Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Black Box

Her mother was sitting in a folding chair next to the black box that seemed to be the center of attention.  She was holding a fist full of crumpled tissues, and she was crying.

The little girl was confused.  She knew she had never been to this church before, but she was sure that was where she had to be, for Nanny had dressed her in her favorite Sunday outfit.  It was a strange church, too.  Instead of the usual singing followed by lapses into near silence save for the droning of one old man who always stood at the front of the church, this church was filled with groups of people whispering as they stood clustered together.  Sounds of crying interlaced with snippets of laughter erupted from time to time.  No padded benches were present either.  Just folding chairs placed along the walls of the room; chairs like the one her mother was sitting in now.

The little girl wasn’t quite sure how she had gotten to this new church.  It was dark outside, but she knew the way to their regular church because they always traveled there during the day.  In the dark, she was unsure of the route they’d taken.

This church had more flowers, too.  Surrounding the long, black box were hundreds of flowers.  Some were in pots while others stood upright perched in tripods.  A blanket of red roses lay on the bottom portion of the box.  The little girl usually liked flowers, but not these.  Combined, their scent created an unpleasant medley that befuddled the senses.  They tried to mask a hidden odor, but the acrid smell was still present.

Nanny took the little girl’s hand and led her over to her mother. “Net, here’s your daughter,” Nanny said as she handed the child over into her mother’s care.  The little girl sat down in the chair next to her mother’s.
“Mommy, why are you crying?” she asked.  A long silence passed between them.  The child started to wonder if her mother had even heard her question.

“Something sad has happened, Frog,” her mother answered at last.  Frog.  The little girl knew that something sad had indeed happened if Mommy was calling her by her grandfather’s pet name for her.  Only her grandfather called her Frog.  It was then that she wondered, “Where is he anyway?”

The little girl quickly scanned the room seeking for the one face in the crowd that could have lifted the somber mood pervading the room.  She did not see him.  In fact, she had not seen him since the night before. She had stayed the night with Nanny and PawPaw.  They always let her sleep between them in their big bed, and she loved to nestle between her two protective grandparents who slept on either side. It had been late in the night when she heard it, a loud thump that had awakened her and Nanny both.  The little girl reached over in the dark to feel for PawPaw, but he was not on his side of the bed any longer.  She peered over the side to find him lying on the floor.

“Nanny,” she said groggily, “PawPaw’s fallen off the bed.” Most of what happened after that was a blur.  Nanny moved quickly to the other side of the bed to get PawPaw up, but he would not move.  When her efforts proved fruitless, she tore from the room into the hall where the telephone was. She was gone a long time. The little girl was afraid.  She knew something was wrong, but she did not know what.  Maybe if she got down off the bed and asked PawPaw then he could explain it to her.  He always had a way of explaining things to her so she could understand. But he did not explain this time.  His eyes blinked when she called his name, but he bore a look of blankness.  He did not move; the only sounds that issued forth from his body were ragged, heavy breaths.

In an instant, Mommy was there along with Daddy and Nanny.  Then it seemed as if the house was suddenly full with aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Men in uniforms and other strangers, too, were there.  Nanny ushered her and her cousins into another part of the house amongst whispers that “children shouldn’t witness such things.” It was late anyhow, and the children, who had been torn from their pleasant slumbers, slept where they were.  The next day they went to a neighbor’s house where they watched television and played all day.  None of them, not even the little girl, noticed anything amiss.

Then it came to be that Nanny brought her here to this strange church with its strange chairs, flowers, smells, and people.  She was sitting with her mother who was crying and telling her something sad had happened, though she would not say what. So the little girl just sat. People started coming up to her and her Nanny, and they kept telling them how sorry they were for them and that if they could do anything just to let them know.  Sometimes the people would even talk to her.  They would say things like, “So, this is Frog!  I sure have heard some stories about you!” or “Your granddaddy sure did love you.  You were all he ever talked about.” None of this made much sense to the little girl, but she did not question her mother or Nanny about it. Questioning adults was frowned upon, and both her mother and Nanny were busy with the people, so she did not want to bother them.

When she had sat for as long as she could with these questions about what was happening burning in her mind, she went to find PawPaw and ask him about it.  He’d help her understand. She waded through the sea of people, and every now and then she thought she saw him.  But, on closer examination, she realized it was someone else; another kindly looking white-haired man with a patient smile and twinkling eye would meet her gaze. As she walked through the crowds, an aunt or uncle would place a hand on her head as she passed by, but they were all too engaged in their conversations to stoop down, take her on bended knee, and ask her what was troubling her.  No, only PawPaw would do that.

When she had looked everywhere in the church, she found herself back in the room with her mother and grandmother.  She stood for a moment taking in her surroundings yet again when she noticed the two women starring down into the black box.

They murmured something under their breaths that the little girl barely caught.  One said, “They did a fine job.” To which the other replied, “Yes, they surely did.” Unable to contain her curiosity, the child edged her way to the box and the women.  As they turned to leave, one of the ladies saw the little girl and smiled at her.  With the women no longer blocking her view, the little girl stood before the box alone.  She was too small to see over its edge, so she grabbed the side and hoisted herself up on tiptoes to get a clear view of the box’s contents.

The sight that met her eyes sent thrills of delight over her entire body, for there, in the box, was PawPaw!  At last, she had found him.  His eyes were closed, and his hands were folded across his chest; he appeared to be sleeping.  She called his name, but he did not answer.  This time he did not even blink. That was when she realized, for the first time really, that something about PawPaw was terribly wrong.  He never slept with his glasses on, and he certainly did not sleep with all his clothes on like that.  Also, the skin on each side of his lips hung haggardly as if it had slid down into a permanent frown.  She touched his hand, and it felt ice cold. 

Frightened now, she quickly lowered herself from the box and ran over to where her mother was still sitting.  “Mommy,” she cried, “what’s wrong with PawPaw?  He is in the black box, and he won’t talk to me.  He needs a blanket, Mommy.”

Her mother broke into body-racking sobs and was unable to respond.  It was Nanny who answered the question.  “Frog,” she said, “PawPaw’s gone to Heaven.  He can’t hear you now.” The little girl did not understand.  Nanny always told her the truth, but at the same time, she knew her grandfather was in the box.  She also knew he would not talk to her.  That is when she knew that she was not in a church at all.  This was Heaven, for Nanny had said so.

Lost in thought, she sat down beside her mother again.  If this place was Heaven, then she did not want PawPaw to be here.  She did not want him to be somewhere he could not talk to her or hear her voice.  No, she did not want anyone she loved to be here.

Not knowing what else to do, she simply sat silently next to her mother.  And when they finally got up to leave, the little girl turned back to look at the black box knowing that PawPaw was still in it.
It was at this moment that she began to cry.  She was not hurt or angry or tired.  No, for the first time, she began to cry for someone other than herself.  She cried for her PawPaw, who had gone to Heaven in a black box and who would never talk to her again.