Saturday, September 29, 2007

Road Kill Ruminations

“May the road rise up to meet you” isn’t such a great thought when road kill is involved.

And dead varmints seemed to be in surplus this past weekend. In Louisiana, our host told of hitting such desecration as to need an emergency run to the car wash to prevent the scent from his truck from prompting passers-by to wonder if they needed to call in CSI.

Driving home from my sister’s (the arduous journey of 13 whole minutes from her college town to my hometown that my mother often felt was too much to ask me to cover in an afternoon of errand-running) I encountered what I think might have once roamed the world as an opossum and reduced its hindquarters to mush.

And while powerwalking Hwy. 45 for my daily constitutional I noted what I thought and hoped was a mound of paper blocking my way on the sidewalk ahead. I was wrong. I’m not sure what the swollen, rain-soaked mass once was exactly because I chose to risk the oncoming traffic rather than get too close to the odiferous mess.

The last encounter got me to thinking about how rural areas tend to deal with death. They (or should I say “we” given that my roots are rather deep in unconsolidated soil) are rather practical about it. Pretty much, if there’s a dead skunk in the middle of the road you either move it or leave it up to the elements. Once when I took out a deer with my 1972 Malibu the most asked question was not how the five teenaged girls in the vehicle were holding up but rather who got the deer for processing. (And if you’re one of those people, I’ll go ahead and tell you that it was the county jail.)

This practicality may be the reason I never found it odd that my high school job at the Dairy Queen often required me to get the details on who was also at the funeral home next door. The owner of the DQ was also the town mortician. “Has Jimmy got a body?” was the first question of the shift. That fun fact never fails to amuse my non-small town friends.

My mother is on the benevolence committee at her church. When the pastor reported on Wednesday night regarding the status of “Miss” Patty, a fellow church member slightly younger than my mother, Mom remarked to me later that she’d need to make a run to Sam’s to pick up the needed paper products to feed the family after she passed away. She'd picked up her cue from the pastor's public proclamation that after his hospital visit that day, he could report that "Miss" Patty wasn't doing well; she wasn't doing well at all."

Don’t get the idea that we’re vultures, awaiting the inevitable. But death happens. And life goes on. And sometimes the best thing to do is recognize that cleaning up is inevitable so just get to it. You need to know the language to really catch what's going on because practicality doesn't usually equal transparency. "We'll work 'til Jesus comes" as the song says but we'll whisper while we do it.

I prefer the practicality to the occasional but lame attempts at philosophizing. When my brother died at 38 from a totally unanticipated heart attack, my mother was “comforted” by any number of folks assuring her that “God must have wanted another bass in the choir” or “Bart was just too good for this world.” Months later mother asked me about the comments.

I responded with a question of my own. “Do any of those words provide you with comfort?”

“They make me mad as a hornet!” she exclaimed.

“Good!” I offered. “’Cause I think their stupid statements made by people without a clue.”

“So what should I do?” she asked, ever wanting the next practical action to take to “fix” the situation, to step in and at least do something.

“Grieve. Be angry. Do whatever works for you, Mom. And don’t listen to them. If you want, tell them to shut up. If you don’t want to, get away as soon as possible. But this is yours, Mom, and you don’t have to live up to anyone’s standards.”

“You think?” she asked, her voice filled with the hope of one who longed for comfort.

“I don’t know much, Mom, but I know this. Your grief is your own.”

She sighed.

Psychology isn’t a hallmark of small town living. We whisper when asked about the idiosyncracies of our own, offering euphemisms such as she’s a bit “touched in the head” (unless of course you’re my sister who just notes that they’re “bat shit crazy”). And therapy is limited to the lame of foot, not of soul. If you’re suffering inside, another trip down the church aisle to confess your sins should do the trick. Otherwise, troubles are best kept behind closed doors and alluded to in public with only knowing glances and nods.

I once rebelled against the system that hid rather than identified and examined the issues. Now I accept its inevitability as what works for them. My science teacher balloons and loses weight to skeletal proportions every three years or so. A high school girlfriend kicks her husband out of the house on a regular basis for imagined shortcomings and while the church folks question the wisdom of her being allowed to take on a leadership role in her unstable state, she’s in charge of one of the more popular Sunday School classes. Another fellow alumni and now teacher once told me that she was having to have massive amounts of dental work as the result of all the vomiting she’d done in her bulimic days. I nodded and wondered quietly if those days were as much a thing of the past as she was trying to indicate.

Road kill and secrets are inevitable in small towns. (And now I must revert to) They may not have the best or healthiest system for cleaning up the destruction but they take care of their messes.

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason why I visit rather than live there anymore. I can only hold my breath and whisper for so long.

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