Hey there folks,
A year ago to the day, my grandfather passed away in the quiet of his adopted home in Virginia.
Having left the devastation of post-WWII Europe, he settled in the United States where he spent his days as a salt-of-the-earth farmer, siring a large family in the process. Every time we attended Lutheran services with him and Grandma, the two of them would beam with pride as we took up our own pew. Lutherans: always sticking it to the Catholics, right?
Ever proud of his new home, but never keen on forgetting his roots, he instilled in us the nationalistic and cultural pride of both Switzerland and America. Been confused ever since: am I Swiss American or American Swiss?
Tough old man, that’s for certain: stubborn (like all Swiss men), punctual, dedicated, and unrelenting. The kind of role model kids need these days. And now he’s farmin’ with Jesus.
His passing, though expected, was still quite the shock for the family. First death in the States for the Ruch clan – how do we deal with the inevitable?
I’ve never been very good with expressing emotions – apart from writing them down – and penned a short piece following the funeral. Dreadful things, those – all the black clothing, tears, and somber attitudes. You would think I would be more at home in an element like that.
But no. How I detest laying the dead to rest.
He taught me many things in my youth – some brilliant, some good, and some casually racist and a bit outdated – but he was always an inspiration. The kind of guy you want to make proud and see that wrinkly smile of his light up across his face. And his final act was to teach me about Life through pain.
I wouldn’t say I penned this in his honor (indeed, far too much profanity), but after the services, I felt compelled to write exactly what went on in my mind during those moments. A year later and this piece still rings true.
Thanks for the lessons, Grandpa. Swiss dominance.
Penultimate Pain; Ultimate Life
They all sat together in silence as the priest, bedecked in somber vestments, prattled on about the deceased’s life and virtues; quite telling coming from a man who knew the deceased a little less than three years. Perhaps the priest really had gotten to know him on a personal level, but it was hypocritically unlikely. His citing of the Good Book and how the deceased had lived up to those ancient virtues was, frankly, a bit misguided and unfounded.
Naturally, Vice was the first to point this out.
“This guy didn’t even know him,” he whispered. Though he was an ornery son-of-a-bitch, he usually meant well – one simply had to read between his words. Cautious eyes glanced towards Vice as he continued his tirade against the priest, keeping his voice low so as to protect what little sanctity of the church he hadn’t completely violated yet.
“Not now,” his counterpart mumbled. “Save this shit for after the service.”
Vice chuckled, his cigarette-laden laugh mutely echoing off the curved walls. “I don’t think you’re really allowed to say shit in a house of God.” The malicious grin never left his face as he pulled his counterpart closer; everyone else was knelt in prayer, but this demon had little use for such formalities.
“Think about it,” he began anew. “No, really think about it. Don’t roll your eyes; and don’t be dismissive. You know I’m the only one here who thinks like you, who has your fucking back. Think about all this.” He raised an arm, gesturing to the crowded church, a mass of black suits and wet faces. “This is all a façade.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to say fucking in a fucking house of God,” came the retort.
“Who gives a shit?” Vice spat. “Anyway, this façade.”
His counterpart sighed. It was little use arguing with Vice when he set his demented mind upon a good rant.
“Now, the whole point of the New Testament is Christ’s love for us, yes?” A slow nod was the only response Vice earned. Unabashed, he continued. “Now, if Christ loved us so much, and his only commandment was to love one another, then that makes the path to heaven easy, correct?” Another nod, though his counterpart certainly postulated naming a dozen or so verses which might have commanded otherwise. Still, an argument with Vice led nowhere but to the predestined conclusion.
“By following this commandment – love one another – the path to heaven is laid out in front of us. It’s easy. It’s within everyone’s grasp. Every single sheep of the flock can attain this eternal bliss.”
“Fine, yes, yes you’re right. So what?”
“So what?” Vice looked hurt, as if he expected everyone to think like him, to see the obvious answer hidden right under one’s nose. “Fucking façade, that’s what.”
“Look, the deceased, because of his belief and devotion, is most assuredly in heaven. No, no, I didn’t say heaven exists, I just said his belief means he has entered whatever afterlife he believes in.” He took a breath, preparing for the conclusion.
The priest prattled on.
“So if this man truly believed in this eternal bliss and has left us behind on this shit world, why in the fuck are we sad? Think about it: he’s reached eternal bliss. There’s no reason to be sad. No death up there, no war, no disease, no old age, nothing but paradise. He truly went to a better place but we’re still sobbing like newborns over his good fortune. A façade.”
“What is wrong with you?” his counterpart muttered, a slight tinge of anger bearing through his normally soft voice. “The man fucking died. Heaven. Hell. Who gives a shit? The. Man. Fucking. Died. People are allowed to be sad when their loved ones simply drop fucking dead.”
Cautious eyes turned into inflammatory ones, the heat of his words bringing some rather unnecessary attention towards the duo. Vice, naturally, chuckled cantankerously.
