “I cain’t stand this, Sissy. All I wont to do is sit and have a good squall, but I have to just keep shakin’ hands and huggin’ necks like this is social hour down at the Lodge.”
“I know what you mean, Sis.” I pat the hand that grips my elbow. “It won’t be much longer.”
Ignorin’ Faye Gardner and her boy, Jack, altogether, Jolene and I sit down on the other side of the room behind a rubber palm tree. The service is gonna start soon, and the men that run the funeral home are shiftin’ chairs around, settin’ up the room.
Jimmy Ray had been my special brother. When he was born, I was half grown. I loved him like he was mine, and he loved me, too. I used to tote him around on my hip long after he could walk. He used to have cotton white hair when he was a little boy, and big blue eyes. When he got a little bigger, he’d run off with the other boys. Huntin’ squirrels with Elmer and Tom, and shootin’ marbles with Clyde. They’d come home dirty and laughin’, trackin’ dirt all over the place. The other boys would set right in to wrestlin’ around…horseplay was what Daddy always called it…but Jimmy Ray would always come and hug my neck first. Sometimes he’d say, “Love you, Sissy.” But most of the time he’d just hug me tight and quick, and go back to play with the boys.
A few strums on a gi’tar, and I look up to see what’s going on. Elmer and his wife, Tom, and Clyde and his wife have joined Jolene and me in the second row. The preacher walks in with Jimmy Ray’s wife, Susan, and their three girls and their husbands and young’ns. They all sit down together in front of us. Susan’s been cryin’, you can tell, but she’s holdin’ it together. I wish I could give her a little squeeze or something, but I cain’t reach her. I know what she’s a feelin’. I remember tryin’ to stay calm and stop cryin’ long enough to get the funeral over with when my Charlie died. It’s been almost eight years, but I still remember exactly what it felt like sittin’ in this same room. People don’t know what a job it is to be comforted in your grief by friends and relatives, coworkers, friends of your “loved one” that you ain’t never met before, and on and on. It means the world to you that they came…that they show their respects…but it ain’t easy.
Judy Jones’s scratchy alto starts out low but gets louder and louder as she reaches the chorus of “Beulah Land.” Lynn Jenkins strums his gi’tar to accompany her. I cain’t help but realize that I listened to this exact same song sang by these exact same people at Mama’s funeral. Mrs. Ledbetter’s, too. It all starts to look like a routine after a while. I’ve probably been to ten or more funerals this year alone. We’re startin’ to drop like flies. Heart attacks. Strokes. Cancer. It’s usually the cancer. Breast cancer. Prostate cancer. Liver. Lung. That’s what took my brother Tom’s wife…lung cancer. And she didn’t even smoke. I hate the very word cancer.
Pastor Trout’s preacher voice drowns out the weepin’ sounds comin’ from Jimmy Ray’s girls. I just cain’t get used to callin’ Carlin Trout “pastor.” He’s thirty-five years old, and I changed his diapers when he was a baby. He’s a pretty good preacher, as far as I can tell, but I don’t guess I ever thought about this part of gettin’ old.
While “Pastor” Trout starts explainin’ that Jimmy Ray is in a better place and folks ought to get their hearts right with God if they want to join him there one day, I just keep a thinkin’ about the last time I saw Jimmy Ray. He had come by the house one day last week to bring me a sack of peaches he’d got for me down at the flea market. Jimmy Ray was always goin’ to the flea market, and he’d come back with the strangest things sometimes. Oh, he’d bring back the normal stuff…fresh eggs, produce, a pocket knife…but he’d get a wild hair every now and then and bring home a crate full of baby rabbits or a forty pound anvil. Susan would just roll her eyes at him and smile. She always indulged Jimmy Ray in whatever he took a fancy to. They were those high school sweethearts that never did grow out of thinkin’ each other was somethin’ special, no matter what crazy thing they did.
Jimmy Ray had just set the sack of peaches down on my kitchen table, and said, “What ya got good to eat, Sissy?”
I was fryin’ a pan of taters and onions when he came in, and I put some on a plate for him. He started shakin’ black pepper all over those taters, and grinned up at me and said, “Smells just like the kitchen back home, don’t it, Sis?”
“Sure does.” I’d set down beside of him with my own plate, and he give my shoulders a big squeeze.
“You’re just like a mama to me, Sis.” Jimmy Ray grinned and chewed and talked all at the same time. “I think Mama was plumb wore out by all the junk Elmer and Clyde got into, by the time I came around, she’d just as soon let you keep after me.”
I didn’t really know what to say to him. No one had ever really acknowledged the way I mothered Jimmy Ray. So I just smiled at him, and he grinned back at me.
That was the last time I saw my baby brother. My big, gray-headed, pot-bellied baby brother.
As Judy Jones begins to wail out another old hymn, the sniffin’ and cryin’ begin to pick up. The service is almost over. Ever’one gets more emotional near the end. I realize I’m cryin’, too. Tears drippin’ off my chin and leavin’ little wet spots on the new, green dress Annie bought me. She does my shoppin’ now. It’s just easier.
Elmer’s big, calloused hand is slippin’ round my shoulder. His breaths sound wheezy, and I know he’s tryin’ not to cry. The clear tube carryin’ oxygen to his nose is tremblin’ with his chin. Tom is leaned over with his elbows on his big knees and the knuckles of his thumbs shoved in his eyes. Clyde’s wife is pattin’ his back to beat the band, as Clyde’s moppin’ his eyes and nose with a big white handkerchief. Jolene slips her old lady hand in mine, and I squeeze it real tight.
Lord, this ain’t right! It just feels so wrong to be sayin’ bye to Jimmy Ray. We always looked out for him. Doted on him. He wasn’t s’posed to leave us. Look at us now! I swear this is worse than buryin’ Mama and Daddy. We just didn’t ever expect to say goodbye to Jimmy Ray. He’s the baby.
As Lynn strums the gi’tar and Judy sings, I listen to the words. “Farther along, we’ll know all about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why.” There’s a comfort in that old song. It’s what makes it such a nice funeral song. There’s hope that someday this will make sense. Why people have to get old. Say goodbye. ‘Cause it don’t make much sense now. Don’t make much sense how one day you’re young and got your kids and your husband and the next day they’re grown and he’s gone. Don’t make much sense how your parents pass on and you keep on havin’ Christmases and Easters without ‘em. Don’t make no sense a’tall how us young’ins became part of the dyin’. Just don’t make no sense.
©2015 Rachel Holbrook