A Fireman's Funeral

High Point, North Carolina- where most of my relatives dwell. I met many of them for the first time at Sunday's funeral service for my great uncle Ray. Ray was a fireman, US Navy-man, paratrooper, pilot and sailor. He built planes and flew them even into his 80s. It was said that he lived "a rich man's life on a poor man's budget."

Ray died on the 24th. There were signs and portents. An approaching eclipse, the imminent blood moon, Andrea Bocelli's "Con Te Partiro" heard over and over. On the night Ray died, the bright moon was fractured behind shadowy trees. Something like a star moved across the sky, glowing suddenly then fading out.

On the 27th, the morning of the funeral, Dad and I were trying to watch the last stage of the Tour de France while my grandmother Aelise, decked in all blue and pearls, followed Mom from room to room. A hurricane had descended upon us. The moon filled me with dread. The last time I had been to High Point, a woman in a discount movie theater told me her dog's feet smelled like corn chips. I didn't know what might happen in this extra-dimensional place.

At the funeral home, the empty, sterile rooms were absent of life and recently vacuumed. At the very end of the hallway, some people who may have been related to me were gathered. I glanced around the corner into the chapel where a fireman in his black and red dress uniform stood vigil next to Ray.

I saw people I had only heard stories about. Judson showed up to his brother's funeral wearing a blue t-shirt and jeans. He used to own a bar in High Point called The Elbow Room and his wife Bonnie has "dementer." Later he would say that his daughter's husband is a former bank robber with a drooping eyelid, so that he has to walk around holding his eye open.

"He's a zombie," Judson said. "He just sits around sayin' 'I don't know, I don't know.'"

During the service, people called out Yes Lord and Amen and someone put their hand in the air during a live rendition of "I Can Only Imagine." A dozen white-haired retired firefighters, Ray's closest friends, sat on the first pews opposite the family. My distant cousin Marty, the chief fireman of Thomasville, got up to speak about his uncle. He imagined Ray piloting a plane in heaven, picking up those who had gone before him, including his son and his brother.

As we walked out of the chapel, to the sound of my grandmother falling out, I saw a three man honor guard escorting Ray onward, the low, abrupt sound of their voices floating through the open doors.

A distant train passed by as the bell ceremony was performed at the graveside. The silver bell rang ten times, then seven. My great-grandparents Sybil and Cecil were beside Ray, and my grandfather was elsewhere in that cemetery. One of the honor guard presented the American flag to Ray's family. Tears fell from the tip of his nose, yet he continued his duty with discipline. He stood by the silver bell, wiping his face with white gloves, then tucking them under the straps across his shoulders.

After the service, I saw Judson walking alone through the cemetery, looking at the headstones. His daughter Cheryl commented "Don't Pops look good?" Mom joked about calling her Ball Ball Head when they were kids, because she wore her hair in a floppy bun on her head.

On the drive home, my grandmother said, morbidly, "I guess that's the last time I'll go to High Point." None of us knew what to say. We rode beside the train for a while then passed by the deserted furniture factories on the outskirts of town.