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February 19, 2024

Rita Jackson's Wake

By Gary Campanella

On the day they buried his great-grandmother Jackson, it was eerie and raining. Michael was twelve and he knew it would rain. She died in November and so the trees were bare, and then the rain was steady, and without wind, and it was like the day had decided, and its decision was rain. The wake and funeral service were held together, as one event, as Rita Jackson pre-arranged. Rita had a strong will and stronger opinions, and for years she proclaimed that no church was going to get her body. And none did.

Rita lingered long at the edge of death. She could be stubborn. A stroke some years earlier had left her mind sharp, but her body broken. She was unable to walk, and nerve damage made her jaw move involuntarily, like she was always trying to say something but couldn't get the words out. She gave Michael a watch for his 12th birthday, and Michael went to the home where she stayed to thank her. He thought that her forever-moving jaw muscle embarrassed her, but it may have only embarrassed him, because he couldn't stop staring.

Rita was born in 1899 and was known to her friends as a tough old bird. She buried two husbands and two of her five children. Her oldest daughter, Michael's grandmother, cared for her after the stroke, even though she herself had just remarried, having also buried a husband.

Michael found out that his great-grandmother Jackson was about to die in the way that kids can always piece together adult happenings. At the wake he tried hard to show he was grieving, but he wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel. He stayed quiet and acted sad, but he felt nothing particularly strong, just a vague sense that she used to be here, and now she was gone. He spent most of the time watching his beloved grandmother, who spent most of the wake standing towards the front, near the casket, greeting friends and family. In between the quiet conversations she stared straight ahead, absently, lost in thought.

The rest of the small room was loud with talking and laughing, and Michael thought the whole thing disrespectful. He was hardest on his mother, who was about to leave her husband, Michael's father. Michael knew about the divorce in the same way that he knew that Rita was dying. His mother spent the wake off to the side of the room, talking mostly to her cousins in an animated voice that to Michael seemed artificial, distracted, and too loud for such a solemn and confusing occasion.

Michael stayed in the back with his father, where they sat on folding metal chairs and felt the cold of the rain whenever the door opened and closed. He was watching his grandmother when his father turned to him and said, Michael, your mother is a strong woman. And Michael's eyes moved from his grandmother, past the coffin, to his mother talking to her cousins. Tears came to his eyes. I know he mumbled. But there was so much more he wanted to say. And his jaw moved. But nothing would come out.

Article © Gary Campanella. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-06-07
Image(s) are public domain.
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