Ansel Head’s mother died in her bed on her ninety-second birthday. Her daughter, nieces, and the sweetest two ladies on earth were present at the end. Head was on his way, once again driving down I-81 at 80 in his Ford Flex.
His mother’s heart and lungs, worn out from a lifetime of activity, had given way. Her mind was sharp and lucid until the end. Head surmised that she had planned the timing for her passing, relishing in the symmetry of the alpha and omega in her meaningful life.
Until her last few days, she had stoically endured the pain from the creeping cancer and shortness of breath with only the aid of an occasional aspirin. When Head asked, she would simply answer, “I’m OK.” She wanted her mind clear to entertain friends and family, even from her bed. The gentile, perfumed resolve of a steel magnolia comes to mind.
During Head’s lifetime quest for an education, death had been a part of his curriculum. There was first his childhood friend, Henry, and then the tragic end to two roommates from high school and college. He had lost his maternal grandparents, both of whom liked him best. His nephew was killed by an errant bullet at Tulane. His friend, Andy, from McCallie had finally succumbed to a debilitating, unnamed neurological disease that had eaten away his formidable muscles. And then his father had died after dementia had robbed him of his intellectual prowess and left him uncharacteristically agitated, paranoid, and helpless. But these events had occurred over many years and most of them before his hair had turned grey. In typical fashion, Head had been less than attentive to his studies.
His slothful habits, though, were insufficient to shield him in that single year when first his brother, then friend Bob Koch, Ms. Wolfe’s Aunt Grace, and finally his mother had died. Events unfolded so rapidly and in such quick succession that even his non-superior mind had been forced to retain some aspects of the course.
Head has always worried about his intellect; but for once, he was grateful for its inadequacy. He knew that an Ivy Leaguer with a high IQ would retain too much of the lesson; he would then enter into philosophical discussions with himself about this or that aspect; and this obsession would cause his superior brain to breakdown under the weight of unanswerable questions. Head had observed this phenomena in the past; and he was content that his non-superior mind didn’t even know what unanswerable questions to ask.
But what were some of the bits and pieces of the year long course that Head did retain.
He had travelled so many times up and down highways that he knew every Waffle House, rest stop, and speed trap along the way. He had observed high tech dying in modern hospitals with its probes, machines, and alarms graphing and announcing each step along the journey. He had been engulfed with furniture, objects d’arte, and other stuff that were too important to the deceased to have been dealt with by them.
He had been amused by the disingenuous grief of funeral directors who could barely hide their glee at collecting another up-front, exorbitant fee. Coming out of the restaurant business, Head saw right through their up-selling techniques; but he wondered how less informed grievers would react to their loved ones being denied a luxury sendoff. When confronted with a significant loss in potential revenue, the internment specialist had demanded that Head and his sister attest, “Yes, we acknowledge that cremation is irreversible.” The disappointed undertaker seemed quite perplexed that Head and his sister had unceremoniously laughed out loud at this absurdity.
Head had taken part in ceremonies where familiar verses were read, hymns sung, and stories told. These ancient rites, so seemingly senseless before his year long course had begun, proved their merit in the end by bringing emotional closure for the living. It was the non-intellectual way to answer un-answerable questions. And like the losers on Jeopardy, Head’s non-superior frontal lobes understood the answers perfectly even if he didn’t know the questions.
Head didn’t regret his frequent visits to Birmingham, but as his niece said to him, “We get nervous when you show up, especially when someone we love has started sneezing.”