I got a 3-speed bike for Christmas I was a seven. It was all black with a wide banana seat. The back tire was flat instead of rounded which made me think of the wide, flat tires on drag racers. Because nobody else in the neighborhood had gears, I was the fastest on the block.
Most days there were plenty of kids to ride the streets of our neighborhood, but on those rare days when I found myself alone I’d often make a big figure 8 between the driveway of my house and the neighbors across the street. Their driveway had a bit of an incline, so I’d always build enough speed going down and across the street to get airborne just a touch when I hopped the gutter going back to my driveway.
I’d often see the neighbors, mostly the wife – whose name I forget – tending the flower beds flanking their front door. The husband, Roscoe, drove a dump truck. It fascinated me in the way that big construction vehicles often do with children. I assume he did contract work in the region and the side pad where the truck sat would be empty for days at a time.
I remember my parents pulling me aside one day after school. They asked if I knew Roscoe and his wife and then told me she was killed in a car accident. It was my first dealing with any sort of death. Nobody in my family had died. My pet dog still had many years ahead of him. Still, I had some understanding of death even without experiencing it first hand.
Roscoe’s wife suffered an aneurism and her car swerved into oncoming traffic. A school bus nearly hit her car head on, but before the collision her car continued across the road and off the shoulder. I don’t remember exactly what stopped her vehicle, but the impact was enough to decapitate her.
It was difficult for me not to think about quite a bit. Perhaps it’s a bit macabre, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the steering wheel could have injured her that way or if it had been the windshield. I also couldn’t help wonder if the school bus was filled with kids. If memory serves, it was empty except for the driver, but it was all too easy to let me mind wonder what would have happened if children had been on board – if I had been on board. Would the bus be so big that we would have been ok?
I never felt guilty playing out these scenarios in my head because I’d been told the aneurism killed her instantly and that she was already dead before her body was mangled or before she could have seen a yellow school bus bearing down on her as her car crossed the lane. Believing she was already dead offered me a permission to speculate that was much less frightening than if she had still been alive.
The church gave me further comfort. Some said everything happens for a reason, others that she was now at peace with God. Others said it was just natural – that everything dies. I was encouraged to remember how she lived instead of how she died. Perhaps the most disturbing was when people said she was looking down at us from Heaven like a spectral voyeur. Picturing the dead watching my every move still disturbs me even though I’d like to think they have better things to occupy their time with.
Unfortunately the story of Roscoe’s wife didn’t end there.
We attended her memorial service, which was open casket. Seeing her body was surreal. For all the trauma I’d envisioned in my mind’s eye, here she was looking perfectly normal. I wanted to touch her arm, to see if perhaps she felt much different or if that, too, was the same as she’d always been.
Roscoe entered the room. His eyes were red and his body looked defeated. Someone produced a chair so he could sit beside his wife’s coffin as he seemed without the energy to even stand. I always had the feeling he’d had to leave the room because it was too much to bear, perhaps he’d been soothed and coaxed by the funeral home employees to return before getting the chair for him.
I was in the middle of the room with my parents, who were talking with others, but I kept looking at Roscoe. He seemed oblivious to my gaze, too wrapped up in his own misery and probably too teary-eyed to see.
He stood and looked down at his wife’s body. Suddenly he dove at the casket, wrapped his arms around his wife and pulled her up to his chest. Her decapitated head was never intended to stand up to such treatment and rolled off, dropping back into the casket.
I don’t remember what happened next outside of Roscoe being removed from the room and the casket quickly shut. I could hear his cries from the hallway.
Eventually he returned to the room with an assistant on each arm and they lowered him back to the chair. A line of friends and family formed to extend their condolences one by one. As we approached I could see he met each person’s eyes, but that his mind was elsewhere.
My time came and I extended my hand and said “I’m sorry.”
Having been in the presence of children at other funerals, I know the words of a child can often mean more than the condolences from an adult. Perhaps it’s because we know the child is genuine and not just going through the motions. Perhaps in this case it was something else. Maybe I represented the child they’d always wanted to have. Maybe seeing me made him remember those sunny days when I was on my bike and she was tending to the flowers by the door.
Whatever the reason, he held me and didn’t let go as others in the line continued the procession. I felt his heavy shoulders hitch as he cried. I heard his breath come out in fits and starts and he’d occasionally grip me differently as if to let me know he needed me there.
In the many years since I’ve wanted to ascribe meaning to her death. I’ve wondered why she died so young and unexpectedly. At times I’ve fancied the aneurism didn’t kill her immediately and that she valiantly steered her already-swerving car out of the path of the oncoming school bus. I’ve wondered if her death was the part of some unseeable cosmic plan or if it was just part of the natural order. I’ve pictured her spirit trying to give comfort to Roscoe as he moved on with his life alone.
Ultimately I’ll never know if there’s any meaning to this kind of death. All I know is her death is bonded to my life and my life is no longer the same for having her in it. I’ll never forget her even though her name has slipped my memory. I’ll always be reminded of Roscoe and his big dump truck parked to the left side of their house.
But I’ll also remember the changes. I’ll remember how death suddenly became something very real. I’ll remember how, on those rare lonely days in the neighborhood, I stopped making that looping figure 8 between our driveways. And after Roscoe remarried a few years later, I pondered the nature of how people can still move on with their lives even when nearly debilitating events happen to us.
When we search for the meaning, for the why, we aren’t always satisfied with the answers we find. Sometimes we’re just left with a story that isn’t necessarily our own, yet becomes a part of who we are.