By Charlton Walters Hillis
The other day in a crowded, dingy little convenience store in north Georgia, while waiting in line, I noticed a coffee can. It had a paper label taped around it and a slit in the top for donations. The handwritten note asked for help with burial costs for a man who had died unexpectedly. It read something like this: “Donations for Big Joe’s Burial. No Insurance. Suddenly Past.” There was a snapshot of a large man standing in what appeared to be the scene of a birthday party.
It’s not uncommon to come upon such donation requests, usually for medical expenses. It was that “suddenly past” which struck me. The word was almost certainly meant to be “passed.” (As they say, “In the South no one dies, they just pass.”) A simple grammatical error. I’ve marveled at it ever since.
When you look at it this way it takes on a very interesting angle. One day, one hour, one minute a person is in the present. Then he dies and is suddenly, permanently consigned to the past. Suddenly past. From now on, we will refer to him in terms such as, Big Joe was, rather than Big Joe is. According to your estimation of him, he will either be elevated to a larger than life, better-than-he-really-was status, or the memory of him will fade in a frighteningly rapid manner. Most of those who knew him will go on about their lives, almost as if he was never here; they are in the present while he is in the past. On this earth at least.
The Psalmist said, “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. And its place remembers it no more.”
That’s the way it happened with my brother in an incongruous death in the waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. He would never have gone to Florida; he hated crowded, touristy places. But he did go, just once, to see friends. And he stepped off from waist deep water with his young son on his shoulders, into an unmarked current where they were separated, torn apart by the water which swept him on and left my nephew to be rescued by a stranger.
Before that he had been in the present, long distance or not. This was before social media, and long distance phone calls were expensive and reserved mainly for just the sort of news which was conveyed to me on a Tuesday evening in June. We wrote letters; it was what people did then. I could at any time write him a letter, and he would write back. His letters were always typed, and they were always interesting. They were keepers; I still have every one of them. He wrote to me about things like writing.
And after that black Tuesday evening in June of 1992, I found myself writing about him, in that way, in the past. Where before I wrote to him, now I wrote about him. And in some twisted manner it freed me, as if I was now superior and could do anything I wished with this. I made him larger than life, which was what he had always been to me, but until then only in my mind, where the idea was safe. On paper it was downright dangerous. I tried to make him an artist, which he was, and I tried to make him a genius, which he perhaps was not. Robin and Linda Williams sing a song about a less than stellar character who has those around him believing he is a genius. They believed his every word, hung on every line. My brother was nothing like their genius—my brother was definitely stellar—but my admiration of him was like that.
When I was small I was always drawing. Most likely I drew at least once a picture of my big brother. Larger than life. The tallest one in the picture, the strongest one, the smartest one, however a child would color smart.
And at the age of almost forty I was still making that same picture—in typed words now instead of crayons. And after a while I began to sicken of it. I sickened of it and left off for a while, because I finally had to face what I was doing. I was taking liberties with him because he was in the past—liberties that I would not dare take were he in the present. I freely analyzed his character and his life and painted it exactly the way I wanted the reader to see it regardless of any nagging contradictions. In this vein I wrote essays and poems. It was good therapy to write my grief away; no one would blame me, not even me. I went further. I even tried putting him into a rambling story, renamed, thinly disguised, until at some point in the story I took a sharp left turn and went over the edge of a cliff in some sort of bizarre literary experiment and painted him the polar opposite of what he had actually been.
What he had been was this: When he realized I was afraid of the dark, he taught me to not be afraid and went about it in a deliberate fashion. We simply went for a walk in it so he could point out that everything was the same as in the daytime, just dark. We walked first down the gravel road a ways then back behind the house to the pond. There was a moon. I was never afraid of the dark again.
He built me things, he taught me things, he fixed my things. He read my one-page story and told me I ought to write one around ten pages long. I was still in elementary school and waiting to be praised for the one-page story. He approved it, but the assignment carried more weight than did the approval, and I began then attempting to do the impossible. It was many years before I wrote one that long and had him critique it, but it was many years in my mind that I must do that because he thought I could.
He dyed his hair gray to play the narrator of his senior class play (just a few years later his own hair turned gray at twenty-five). The play, “Our Town,” is one that high school seniors can only play and not yet grasp, a story about the brevity of life and those who pass suddenly into another present. That was when we lived in Arkansas.
Snow was rare in Arkansas on the ranch just thirty miles from the Oklahoma border, over which we would move in 1960. But there it was, a snow big enough to build a large snowman. Or two. After dark. And there was my brother at the door saying there were some men outside who wanted to talk to Daddy. He had made two large snowmen and followed up with this highly irregular play directed at the father with whom he was usually at odds. Did he intend it as some sort of peace offering, a throwback to much younger days before he learned there was little or no patience for child’s play? Maybe it was more sinister, with underlying tones, strangers calling the man of the house outside for a confrontation. Whatever it meant, the snowmen soon vanished but left an imprint in my head.
The Hebrew writer painted life as a vapor that’s here for only a brief time…curling slow and white above the pond fringed with dead winter grass. How many times my brother must have looked out the dining room window (the same one from which he painted in watercolors the big old oak and the woodshed and the pasture before the pond was dug) at that mist rising over the pond, knowing without knowing it would be gone before breakfast was over.
Sometimes if we’re blessed, there’s a very quick rip in the clouds, and we look up just in time not to miss it. For an instant—an instant only—we glimpse the power and the glory and the overpowering sense that there lies reality. We see sharply then—before the memory fades—that God eclipses everything else including Heaven, and that our tiny, abrupt, flower-of-the-field life is hardly real at all. It’s almost child’s play.