When Buck’s mother, Lois, was at the Azalea Trace nursing home in their 24-hour care skilled nursing facility, I would go visit with her most afternoons. Sometimes we watched Jeopardy together, looked through clothes catalogs or worked through a crossword puzzle from a big-print book. Without fail, a silence would fall sometime during the afternoon. Lois would lay back on her pillows, drape her porcelain hands one over the other across her surgically flat chest, and sigh. I sat by her bed in a Williamsburg blue upholstered rocking chair, newspaper on my lap, waiting.
Eventually, Lois would turn her head to me. “Did anybody die?”
I knew she meant, “anybody I might have known” and took that as my cue to open the paper and read. Sometimes, the reading went fast. Other times, like when one of the Brosnahams passed, the memory buttons it pushed for Lois could take the rest of the afternoon to explore. Some days it was like the begats, but with color commentary.
Lois died in 1995, but I still read the obits almost every day. I’m not old Pensacola, but a late arrival via Miami, through Tampa. I’ve only been here 36 years or so.
These days I find myself moved by the individual deaths of strangers. I don’t mean all the dying that goes on all over the planet every day, but the particularity of the guy down the street whose carefully tended yard suddenly went to seed and I wondered why. Now I know the crepe myrtle seedlings he planted several years ago will bloom this year without him. I hope his old black dog found a soft bed and a kind word, and that the garnet kayak I could see mounted on his truck is plying the rivers with someone who holds a good memory of the man who took such good care of it.
I still read the daily obits. It’s a way to feel as though I am communing with Lois, to hear her voice in my mind and to see again her soft Southern lady hands. She was from Clio, Alabama. Her sisters were Marguerite and Anne, tall and willowy long-stemmed roses, all of them, their voices honeysuckle, molasses and bourbon. Lots of bourbon, as though it might have been their afternoon tea of choice.
I saw one the other day that grabbed me. It wasn’t written by the deceased, or by a kindly hospice scribe. I could tell it was written by someone not accustomed much to writing, but who knew Ricky and was loved and prayed over by him.