Maybe it’s related to the same emotional wall one puts up when entering a new relationship, reflexively protecting your heart after having it ripped out of your chest on so many prior occasions - but when I learned about the the rapidly declining health of my cousin Melissa, I just knew that she’d get through it. Despite being fully briefed on her non-responsive nature after contracting rabies from a bat bite, the prolonged time doctors felt that she had the virus flowing through her system before finally going to the hospital, her kidney failure - I acknowledge now that my sunny optimism about her long term prognosis was less about a belief that some higher power would get her past the proverbial finish line and more about me not wanting to deal with the stone cold facts. She was most likely going to die. But as each day passed and she was still holding on, it sort of co-signed my delusion: “If she is lasting this long, maybe that’s a good sign. Right?” Then unfortunately, on the morning of December 19th, my cousin passed away.
Even though my family(mother, brother, myself) usually head to Scranton, Pennsylvania to visit my sister and adorable niece at precisely this time of the year - we were obviously prepared to jettison our family’s ritual to attend my cousin’s funeral if it coincided with our scheduled plans. But the thing is, and no disrespect to my aunt and cousins who had to going through hell at this time, but as Christmas quickly approached we didn’t hear anything from anyone. No phone calls. Calls to my cousins and Aunt were going unanswered. Nothing. So we all decided to head to the town where the fictitious Dunder Mifflin is located for Christmas, and if we happened to hear something about the funeral while we were there then we would just freestyle something. Then wouldn’t you know it, a few hours after arriving in Scranton we hear from my aunt that the funeral would be held on the 27th. At that precise moment it was like a giant countdown clock started. No matter how good of a time we had in Scranton, the laughs shared, the delicious meals devoured, watching the excitement on my beautiful niece’s face as she opened all of her gifts - all of it would be colored with the morose reality of where we were all heading once we left the great state of Pennsylvania.
So after Christmas, as we took the extremely long trek to South Carolina, the realer the situation got. The more somber the mood. Occasional jokes here and there turned into thousand yard stares out of various windows. Trying to find a head nodding tune on the radio to drive to turned into settling for a milquetoast news report, or in most cases just static. It sort of reminded me of the movie “Stand By Me”: The closer the four young friends got to seeing the actual dead body, the more pre-teen whimsy gave way to an unflinching seriousness.
We finally get to Sumter, spend a much needed night’s sleep in a local hotel, and in the morning we head to my Aunt Peggy’s house to meet up before the funeral. It’s weird, but deaths don’t ever seem real to me until I’m forced with the reality of it all: When my dad died, I unable to cry until the soldiers gave my old man a 21 gun salute at Arlington National Cemetery. As much as I cherished my cousin, the tear duct well was dry as well - that’s until I saw my Aunt Peggy in her black dress. The waterworks were in full effect that that moment. After an hour of hand shakes, hugs, and trying to look like I was used to wearing a suite, we all finally headed to the funeral.
The service was absolutely lovely. People who knew Melissa gave the warmest sentiments imaginable. I know this is a common refrain whenever someone passes on, but the service was truly a celebration of her time on this earth - and the preachers even had a heathen like myself getting out of my seat and saying “Amen” on more than one occasion. The whole affair was so special that I secretly hoped Tyler Perry was in attendance taking notes. But the one thing I will never forget for as long as I live is Sister Cynthia. Sister Cynthia is my Aunt Peggy’s friend, and acted as a sort of mentor to Melissa. When it was her turn to speak she related similar sentiments of those who had went before her, sharing a personal anecdote that really highlighted how special a person Melissa was - pretty standard stuff. But what wasn’t so standard is how Sister Cynthia snatched the mic off of the podium after her speech, began to belt out a gospel tune that could have resurrected Mahalia Jackson. A sound so melodious that an upstaged band and an overshadowed choir had to begrudgingly back her up. To top it all off she worked the crowd as well, sauntering up and down aisles as people tried to touch her like she was Prince or some shit. Finally making her way to my Aunt Peggy and tearfully embracing her while never missing a beat. How in the fuck do you steal a funeral? Well, she did it. I kept wanting to capture it on my cell phone but felt that it was inappropriate to do so, only to be told later that I should have recorded it. Well, you’ll just have to take my word for it I guess.