“But you’re missing my point, friend,” continued Vice, apathetic to the gazes of offended grievers. “So what if he died? We all do. That’s life. That’s pain. You die. But this man believed in heaven, and by all accounts, he’s there. So what’s to be upset about? He’s probably laughing it up with Jesus right now, looking down on all you dumb schmucks balling your eyes out when in reality we should be having a party. Not everyone gets to heaven you know.”
“Vice, you miserable dickhead. Shut up. Just shut the fuck up.” His anger was far more audible now.
The priest cleared his throat.
Vice grinned again, flashing his tobacco-stained teeth. “We’ll finish this up after the service. Fuck, pay attention.” He bowed his head in a mockery of prayer, spending the remainder of the service laughing to himself and counting the cracks in his hands.
As he headed for the narthex, Vice appeared behind him, firmly gripping his arm and guiding him towards the church exit. “Come on; let’s go have a smoke.”
He struggled against Vice. “I should be with my family.”
Vice wouldn’t have it. With a gleeful kick, he forced the doors apart, the metallic hinges clanging about as he brought his prisoner to the edge of the parking lot. “Here asshole; smoke.”
An abusive relationship, the two cohorts lit up. Vice inhaled deeply, letting the smoke circulate throughout his lungs before blowing out the remnants through his nostrils. His counterpart merely puffed, watching the burning ember slowly make its way towards the filter.
“So,” began Vice, “a façade. See all these people in black? Don’t you ever stop to think why funerals have to be such depressing affairs?” He pointed an accusing finger towards the brick church, a crucified Christ returning the vehement gaze. “Again, what’s the point of being sad when this dead Jew offers you paradise? You live a life of shit and sin but get rewarded with harps and clouds and other happy bullshit.” He inhaled. “Fair trade, no?”
“Vice, this really isn’t the fucking time, nor the fucking place, ok? A man died. A beloved man. His family and friends are here to grieve.”
Vice turned about, walking away from the church, towards a hidden bench set amongst a band of solemn oaks. He sat down, the early morning dew staining through his apathetic attire. His cigarette bobbed as he spoke: “When is the fucking time or the fucking place? People never talk about this shit when it is meaningful, and right now, I think it is really fucking meaningful. The sheep went to be with his shepherd, ergo, rejoice. Isn’t that what the Book says?”
“So you think when everyone is mourning the death of a loved one, you need to remind them that there’s no point to be sad and just, what, get the fuck over it?”
Vice grinned. “Precisely.”
“You’re evil, you know that? You can’t let people have anything for themselves. No, not Vice. He has to go and shit all over everything. You’re sad? Suck it up, then. Having a good day? Don’t forget; the world is still mired in shit. You’re an unapologetic asshole who only sees,”
“The truth,” interrupted Vice.
He threw his half-smoked cigarette at Vice, stepping towards him in the grove. “Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you. What the fucking hell is wrong with you?”
Vice calmly picked up the cigarette, and carefully, with deliberate precision, extinguished the burning cherry in the flesh of his palm. He grimaced as the skin charred, the crackling sound suddenly drowning out the rush of nearby traffic, the stillness of the grove.
“You said it.” He laughed. “You ask what the fuck is wrong with me; a lot. So much, in fact, that sometimes I don’t even know what’s wrong or right with me.” He looked at the fresh wound upon his hand, tossing the butt aside. “But the one thing I want you to take away from all of this today is that I’m right.”
His counterpart, still shocked by the self-flagellation, said nothing.
Vice continued, “I’m right. The world is mired in shit – don’t enjoy your good days. Loved ones go to whatever magical afterlife they wish to hang out with whatever great bearded man in the sky they want – don’t cry for them. There’s no reason to ever be happy or to be sad, because that isn’t why we’re here. The entire point of life,” he said, “is life.”
“Think about it: we’re here today doing what? Celebrating death? No, quite the opposite. We’re celebrating the triumph of life. This man may be dead but look at the size of his family. His friends. Hell, even the priest might have had a drink with him at one point. This funeral isn’t about mourning the passing of a loved one, but rather a bacchanalia to his life and our own. It’s the only thing worth remembering or celebrating. Life is the only thing worth living.”
“Cut the philosophical shit, all right? I don’t need this right now.”
“Ah, but you do!” Vice countered. “Did you not feel more alive having watched his family file past, hearing of his exploits and accomplishments, wishing you could have the same or something similar? Don’t lie.”
Without waiting for a response, Vice explained: “See this mark upon my hand? This is pain, and pain is life. The passing of this man,” – he pointed towards the church – “is pain. And pain is life. You cannot have one without the other. I’ve made life within my hand.” He showed his counterpart the fresh burn. “In a few days’ time, this will be completely healed. A lesson in immortality. A penultimate lesson in pain, and an ultimate lesson in life.” He exhaled a cloud of smoke. “There’s no point to being sad today, friend, because we’ve witnessed pain. And by doing so, hell, we’re truly living.” Another cloud.
His counterpart stared in silence for a long time. The crisp air was punctuated with plumes of smoke, the silence of the grove howling in rage from the adjacent highway. Finally, he turned about, and walked towards the church. A queer smile creased his face.
“What are you going to do,” Vice called from his bench.
“Live life,” he called back.
The mad laughter of Vice faded in the distance.