My First Experience With Death Up Close and Personal

Crawford Hart 
Guest Contributor

My brother Marshall and his family had driven down to Pensacola from Memphis. Sue Jung, his wife really disliked my family, and the feeling was pretty much reciprocated. My brother’s daughter, a surprise from a former fling, was there as well, along with her mother. We enjoyed a close, amicable relationship with both of them, which no doubt colored Sue Jung’s feelings towards us.

My brother had been informed of his daughter’s birth three weeks after his marriage to Sue Jung, which created an awkward situation that remained difficult. My mother’s brother and his wife happened to be visiting at the time, and so found themselves part of this uncomfortable gathering. My mom did her best to play hostess, but the various relationship permutations proved unmanageable.

So we sat in her living room, making the kind of inane conversation typical of people whose lives once overlapped in various ways, but who had long since gone their separate directions. One thing we shared: all of us were waiting for my dad’s headlights to flash around the corner and then glide into the driveway. It wouldn’t be happening.

He had died three days earlier.

A month after Pearl Harbor, my father dropped out of his senior year and joined the Navy. He spent the next four years as a machine gunner on a PT boat in the South Pacific. When he came home, he went back to his school and finished the year. At graduation, he took with him a yearbook filled with affectionate references to “the big senior.” This told you all you needed to know about him: he had a clear sense of his priorities, he finished what he started, and everybody liked him.

But now he was gone, and so we sat around waiting. This was my first experience with death up close. I don’t know what I expected; I probably didn’t expect anything in particular. But what I found surprised me.

It was nothing.

A void.


Other passages in our lives that we ritualize – birthdays, baptisms, confirmations, graduations, marriage – all leave us with tangible evidence of their existence. We have photographs, written records, shared memories and the ongoing company of those with whom we joined in the experience. Death offers nothing. A presence in your life suddenly is no more. Kind of like a warped birthday party where the guest of honor doesn’t bother to show up.

The service at the church was a polite affair. My parents were good Protestants. Protestants are uncomfortable with ritual. We don’t do wakes. We don’t collapse in tears and throw ourselves over the coffin at the grave site. When I suggested to the minister that my brother and I might say some words, he seemed perplexed. It hadn’t occurred to him. And, after all, the programs had already been printed.

For the next six months the sour taste of that sorry send-off lingered. My father had deserved better. But finally we were able to again coordinate our fractured family sufficiently to fulfill his long-standing wish: for his ashes to be scattered over Charlie’s Bunion up in the Smokey Mountains. Twenty years earlier, my family had made that same trek for my sister. Now, my dad would be with her.

You want ritual? You want a rite of passage? Hike up a mountain for four hours, and then back down. That alone provided a touchstone worthy of his passing.

But we had help. The fog and mist that had occluded vision beyond a few feet the whole trip up miraculously lifted and cleared the moment we opened the container and began scattering its contents.

I don’t know that a finger came out of the clouds and touched us, but we fell silent and set aside all acrimony, and finally were able to say goodbye in the way he deserved.

I could imagine his voice on the wind. ”Well it’s about goddam time.”

He was a good man, and I still miss him.

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