by Jodi Barnes
Sitting in this pew in a makeshift nave at a funeral home five blocks from my house feels abstract. But I know, like concrete, that I am here with the smell and shade of a funeral parlor, the uncomfortable bench, and eggshell walls blending into pallid faces. The more I try to leave this cruel puzzle of why alone, the more I obsess about one piece: last Thursday morning, the last time I saw him, his last day of school, Jonah had a secret.
As he rang our doorbell, stepped into the house and smiled, when I asked him what was on the docket and he answered a world history test first period, that ROTC was going great, thanks, just great, and while he waited for my daughter Claire to finish straightening her hair so they could walk to school together, Jonah knew something the rest of us didn’t.
I don’t know if Jonah has any more secrets. He no longer has a body. I don’t know if a person needs a body in order to have a secret. I want to believe that some part of him didn’t die, but I no longer believe in a god who grants life everlasting or eternal damnation. So this question about whether the secret exists now bothers me.
Jonah’s mother and father, his sister and his grandparents sit a few feet away from me in the funeral home. I saw his parents two days ago when Claire and Jonah’s best friend Aaron and I brought them food. Jonah’s father had looked confused when he opened the door. He didn’t take the food so I told him I could put it in the kitchen for him. He didn’t respond. We stood there until his wife walked toward us from next door. He then seemed to remember to take the box of sandwiches from me and walked back inside.
I stepped off the porch to greet Jonah’s mother, not expecting her softness. For the last two days I’ve wondered why I was surprised. How could I know what a parent’s face looks like after their child kills himself? Her vacancy made sense. But not the beauty inside of it, a tender kindness around her bloodshot eyes. When I hugged her she half asked in a whisper, “We just want to know why.”
I don’t like the priest. He is telling us that it was the wrong time for Jonah to return to God and then he is telling us that Jonah will be welcomed into the Kingdom. He is saying that if not for being Christians, we wouldn’t be here. No one would love and support this broken family unless we were good Christians. He stumbles over Jonah’s parents’ names.
The photos spanning Jonah’s brief life run on a huge plasma screen on our side of the aisle. I am grateful to watch them over and over because I’ve decided to hate the priest. I hate that none of Jonah’s friends are able to stand up and tell their stories. That a standing room only full of young people are forced to hear that there is a way they can see Jonah again, and this idiot can hook them up.
Even if the Christians could see Jonah again, I wonder if he’d have his strong and beautiful 14-year-old body. Because of the way Jonah executed his secret, his body has been incinerated. A coroner decided that Jonah died on Friday, March 4, a date that is also an imperative sentence. I wonder how many of us are thinking about Jonah’s secret and why it was imperative and what to do with our wondering about it.
I look down the pew at my daughter, three of her friends the buffer between us, her face twisted into an older version since she learned the secret. Since Jonah’s body, his bike and the gun were found, I’ve felt something shift about her, within me and between us. I want to comfort her, but she hasn’t let me. One of her teachers emailed me three days ago. Claire made one of her friends cry in class. When I asked her what happened, she said that she was sick of how people who didn’t even know Jonah were carrying on, being dramatic. But on Tuesday I’d called her a mean girl for refusing to offer that same friend a ride to the memorial service. And I’d yelled at her today when she changed clothes twice and asked too cheerfully, “How do I look?” before we left.
There is a big wooden cross on the wall we all face. Instead of an altar, a sofa table stands with a big block of marble on it. Jonah’s full name, his birth and death dates are engraved there. On top of the smooth block of rock is his hat and beside them is what look like pajama bottoms with smiley faces, grimaces, sardonic grins, and pirate eye patches. On the floor beside the table are huge flower arrangements. One is a yellow daisy smiley face, a four-foot round grave blanket. I think back to when I was 14 in the ‘70s. Have a Nice Day.
After scripture readings and the final prayer, the priest walks over to Jonah’s parents. Punk-like music replaces his monotone through the speakers. A young male voice sing-shouts one day too late! over and over again. I wonder if Jonah’s mom and dad hear this and whether they’ve chosen to block it out or if they are upset by what is probably their daughter’s selection. I worry they may get more depressed over these lyrics, which I then reconsider is not likely.
Now the screen shows Jonah at about age three building a tower with nested bright plastic cubes. People start lining up to offer condolences. The tower is almost as tall as he is. I imagine watching him turn the cubes upside down more than a decade ago, his brain figuring out that this is the only way they can support each other. His eyes and mouth widening. I feel almost happy.
Everyone here, I think, even the priest, learned the upside down notion of stacking hollow shapes. And that when they are right side up they are something entirely different. Perfectly compact – no bigger than the largest cube when placed in the right order.
I wonder how many secrets Jonah had fit inside the one we now knew. How many decisions he’d packed, one inside the other. How long had he worked to figure them just so, assuming a right order, until pulling a trigger was the only thing left to do.
As I near the receiving line, I am within touching distance of the stone, the hat, the laughing pajama bottoms. He was a good six feet tall. I try not to think about his body being fed into the crematory. Are his ashes inside the granite rock? What will happen to his fedora? The grave blanket smiles at me. The cross, I now realize, is plastic. No bigger than a toddler’s tower.
I’m next in line to offer nothing Joshua’s father can carry to the kitchen. Next to feel his wife’s unbearable softness. The young man’s voice dissolves into whispered gravel: nothing fits.
Bio: Jodi Barnes is a poet and writer in Cary, North Carolina. She has a PhD from The University of Georgia and has taught graduate and undergraduate students all facets of human resource management, ethics, leadership and change management at the university level. She has also been a journalist, an HR manager and a consultant. Her first collection of poetry is Unsettled from Main Street Rag, and she blogs at http://workerwrites.com.