It's difficult to know how to feel about the death of a cousin you've never really been close to. My cousin Samuel was ten years older than me. By the time I was learning to read, he was learning to drive. Between college and law school, he wasn't around for most of my childhood. If Elizabeth hadn't left me right before I found out about his death, I don't know if I would have made the trip all the way home for the funeral.
My sophomore year of college, I got a call from Mom saying that Samuel had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He hadn't been feeling right for weeks and he kept going back to the doctor, and the doctor kept telling him nothing was wrong with him. Finally he convinced them to run some tests, because the odd feelings just weren't going away. I had just gotten back from the biology class I didn't usually go to when Mom called. She told me they said it was a rare cancer of the pancreas, something more common in septuagenarians than in otherwise-healthy 30-year-old men.
Over the next few years, Samuel was in and out of hospitals – Northwestern, University of Chicago, Loyola, the Mayo Clinic – and received a harsh series of radiation treatments and chemotherapies. When he showed up at a family gathering wearing a baseball cap, everyone knew he had recently had a treatment. But he never talked about the cancer, never complained about how sick the treatments made him or how, although his hairline hadn't receded one centimeter by the time he reached 30, his hair had all fallen out from the chemo.
When Mom called me with updates about his health, I always accepted the news matter-of-factly. The cancer went into remission. There was a relapse. He was going back to Mayo for more treatments. By the time I graduated, it seemed, at least to me, like he might beat it. But about a year into my time in London, Mom called at 4 a.m. (important news always made her forget the time difference) and said she'd just gotten a call from Aunt Sarah saying he came back from Mayo that day. The doctors told him the cells were metastasizing again. With continued treatment they could prolong his life, but with the technology they had there didn't seem to be anyway they could beat the cancer.
The call that brought me home wasn't unexpected. After that middle-of-the-night call, I knew it was only a matter of time before the follow-up came. But in all the time I spent thinking about how things ended with Elizabeth, I hadn't really spent too much thinking about my dead cousin. It's difficult to gauge the proper level of grief – I'm not talking about the appearance of grief; I mean real grief – you should feel over the death of someone you've known your whole life but have never been close to. I was a blood relative, but at the wake, as I stood around answering questions about England, I realized there were people who weren't related who were going to be missing a much larger part of their lives.
His wife Jennifer stood in the viewing room almost the entire night, the smile almost never leaving her face. She accepted handshakes, hugs and kisses from old friend, and relatives she was meeting for the first time. Even when she was forced to listen to one of Great Uncle Bob's meandering stories about when Samuel was a small child – I learned later that the story actually happened to Uncle Steve – she didn't lose an ounce of her grace. She was just happy to share something of her husband with all the people there.
Near the end of the night, when Willy, Tom and I were in the basement of the funeral home keeping an eye on the kids, Jennifer took a break from the reception line to come downstairs for a bite to eat and a drink of water. She found us there playing Monkey in the Middle with one of our cousins' numerous offspring. I can't remember whose kid it was. She pulled us aside and told us that Samuel asked if we could be pallbearers at the funeral.
"Of course we can; we'd be happy to," I said, happy that I meant enough to my cousin to be charged with such an important task. It had become our role in family funerals to carry the casket. We did it for both our grandparents and for Uncle Steve. I was honored to do it again.
Willy was freaking out. He managed to maintain his composure until Jennifer had headed back upstairs, but then he let his litany of worries come flying out.
"What if I lose my grip and drop it?" he said. "What if we're carrying it to the graveside and one of us trips and we all drop it and it pops open?"
"Willy, we've done this before. It's nothing to worry about," I said.
"But it could happen, and then everyone would blame us for ruining the funeral. It's just too much responsibility for me to handle right now."
After the funeral, we followed closely behind Aunt Sarah and Jennifer in the funeral procession. Tom drove my old car and Willy and I road with him. Mom, Dad and Megan followed us in Mom's car. It was a gray, rainy afternoon, the kind you always see in funeral scenes in movies. It wasn't hard rain. It was a cold mist. Before the funeral that morning, I had to stop Megan from telling Jennifer that she thought it was sexist that all her brothers were asked to be pallbearers but she wasn't. She was prepared to march into the funeral home before the casket closing and demand to be included. I managed to dissuade her by appealing to her sense of propriety – and giving her twenty bucks.
