We got to the funeral home and it was packed. I heard later that upwards of 300 people had come through the receiving line. I walked into the room, sobbing, and straight into the arms of my grandma. My cousin Sarah said “are you ok?” And my grandma said “Of course she’s not ok” and she hugged me for a long time. Besides the fact that the place was full of people, there were so many flower arrangements, interspersed with tons of boards full of pictures of Vannie’s life, and there was his art. He was an unbelievable artist – my uncle is good, my brother is good, Vannie was good. I know I walked around for a while, looking at everything, and then I went back in the room. I went to my uncle, Van, and he put his arm around me and said “Stand here with me a while and hold me up.” The way my dad felt about Vannie was how Van felt about me. I was the first baby on my dad’s side, and Van was just a teenager when I was born, and so he loved to hang out and play with me and be an uncle. We stood there for a while, saying hello and hugging people who came through the line. Kids from Vannie’s high school, people he’d worked with, people who had met him once. I always knew how sweet he was and how genuine and easy to love he was, but every single one of those people confirmed it – he touched them even if they had only met him briefly.
The one that tore me up was a paramedic who came through, a guy, just sobbing. See, the night he died, Vannie had an asthma attack. He hadn’t had one in a really long time, and so there was no medication in the house. He went into his parents’ room, and they called 911. They live out in the country a bit, and it was dark, and the paramedics got lost on the way to his house. He died in his dad’s arms before the paramedics could even get there. This guy was one of them, and he was just so sad. He kept saying “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry.” My uncle hugged him and said something nice to him, and the line moved on.
I don’t know how long we were there. But when it was finally empty, the rest of the family was kind of milling around, and I was alone in the room with his body. When I had first come in, I had laid my hand on his chest, and it freaked me out, because it crackled from the tissue paper under his shirt. I remembered years before, when my grandpa died, my mom touching his face and kissing him, and how I thought that was so weird. But standing next to Vannie’s casket, looking at his beautiful face, I couldn’t not touch him. I touched the side of his face and I touched his chest again, and then I kissed him on the forehead. It was cold – a kind of cold that I had never felt before, but it wasn’t scary or gross. And then I just stood there some more until we had to go.
I don’t know what we did the rest of the time we were there. I don’t know how long we stayed. I don’t remember coming back home. I don’t remember talking about it or going on. And yet, here I am.
I remember looking at an incredible self-portrait Vannie had drawn, and asking my uncle for a copy. He took it off the stand and said “it’s yours.” I remember freaking out when my mom washed the jacket I had taken out of his closet, because she took his smell away – even though it had been a long time and didn’t smell like him anymore anyway.
I remember him playing the drums – he kicked some ass on that set. I remember him acting silly, doing impersonations of people and trying to make me laugh. I remember how fun it was when our families got together because we laughed a lot and were loud and there was just love there. I remember that no matter how long it had been since we’d last seen each other, it was like no time had passed. I remember him holding my hand while my uncle gave me my first tattoo. I remember staying up all night with my aunt, because my uncle worked the night shift and she waited to go to bed until he came home in the morning, and Vannie coming home from being out with his friends. He laid his head on my lap and I scratched his head, because he liked that. And the three of us sat there and talked until my uncle came home.
I remember his smile and his eyes and how he never went through a mean or selfish stage as a teenager. I remember how he would always be so sad when I left, and how he always told me that he loved me.
He has been dead for six years, today. He would have been 25 in August. I haven’t been back to Illinois since he died. I’m afraid to go, kind of, because my whole family isn’t there anymore. And I keep hoping that every year that passes will make the emotions less. But it takes time a lot longer to heal some wounds than it does others, I guess. I get surprised at the things that make me cry now – looking at pictures that I’ve seen a million times, hearing a song, talking about him. Sometimes they don’t affect me, but other times I’m undone. And yet, I kind of hope that I never stop feeling sad for losing him, because that’s my right and I want to hold onto him.
I’ve said before that the song “Shimmer” reminds me of him.
He's born to shimmer
He's born to shine
He's born to radiate
He's born to live
He's born to love…
And he was.