Death makes the living do stupid things. It throws off our true character, causes us to make decisions we might not otherwise make if our heads were screwed on straight.
And so it was with the living who surrounded me in the days following Bruce’s death. At the funeral home, I allowed my father- and mother-in-law to pick out an outrageously expensive casket even though I paid the funeral bill, and I said no thank you to my brother-in-law who wanted to buy me a burial plot next to Bruce.
A day before the funeral, one of my sisters-in-law asked if her son could have Bruce’s archery equipment, and on the day of the funeral, another sister-in-law asked if she could raise Carlene. This would be the sister-in-law whose oldest son was in prison and whose youngest son knocked up a 13-year-old. Like giving our child to someone else to raise was ever an option, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen anyone in my husband’s family, let alone this particular sister-in-law.
A week after the funeral, my pharmacist brother-in-law informed me he and his family were moving to the farm (it belonged to my father-in-law who had retired) and I had to move by mid-April, and finally, the rumor in town was that I was having an affair with the funeral director and that I’d started drinking*.
Life was insane, to say the least, but I dealt with all of these things the best I could. I lost it, though, a week after the funeral, after my family had gone home and I was alone. The Pipestone County Star and the Jasper Journal, our two local papers, published photos on their front pages of Bruce’s body covered with a tarp lying in a ditch next to his tractor that was ripped to shreds, metal dangling, glass everywhere.
I called my dad 200 miles away and sobbed. He promised me I would never have to see the tractor because they removed it to another county. But there it was, there Bruce was, on the front page of the newspaper.
I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
No one let me see Bruce dead, but it felt like everyone else in town had. No one even let me touch his hand. David, our pastor, was the main instigator of this. I know he thought he was protecting me, but all it did was create sickening nightmares of Bruce’s body in pieces, his blood dried to the metal tracks and wooden ties.
After the papers came out, I went to David’s office and demanded he tell me the exact way in which Bruce died. And he did so without argument because he knew he’d been wrong to keep me away from the body of the person I loved most in the world, to be denied the opportunity to say goodbye.
Bruce died from a traumatic head wound, David told me and the death certificate later verified. From his eyes down he was perfectly intact. His body was thrown from the tractor cab on impact with the train, his body landing in the ditch. He was not in a million pieces and that gave me peace.
I hadn’t talked to David since I moved away from Jasper, but haunted by his decision, he wrote to me a few years ago and apologized for not letting me touch a part of Bruce’s body. He said that what he’d done caused Bruce to virtually disappear from my life and that he regretted it deeply. I believe him and forgive him. None of us knew what we were doing then. Grief turns your world upside down and all you can do is try to right yourself.
These last 24 years have been like living the second half of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George Bailey wishes he’d never been born and his angel takes him on a tour of what other people’s lives would have been like if he’d never lived. My daughter and I live that part of the movie every day.
But I’m so very grateful to the angel who showed me what life was like when Bruce was in it, even if it was for only a short time.
* The funeral director was a friend of Bruce’s and mine, and his own grief over Bruce’s death caused him to quit the business and become a teacher. Without his compassion and friendship I don’t think I’d have made it through those first few weeks. I hope the townspeople who started that rumor are ashamed of themselves, but I doubt they care. As for the drinking, I was seen cashing a check in the liquor store. Apparently I was under constant scrutiny, but I neither noticed or cared. I still don’t.