The procession came to a stop in the cemetery, about 20 yards from where Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Steve are buried. My brothers and I met the other pallbearers, friends of Samuel's from college, behind the hearse. The funeral director was a kindly man in his late middle age. He had perfectly quaffed salt-and-pepper hair. It seemed like he could keep a smile in the face of life's greatest tragedies. I guess it comes with the work.
"Ok, gentlemen," he said. "Now we're going to slide the casket out and I want the first two to take a hold of the handles and pass them down the line. Once the casket is off the rollers, I want the two at the back to lead. We're going to walk back that way and then turn so that we can carry it feet-first to the grave. Once you've set it on the platform, you can let go and walk over to join your families.
"Now, careful," he said. "Remember, it's heavy."
Willy and I were the first in line and we stepped up behind the hearse. Tom stood next to me, and Samuel's friends filled out the rest of the two lines. The funeral director and his assistant began to slid the the casket out of the hearse. Willy and I gripped the wooden handles. We passed them down the line until the six of us were completely supporting Samuel's weight. I understood the term dead weight. He wasn't a big man, smaller than me, but carrying his casket was quite a task. I wondered how much of the weight was the wood and metal of the casket.
We carried it to the grave without incident. Tom tripped a little as we walked off the cemetery road onto the grass, but he held on and recovered quickly. No one noticed besides Mom. We set the casket on the platform that would lower it into the ground after we were all safely out of site. We joined Mom, Dad, Megan and her manfriend, who rode to the cemetery in a separate car.
I stood between Dad and Jimbo, acting as a buffer. Willy was on Dad's other side, between him and Mom. Tom was on Mom's left with his arm around her shoulder, ever the good son. This was the first graveside service I ever went to, despite the large number of funerals I'd attended in my 28 years. It was a little like the ones in the movies, only there were no folding chairs and non of the little old ladies worse black hats with veils. The minister from the church stepped forward to address the crowd. He had done a good job of staving off the inevitable flow of tears at the church, and I wondered if he could keep it up here at the side of the open grave.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "We are here today to lay Samuel Johnson in his final resting place."
Lined up to the left of Samuel's open grave were Grandma and Grandpa Johnson and Uncle Steve. There was an open space between Samuel's grave and his father's for Aunt Sarah. She stood in the spot where her headstone would be, watching while they prepared to lower her only son into the ground. Jennifer was standing next to her, and neither of them were crying. Even Willy, surprisingly, had dry eyes.
The minister said his final prayer and dismissed the assembled friends and family. The funeral director stepped up to direct everyone to the luncheon at Aunt Sarah's house. Distant family members pointed out our relatives burial places to one another as they walked back to their cars. I wondered how many times I was going to have to answer The Elizabeth Question at this reception. Maybe while everyone was making toasts to my cousin's memory, I should just stand up and made the announcement, gotten it all out in the open, I thought. But that would have defeated my reason for not telling anyone yet. It would definitely be upstaging the main event of the day.
The reception actually went surprisingly well. The number of questions about Elizabeth was largely outweighed by questions about British idioms, soccer and the royal family. I spend most of the time sitting in a corner with Tom and Willy, catching up on the news I'd missed since our last visit. I found out Willy was taking a semester off from teaching to try to get his panic attacks under control. He had to move back in with Mom and Dad because he was afraid he would hurt himself if he kept living alone. He hoped to start substitute teaching in the spring and find a new teaching job for the following fall. Tom was apparently leading the state in receiving yards for tight ends and was going to start college next fall as at least a second-semester freshman because of all his AP credit.
We got our coats from Samuel's old bedroom, which was still decorated with the awards and certificates of his childhood. I realized I had no plan. Even as Willy battled with the chemical balance in his brain, he had a plan for moving forward with his life. This funeral brought me home and now that it was over, I didn't have a clue what I was going to do with myself.