All Anyone Could Do Was Whisper

Another gloomy and rainy day here in Atlanta, and I'm a bit reflective. I think everyone reflects a lot this time of year because it's kind of the calm before the storm. We've had our fun in the summer, and the Holidays are just around the corner, so this harvesting time also applies to our own hearts and minds. Since I've had what can only be described as a whirlwind year, and I'm in this blissful little space in my life where I can breathe and see exactly what the hell happened from the outside, I'm even more reflective this October than ever before.

In my mind, my life plays a lot like those old 8mm films we used to watch on reel to reel projectors. Remember those? My grandfather was really into it, and I can remember sitting in the kitchen watching old movies of our first Christmases, my first school play dressed up as a pilgrim, things that happened before I was born; I always found them to be magical. 15 years ago we had them moved to DVDs, but there's just something about the hum of the machine and the whipping of the cellophane when the movie is over that plays in my mind's eye when I remember things. Especially those defining moments that made me who I am today.

We all have majorly defining moments in our lives. Some of them internal and some of them external. I've been thinking a lot about these lately and putting them in the context of where I go from here. I tend to live in my head a lot and hang on to things that I really need to just let go of already, and release from this sack of karmic rocks I haul around each and every day.

October 25th came and went a couple of days ago, and it always does with a bit of a wince. It would have been my Uncle's 67th birthday and his death as a young man of 39, is one of my external defining moments. I call it external because I had nothing to do with any of the circumstances of this event and yet, it completely changed my life.

My Uncle died when I was almost nine years old right around my birthday. Everyone dies around my birthday, and it has given me a bit of a complex. I don't remember much about my Uncle, honestly. I remember that he was a very tall man, taught me how to cut my food with a knife, let me jump on his bed when I stayed with him, and he had a neat hobby of recreating World War II battles with little green army men and filming it. I just laughed out loud typing that, because it seems odd and eccentric to me now, but it was really awesome to a little kid.

I remember him being very sick very quickly and everyone being extremely quiet about it. My father took me up to a skating competition in Wisconsin, and he was unusually stressed and impatient throughout the whole thing, which was not like him at all. I also remember him snapping at me about something, which was something he probably did twice in my entire life. He kept checking the payphone in the rink, and I just remember I was worried, but I didn't know why. I was eight years old. I wanted to skate and play Barbies, and figured he had a bad case of the flu or something.

The day he died, my mother took me into her bedroom, sat me on the bed, and told me that he was gone. She was crying, but I can't recall if I did or not. I think I mostly felt disbelief. Again, everyone was super secretive about what had happened, and I was a little kid watching everyone go back and forth between whispering and yelling at one another.That wasn't the defining moment. The funeral was the defining moment. I know every detail of that wake and funeral right down to the baby blue dress with the silver flecks I wore and my mom snapping at me, "Only widows wear black!" when I suggested I wear something more somber. I didn't know any better... again, I was eight. I was mostly scared and preoccupied about what everyone was shouting and whispering about. Much of this was, "Grandma is crazy," and who was to blame for this.

No one prepared me for the viewing. It was held in the Narthex of our family church; the one my Grandparents had helped build, the church my father and Uncle were confirmed in, the church I was baptized in and sang in the choir...a genuinely happy place until this moment. Now it was a horror show as I sat on a royal blue carpeted bench and waited for my Uncle to sit up in the casket and let out one of his belly laughs. This was all just one big prank, and we could go home.

I was sitting there by myself unnoticed, as I was an expert at fading into the background and quietly watching everyone, making mental notes of everything; a skill I had developed a couple of years before, watching my parents break up and the chaos that followed that. I became adept at turning myself into wallpaper when needed.

Eventually, my mother found me, and asked me if I would take her up to the casket and see him. She was scared. It was the first time I had seen my mother afraid of anything. My mother was basically a human flame thrower, so the idea of her being scared of something was unsettling. She took my hand, again something she hasn't done since that day, and we walked up to the casket so she could say good-bye.

That, however, many minutes we sat up there next to the body, is forever imprinted on the cellophane of my mind. It plays like a movie, it feels like a movie.

When it was over, I made my way back to the bench, getting stopped here and there by extended family who fawned over how tall I was and my pretty baby blue dress. When I returned to the bench, I resumed my observation of what was happening around me. Mostly whispering, my Norwegian family holding their grief close in the bravest and most stoic of ways.

And then it happened...

My grandmother, who had just lost her eldest son, had a guttural outburst of grief. It seemed to come from out of nowhere to me. One minute she's chatting up a relative, and the next minute, pandemonium. I remember every single exact detail. It was utterly terrifying.

And there I sat alone on the bench. Invisible. Not that I needed to be visible at that time, clearly it was not about me in that moment. I did probably the best thing I could do for myself.

When the funeral was over, and the hearse pulled away, I remember my father walking out into the parking lot by himself and watching it head south on 75th Street back toward the funeral home. I stood about 25ft behind him, still on the sidewalk completely unnoticed, and watched him. My father was a Viking. He looked like a warrior. He was my hero, and here he was overcome. He had sunglasses on, but I could tell by the movement of his shoulders he was crying. On this clear, sunny, and warm June afternoon, I had seen my mother scared, my grandmother have an outburst of grief, and my father cry, and all anyone could do was whisper.

That day everyone's life imploded in a cacophony of whispers. A young, successful man was dead and our family was destroyed. No one was ever the same again. Some families pull together in their grief and face it as a unit, coming out the other side stronger for it, some scatter and run as far and as fast from it as they possibly can.

Mine was the latter.

My grandparents picked up and moved four hours away to escape, my father would spend the next two decades crumbling from this moment, it seemed to haunt my mother forever and I was all but forgotten about. I sat on my now proverbial royal blue bench and watched it all unfold in front of me over the rest of my childhood and teenage years. There were a lot of times during the chaos that would ensue I wanted to yell, "How did he die, and why are you all doing this?! I need you! Can't you care about the living person who desperately needs you right now?!"

For whatever reason, I never said that. On some level, I knew better. I'll never know what happened, but at this point, 27 years later, it doesn't matter. Everyone involved is gone, and I'm pretty much the last man standing. It used to be a huge ball of resentment I carried around with me, and probably a good chunk of that quiet rage that always bubbled deep inside my soul. I used to hate all of them for it. I could justify so much of my own shitty behavior by pointing to this defining event and saying, "SEE?! You self-involved jerks threw me to the wolves to free up more navel gazing time, and now I can do what I want!"

As I reflected on this recently, I saw it in a different way for the first time since it happened on that bright, beautiful June day a week before my ninth birthday. It might have been the universe throwing me a lifeline. I am the last one standing, after all. Maybe that's why there was an empty bench waiting for me at that wake. It was my island in a tumultuous sea; the universe's way of saying, "Here kid. The next 20 years are going to be some majorly rough waters. Stand here and wait until the sea is calm."

Jennifer Gulbrandsen