The phone call announcing Grandma’s death came as unexpectedly as a cold north wind in August. Grief, Death’s cruel step-sister, was of necessity detained.
“Who’ll look after Uncle Benny?” I called, catching up to Daddy.
“We will, of course.” Daddy’s reply fell like a courtroom gavel, firm and final.
Uncle Benny, the oldest, but most child-like of Daddy’s brothers, lived with Grandma in the small two-story bungalow three blocks from our house. Grandpa had died years earlier, before my birth. I adored my playful, good-natured grandma, but I can’t say I really knew Uncle Benny. He rarely spoke to anyone but himself, and moved constantly about the house grazing walls and furniture with one hand, like a trolley on its cable. His eyes gazed upward, pulling his lips into a slight smile. I once asked if Benny was blind, but Grandma shook her head. “Benny sees so well, he sees things that most of us can’t.” Sometimes I squinted up toward the ceiling, straining to see what glorious sights he beheld.
Uncle Benny meticulously arranged bottles of bubble bath, lotions, and soaps by graduated sizes on the bathroom shelf. I enjoyed moving them around just to see if he’d notice. He was quite astute, returning each to its proper angle and station within minutes of my meddling. Perhaps it was a cruel game, but at least it was an interaction between us.
The most remarkable thing about Uncle Benny, however, was his ability to play the piano. For several hours each day he performed songs that were his alone. His limber fingers waltzed effortlessly over the keys as his upturned head wagged back and forth. His music delighted Grandma and her frequent visitors.
The phone call sent Daddy and I racing the three blocks to Grandma’s house. We found Uncle Benny talking loudly into his flapping hands, while a neighbor attempted to soothe him. Uncle Benny had pounded on her door and led her back to the chair where Grandma still slumped over her open Bible. Daddy probably wouldn’t have taken me along if he’d been thinking straight. The scene was at once alarming and reassuring. It changed me in ways that only death and real life can.
Daddy made some phone calls, and then turned to his brother. “Benny, you know where Mom went, right?”
“She’s not coming back, Benny. That’s just mom’s body in there –an empty shell. She was just sitting there talking to Jesus this morning, and I guess He told her to come on up and join Him and Dad. That must have been an invitation she couldn’t refuse. I sure wish I could see her now. She’s in Heaven, Benny.” Benny still stared into his hands, but calm had settled over him like a cool, swelling shadow. “I wonder what the party is like. Do you think they’re dancing, Benny? The angels and Mom and Dad –they must be having a grand time. Mom will be telling them whether the music is good or not, just the way she always told you.”
“Oh Benny, I miss her, too. I don’t know how we’ll manage without her, but we will.” Daddy didn’t see me poking my nose around the doorframe. He and Benny were locked in an embrace, tears streaming down both of their faces.
The doorbell rang, and the coroner entered to validate what we already knew. He was followed by the funeral director, who carted Grandma’s shell out the front door and into a hearse.
Daddy chose to stay with Uncle Benny at Grandma’s house while making plans for the funeral, believing that gradual change might be easier for all of us. By the day of the funeral, Grief had arrived, along with many sorrowful relatives.
The service was solemn, unlike the rollicking Grandma I remembered. Soothing scriptures and details of Grandma’s well-lived life were unfolded slowly, thoughtfully. Friends and relatives dabbed with tissues at the corners of their eyes. After the benediction was read, Uncle Benny rose and strode to the piano.
We shifted uneasily in our seats. Then, from the piano wafted Uncle Benny’s newly composed song –the sound of angel wings. It straightened our shoulders and lifted our chins. It drew our eyes upward, and our lips into a smile, like his. Tears of joy flowed freely down our cheeks. And for once I saw what Uncle Benny saw –a vision of Heaven so warm and welcoming I envied my Grandma and Grandpa who surely were dancing there.
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