The Man in the Box
© Copyright 2022 by Ruth Thompson
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk: at Pexels.
Itís a vague memory, likely remembered because my mother told the story repeatedly and included it in her memoirs. I was four years old, sitting in a church with my mother on a weekday. My older brother was in school, my father at work. Mother didnít explain what was going on. Perhaps she didnít think I was old enough to understand and thought I would just sit there quietly. She could have left me with a babysitter, but I imagine she thought the expense was not warranted. I was a shy child, fairly compliant, and no doubt she expected me not to make a fuss. In my motherís re-telling of the incident, she would grimace, her head lowered, as she talked about how my outburst had disrupted a solemn occasion.
Why is the man in the box? Sitting beside my mother in the third row of the church, everyone at the funeral service could clearly hear my high-pitched childís voice.
My mother turned to me in horror, finger to her lips, a barely audible ďsh.Ē She did not answer my question, just looked at me sideways, red-faced, as she placed her hand near my mouth. That was enough to keep me from repeating the question, apparently. But I donít recall if she tried to answer the question after the funeral. Perhaps my mother thought I was too young to understand. Perhaps she didnít know what to say.
Why is the man in the box?
Was there an answer my mother could have given a four-year-old child? I wonder. At some point, I learned the man in the box was a cousin of my motherís, one I had never met, so I had no experience with him apart from being ďin the box.Ē Eventually, I came to understand why the man was in the box, but Iíve never understood what death means.
My experiences with death are vivid memories that flash through my mind like movie scenes. And through my life, Iíve asked several troublesome questions about death.
My aunt was sobbing uncontrollably at my grandfatherís funeral. I found it strange because she was crying over her father-in-law, while my mother, my uncle, and grandmother, the blood relations, were stoic and dry-eyed. I wondered about her reaction for years and only in adulthood came to a likely explanation. She was pregnant and the accompanying hormones made her overly emotional. I was eight years old, and I recall being sad about my grandfatherís death, but more so sad for my mother and grandmother. My relationship with my grandfather had been limited, hindered because of his multi-year battle with cancer, and his death was expected, given the state of his health. At the reception, I heard whispers from adults with the platitudes we so often hear, ďat least he isnít suffering anymore.Ē Was death a release from suffering?
A seventeen-year-old schoolmate was killed in a motorcycle crash and the gruesome details of his demise were murmured in the school hallway. He was thrown from the motorcycle and his body wrapped around a pole. It didnít seem real. One day he was at school and the next day gone. Only old people died, or so I thought. To that point in my life, death was something that happened to old people. Why do young people have to die?
At my father-in-lawís graveside service as the casket was lowered into the ground, my nine-year-old nephew bolted away, inconsolable. All the adults knew it was my father-in-lawís time. Following a debilitating stroke, he had been in a vegetative state for several months. That reality was not enough to normalize the death in the eyes of a nine-year-old who doted on his grandfather. What can we do with our grief? How do we console others?
Pregnant with my first child, I went to the funeral of a friendís twenty-one-year-old son who died in a car crash. I cried uncontrollably, just like my aunt had years before. I barely knew the young man, but I rationalized my outburstóthe tragedy of a young manís life snuffed out before his time, and the hormones of pregnancy. Are sudden deaths worse than ones than lingering ones?
ďYouíre going to die, arenít you?Ē My five-year-old daughter said to me, her face crumpled, tears spilling down her cheeks. The realization of her parentsí eventual death came unexpectedly. I had to respond with the brutal truth, adding the only consolation I could muster, ďbut it wonít be for a long, long time,Ē while praying I would be proven correct. Not everyone gets to live to an old age, as I learned from my teenage schoolmateís death. Even though I experienced the death of others, I was not prepared to talk about it, nor did I have answers that would give a five-year-old any comfort. At that moment, I felt some sympathy for my mother when I asked, why is the man in the box? My question in that moment was: How can we prepare our children for death without scaring them?
Through my life, I have asked more complicated questions, Why do we die?, and the big one, What happens after death? I donít have definitive answers. Little wonder I donít want to talk about it or think about it. In university, at age twenty, I enrolled in a psychology course, ďDeath, Dying and Aging.Ē I dropped the course after one lecture because the topic was too distressing. When an aging person talked about planning their memorial service, I was uncomfortable with the conversation. How can we have rational conversations about death?
Now, at age 69, have I come to terms with death? I am at least resigned to it after burying both my parents and a stillborn grandchild. But Iím still baffled by death in reality and as a concept. Despite being a person of faith and reading several books about near-death experiences, I donít know for sure what happens after death. In todayís increasingly secular world, heaven may seem a childish concept to most people, so I donít mention it. The brutal truth is this: I will have to wait until my demise to fully understand death, and what happens after death. By then, it will be too late to pass on that information to my children and grandchildren. It is distressing that I can never help my descendants understand death.
Why is the man in the box? Iíve decided we put death in a box to make it seem like we understand it. I certainly donít. I have no definitive answers. Death will remain the greatest mystery of my life.