Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"A Beautiful Day"

It’s what people like to call a “beautiful day.” There are clouds in the sky, but they’re white and fluffy, magic carpets for the souls of the dead. The sun is bright enough to blind anyone bold enough to stare directly at it, but not quite hot enough to make your skin sizzle.

The fact that such a “beautiful” day brightens other people’s mood only makes mine darker. Somehow, I feel more in tune with the world when the clouds are dark and threatening rain. More than anything else, a warm, sunny day like today seems tailor made for a funeral.

It was on a day very much like today, only twice as gorgeous, that a 12-year-old girl, one of my classmates at St. Procop, an elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio, was laid to rest, as they say, in Calvary Cemetery. It was May 1, 1970. Only a few days before her death, she had spent recess outside in the rain, collecting worms in a plastic bag for use in a science project. I can still see her, wearing a blue jacket, showing the worms to the nun who was angry that she had brought these slimy creatures into our seventh grade classroom (“DON’T! YOU! BRING! THOSE! THINGS! IN! HERE!”). That was a Friday, exactly one week before her funeral. Sometime over the weekend, she became ill with pneumonia, probably caught when she was collecting those worms in the rain.

By Monday, when the entire school assembled in the gymnasium/cafeteria for a tribute to our fat (and mean-as-hell) principal, the girl was probably dead, but the news didn’t reach us until Tuesday morning. As always, I was late for the mass that started every school day. A classmate whispered the news to me, and the priest performing the mass confirmed the sad report when offering a prayer for her from the altar. After mass, the girls in the class gathered outside, rallying around the fat (and mean-as-hell, but not this morning) principal who visited our classroom along with the priest to comfort the dead girl’s classmates.

“Safely Home,” the heartbreaking poem written from the perspective of someone who has just arrived in Heaven, was distributed to each of us, and the principal tried to cheer us up, telling us how lucky this girl was because she no longer had to go to school. No mention was made of the fact that she could no longer breathe, eat, see, think, feel, fall in love, and could never do any of those things ever again, but the comment did bring smiles to a few faces.

Even at that age, a person’s character was revealed in the way they reacted to this tragedy. The two bullies in the class snickered at the solemnity of these sad days and expressed indifference. They would also bow their heads in mock respect when passing her family’s home. A bully is a coward at heart, and one of them later admitted that when the class visited the funeral home, he was afraid to look at the corpse. I did look at the corpse and was appalled at what I saw. The girl’s breasts had been padded and were far too prominent for a 12-year-old. Her jaw jutted out in a way it never had in life, and I remember the grim expression on her face that seemed to suggest she did not go peacefully.

The class attended her funeral that first day of May. The sun was ablaze in the sky, the birds were chirping in the trees, and the humidity made my shirt stick to my skin. Here we were, perspiring with the sun at our backs, watching a 12-year-old girl’s lifeless body lowered into the ground. Summer, the season whose arrival we welcomed like no other, was right around the corner, but this girl would spend it and every summer since under six feet of earth.

Such are the thoughts that a “beautiful day” inspires.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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