Birth and Death
Senior year spring break is supposed to be filled with trips and friends and family looking forward to the future. A wonderful time spent under the sun, soaking up those rays along with those last few precious gulps of freedom. My spring break was not spent that way, though. I stayed home to attend the funeral of two-year-old Jessica.
Jessica never had a chance in this life. She was born to two very scared, very unprepared kids. Both in high school, he a junior and she a senior at the time of conception, Jessica's entrance into the world wasn't the joyous occasion most births are. And her presence, to be very honest, did not start off bringing much joy as babies are supposed to. Jessica instead became the spark that would drive the couple apart from each other and their families.
Nick, the father, had always been immature. This didn't change when he became a father. He instead clung even more tightly to the end of his childhood, refusing to get a job, citing a knee injury that didn't keep him from playing basketball with his friends at night. He wasn't a bad guy, but he was scared, confused, and depressed. It was all pretty understandable, really. He was not equipped deal with any of these emotions, so, trapped in his youth, he did his damnedest to not change anything in his life. He kept his job at Wendy's, kept playing basketball with his friends every night. During his senior year, he hurt his knee playing football, which he then claimed kept him from working after graduation when his Wendy's job wouldn't pay for the bills and the baby. Further complicating things, Nick's mother threw him out of the house because he had become a father at such a young age, forcing him to live with a deadbeat uncle in Illinois. All of these complications ended his relationship with the mother, Katie, though not Jessica.
Katie didn't react well to becoming a mother, either. She had always had a strained relationship with her parents, which also got even worse with the birth of this child. After ending things with Nick, her choice of men was less than desirable. At the time of Jessica's death, she was dating a twenty-three year old drug addict who had already abandoned three kids, possibly more. While Nick might have been immature, he was still very harmless. This guy might not have been.
There was a cloud of suspicion around Jessica's death. Nick had her from Thursday to Sunday afternoon without incident. On Sunday night, Jessica was found cold and stiff in her bed and rushed to the hospital. The rumors sprung to life. The story went that the first doctor to examine the baby claimed it to be blunt force trauma, saying Jessica was either shaken or hit, which led to her death. Suspicion immediately fell on Katie's boyfriend. The story was further bolstered by Nick saying he had previously discovered a bruise on Jessica's back, roughly the size and shape of a handprint. This handprint was also too large to have come from Katie, the only other person with the opportunity to have bruised the baby. All things seemed to point towards a frustrated young man with a shady history overreacting to a fussy toddler. The family sought a second opinion to be sure, and the second doctor said it was a brain aneurysm, and that it would be the first he saw in twenty-plus years in treating babies and toddlers. This, for the moment, cleared the boyfriend, but suspicion did not fade away. It may never die.
I Was Born in a Small Town
Anybody who has lived in a small town can tell you, everybody is immediately connected somehow. Given this, I had known Nick almost his entire life. Though Nick was two years my junior, we had hung out quite a bit, as he was one of my brother’s friends and classmates. And, even though I had cut almost all ties with Covington, I was still kept in the loop by my brother and girlfriend. With such a tight-knit town, it's nearly impossible to stay totally disconnected, despite my best efforts. Though I hadn't talked to Nick or Katie for a few years, word still got back to me in almost real-time throughout Jessica's rush to the emergency room through her death. When the final word came, it hurt; I was angry at a suspicious ruling by a doctor, probably trying to save someone trouble, I was angry at a man I'd never met, though I was sure what he had done, I was angry at the situation, these kids didn't deserve this. The reaction surprised me. I had only seen this kid maybe twice during the last summer and hadn't regularly talked to Nick in some time. But watching Nick grow up and see how this kid had affected his life, it still hit close to home. It also surprised me to hear that Nick had asked where I was during the visitation. Just another example of that tightly-knit small town, I suppose. I already knew I had an obligation to go to the funeral, but that sealed it.
One could guess a lot about Covington when they find out it is in central Indiana, right against the Indiana-Illinois state line. And those people would be right. About the only diversity in the town are the Catholics, which I can attest to growing up Catholic. Covington is also not a prosperous town. The biggest factory in town shut down almost twenty years ago, and nothing has ever replaced those jobs. I would wager over 70% of the townsfolk work out of town, which also explains why, in a town of 2300 people, we have somewhere around ten gas stations, and maybe more restaurants. About the only thing going for Covington is the Beef House, which sits comfortably on the outskirts of town, technically in a different ZIP code.
I don't go back to Covington much. Covington and I have always had a strained relationship. I never made many friends through my public schooldays, nor did I want to. I did not feel that most of the people around me were thinking on my level. Sure, a lot of them could memorize facts out of books and get good grades, but I had no faith to ask them to think critically and come up with these things on their own. I constantly found myself bored in school and usually reading to myself during classes, as I felt I got more out of my reading. The people around me didn't interest me any more than the classes did, so I just kept to myself and the handful of people in my circle. I suppose the rest of the town probably liked it better that way, too.
