James Valvis


All told the casket weighed 400 pounds, made of oak and brass, and my dad inside no small man, a guy who liked chocolate, lasagna, kielbasa, liked to keep his belly round as a flour sack.

I helped anchor the back. Walking uphill, in soggy green grass, moisture soaking my socks to the ankles, my heels plummeted deep with every step. My brother, the Marine, stood on the other side. My father’s weight descended toward us. The other four guys did little more than steer.

Breathing hard, I looked at my brother. His face solemn but unmoved. He had a square jaw and that military haircut. He was supposedly the strong one, and I was the supposedly smart one. But it never really seemed that way to me. It seemed instead he was both.

I almost reached my right arm to aid the left, but shame stopped me.

Shame: Dad was good at making me feel it, and the thought came, however irrational, that my father chose this spot on this steep incline not because it was near trees or the chapel, but because he knew I’d suffer this indignity, living son who could not bear his father’s weight even in death, and had to stop for a breather.

Now what started as an exercise in respect had become a challenge, and I knew my arm would first separate from its socket before I’d cry uncle. I’d drop the coffin first before I asked for help.

My feet plunged deeper, slid, splashed mud. Sweat poured off me like ocean waves. My wrists ached, biceps cramped, and, eyes stung. I begged Jesus for strength. From the corner of my eye I saw a robin in the grass, screwing its beak into the sod for worms. I could smell my armpits and the mud underfoot. Further up the hill, I could just see the edges of the tent that lay over my father’s hole. My mother would be waiting there, my sisters, not so many others. According to the attendance, my father had touched few lives.

Was this true? I didn’t think so. Where were the cousins he took in, the nephews he drove home from the bars, the friends he built chairs for? Why was the mourning of so giant a man left to so few?

I felt my arm giving way, my grip loosening. I prayed. The hill was steeper here and seemed endless. My father had apparently decided to be buried on Mount Everest. I was walking on the bottoms of my dress pants. After this, I’d have to throw them out.

I closed my eyes, trying to put the pain out of my mind. But every finger ached. My shoulder shot pain into my neck. I couldn’t catch my breath and I realized I’d been holding it. I told myself to breathe—and didn’t.

When we crested the hill, my brother looked at me. I was crying. “It’s okay,” my brother said. He thought I was crying because of my father. In a way I was.

We lowered my father’s coffin onto the grave site. The relief was heavenly.

Immediately after I felt a rush from shucking that weight, I wondered if my dad saw this not as a punishment, but one last opportunity to get it right and be the son he wanted.

Probably not, but with him you never knew.

My brother and I moved to the family section, where my mom and sisters wept into their hands, but it was a long time before I could catch my breath and longer before I could force myself to stop smiling.


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