My wife and I went to the wake last night.  The casket was closed.  Her husband sat in a chair in a row of chairs in front facing the room, the casket behind him.  A smart and witty man, he cried when I shook his hand. "I'm sorry," he said, "this just comes over me."  We sat together. He started to breathe quickly and heavily. "I'm all right. I don't have asthma. I do this to stay on top of it, to calm down."

His daughter and son were there; friends and neighbors were there. The casket was there.

Her daughter told me how quickly it went--taking her to the hospital, discovering a mass in her belly, treatment plans, cardiac arrest, death. In less than three days. "There would have been more surgeries," her son-on-law told me, shaking his head. "Her belly was as swollen as a basket ball." He shook his head again--a kind man with clear eyes. "She never complained. You'd never know anything was wrong." Her quick death they understood as a blessing, saving a sweet, intelligent woman from more suffering.

As I turned to leave I saw a poster board covered with photographs--there was also  one by the entrance that I hadn't seen when I first walked in. The board by the casket was covered with photos of their wedding in the early 1950s.  I didn't recognize the man whose hand I'd been holding, whose face was a foot from mine. "This is X?" I asked my wife.  She said yes. But I recognized his wife; I could see her face in the young woman in her wedding dress smiling at the camera. I had always known her old; I'd never thought about her young. But here she was, here was all her life caught in the lens--her friends, relatives, her 50s hair do. Here were the young men in their baggy 50s suits, their mild pompadours, their shined shoes.

On the poster board by the exit she was younger, an unmarried girl in skirt and blouse, in her rolled, demure 50s woman's trousers, her neat, laced shoes. An entire poster board, the merest glance at a life, maybe 30 photos, but more than enough to recognize a life.

To my young neighbors I'm this older guy--they know nothing of the roads I've been on, the light I've seen, the dreams that drove me. I'm this...guy who has a snow blower who's happy to do their walkways after he's done his own, who builds things in his backyard. Maybe they know it's me when they hear, on a sunny day if it's not too cold, a table saw's coarse growl.

"Naught's clear, all's mystery," Yeats wrote. No. I don't think so. It's the other way. What's clear is the mystery.

 


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