As anyone who has been to small town funerals can surely attest, I knew I was also going to frustrated by a lack of proper attire. Normally, one would expect to see lots of suits and other formal wear. At least a collared shirt, if all else fails. But, I knew before I'd even opened my closet, the funeral home would be overrun with people in t-shirts and jeans. I know this doesn't cheapen their emotions, I'm sure they were just as or more upset than I was. It was still frustrating to know there would be certain lack of respect for the terrible tragedy waiting inside. I knew it would probably make me stick out, but I was determined to show proper respect and get my suit together. I opened my closet and looked at my choices. Suits were a little limited. Blue jacket or black jacket. The blue seemed a little festive, so I went with black. The jacket fit fine, but the pants were a different story. I discovered that my waistline had grown with my personality. So I went and bought some new black pants to fit decorum for my rare homecoming.
I got to the funeral home and paused for a second before I entered. The new black pants matched the black of the jacket and tie just fine, that wasn't an issue. But, I was nervous. Like I said, I don't go home much. I have an idea of the people I'll meet, and I'm sure they've got ideas about me. Still, I wasn't going to let social anxiety get in the way of unpleasant obligations. I went inside and saw many people I hadn't thought of in years. Funny thing about funerals, how quickly they turn into a social gathering before things start. I went around and talked to people in Nick's family who I'd known for just about as long as I'd known Nick. It was really strange to talk with these people know and remember how they used to talk to me at little league and basketball games. I found myself having conversation after conversation where I sounded like my father. I answered all the questions about my family, caught up with how their kids were doing, received reassurance that the job market would treat me well. College degrees aren't as common as they should be in Covington, so I got a level of respect I wasn't sure I deserved. Wabash is also viewed in a light that it doesn't normally receive, so to hear people who share no blood with me tell me how proud they are of me to get through a place like Wabash is a bit embarrassing.
Social niceties are important, sharing a certain amount of grief is important. There are still some things that must be faced alone, though. Walking up to view the tiny casket and the waxy corpse inside, I felt numb. Luckily (I suppose), I quickly heard a voice call my name and I was able to put off worrying about my lack of an appropriate reaction to catch up with Nick.
Nick was smiling and trying his best to stay positive and cheerful. It was a fragile facade, though. I think everyone in the funeral home saw through it, but nobody could blame him. He, like myself, like most people there, was only plodding along the best way he could figure out. He was as ill-equipped as the rest of us, and strangely, seeing him being able to keep that stiff upper lip comforted me. Still, there were big problems. Katie was very late to show up to her own daughter's funeral. Worries spread that she might have injured herself or ran out of town. After a short conversation with Nick (he didn't know anymore about Katie's whereabouts than the rest of us), I took my seat. Nick paced up and down the rows of chairs, occasionally stopped for a conversation with newcomers. His eyes rarely left the doorway. Heads, including my own, would turn towards the clock and quickly, maybe out of guilt, turn away.
About ten minutes after the funeral was supposed to have begun, Katie walked in, boyfriend in tow. The room went silent; the navy cadet standing close to the casket looked poised to kill. The boyfriend (in his jeans and brightly-striped collared shirt) quickly walked up, said his condolences to the families, and almost sprinted out of the viewing room. He must have felt the daggers digging in from so many eyes. Rumors die hard in small towns.
After Katie received quick condolences from those seated close to her, the proceedings began. I listened to people mourn the death of this one who's time came far, far too soon. The preacher was also the baby's great-grandfather, who had a hard time getting through the small speech he had prepared. My mind wandered almost immediately. My defense mechanism, I guess. I did cry, but I don't think most people there realized the reason for my tears. I was sorry about what happened to this child, but I wasn't moved to tears until I started thinking in my own life, what would happened once my parents reached the grave, what would happen once friends started to die, what would happen when it was my turn to go. It probably made me one of the most selfish pricks in the room. I suppose it was my way of dealing with what was in front of me. I know how to deal with people who got a chance to experience life, so that moved me more than this thing in front of me I couldn't really comprehend.
At the end of the service, I moved through the line to take a final viewing of the coffin and give my condolences to the family. At the coffin, I again couldn't think of anything other than “Sorry, kid, you never got a shot.” I gave quick hugs to the mother's side of the family. Like I said, I didn't know them very well at all. I moved on to Nick. We hugged, and I invited him to a drink the next time he was in Crawfordsville. It's a shame it took a terribly untimely death to reconnect with somebody I'd grown up with. I hugged Nick's mother as well (she and Nick had reconciled), and I was surprised to hear her call me by name, though I had absolutely no reason. My surprise made me all the more ashamed of my disconnect with the town that raised me.
As I left the funeral home, I took a long look back at the scene. People were slowing going through the line, paying their last respects to the casket overflowing with stuffed animals. I wondered if I believed in God enough to believe Jessica had them with her. Between sympathies, I saw Nick whispering into Katie's ear and her smiling back. My worries about the afterlife were replaced with curiosity about the future of these two kids. It was a terrible thing that Jessica died, of course, but this cloud just might have that silver lining after all. I threw up a quick prayer to hedge my bets they'd find what was best for them, hopefully each other.
I came back to Crawfordsville confused and a little scared about just how fragile life is, and yet, feeling strangely fine. We're all just getting through the best we know how, and somehow, even with something so dark as an infant death, something better can be made out of the tears.