The way things worked out, I was in the middle of the front row. Front and center before the pit and Jr's casket suspended over it. Melia on my left, Ross on my right. New friends for life. All of us in chairs were facing the wall of the light gray casket, the one that cost the least, the same kind Jean was buried in. We who knew that had a special feeling about it, that Jr had what he wanted, was in work clothes and no flowers. Except the florist had made a banjo out of flowers, which was just right. It stood to the side of the signing book pedestal. Everyone loved it.
It was a beautiful time of peace. I felt like it was the soul of Jr Maxwell that I knew. By the time his mind started slipping away, I understood his way of thinking enough to be able to hand him the word he's looking for when he was talking and drew a blank on a word like a name. Often, when somebody was visiting, they'd be talking and I'd toss Jr a word from time to time, lessening his embarrassment that his mind was slipping away. Early on I saw that it was important to him not to appear as loopy as he was becoming. Like he wouldn't get up to go pee in the time when he needed a cane first, then a walker, when he had company. Didn't want to be seen using that humiliating thing standing within arm's reach of where he was sitting. Jr was not vain, didn't care about appearance, but he still had little bit of a sense of style; didn't like to wear over-hauls because they made him look old.
I'll never forget the time he went to the bathroom when Paul Reeves was visiting, using the walker, meaning he had to go bad. After he'd been gone quite awhile, long enough that both Paul and I were wondering, I heard Jr call. He was sitting on the side of the tub. His legs wouldn't work. He couldn't move over to the pot. He was in place and couldn't move, had been that way since he went in there. He couldn't stand up, so I had to pick him up and carry him back to the living room.
He was far enough along in the mental decline that his hand would not let go of the walker. Had to drag that walker through doorways, his hand holding onto it like for dear life. I had 2 doorways to get through, one after the other, with that thing dragging along, and at the same time I'm trying not to hurt Jr's arm that was hanging onto it. Then the 3rd doorway was a major obstacle, because he would not let go of the walker and all three of us could not make it. I said over and over, let go of it. And he hung on. Finally, I had to force it out of his hand, then ran him to his seat on the couch and placed him with my last little bit of strength, thinking: if this gives me a heart attack I don't care.
The hundreds of hours sitting at the table sipping the best liquor in the land came up in my mind, listening to Jr tell the full account of his life in conversational flow. It wasn't a linear account from beginning to end, but a piece from here, a piece from there, like leaves falling off a tree, one at a time, each a story in the telling. He never told the same one twice. I never made notes, and have forgotten most of it, but that doesn't' matter, it all wove together to give me a sense of the full human being Jr Maxwell was to everyone who knew him.
It doesn't feel yet like he is gone. It feels like I'm at my place and he's at his place. Only out of sight. I don't have a sense of Jr dead. He's at his place, the place we call Heaven, and that's even better. One thing I did not know was that Jr was the hub of Whitehead. Whitehead didn't die with him, but all of Whitehead misses him and a major chunk of Whitehead is gone, like the old mill and the Whitehead Store.
Everyone in Whitehead loved Jr Maxwell, with some exceptions, of course, given that exceptions prove the rule. I wouldn't know where to start looking for an exception, unless when Absentee Supercop finds herself not in the will. I don't know that, but have a pretty good idea. I see her in the lawyer's office at the reading of the will with the light glistening on her fangs, eyes seething with hatred, as usual, behind the eyeless mask. I told Jr some years ago I wanted nothing. Jean did too. In one of our conversations at the table, Jean told him that she and I love him as he is right now, Jr Maxwell, we don't want any leavings. When he's gone, he's gone and that's it. Objects, money, whatever, don't bring him back.
Preacher Roy Houser spoke of Jr's life as someone who knew him. He spoke of his own respect for Jr all his life. He knew the man and missed him like everyone he was talking to did. When he was finished, he put the red carnation from his lapel on the casket. I never once pictured Jr in my mind inside the casket. It was just a box before my eyes. I didn't want my mind to dwell on the shell Jr's soul cast off. I was hearing him in the hoot of an owl. I was feeling the love the people of Whitehead felt for Jr Maxwell shifted toward me, an immense amount of love. It isn't that I can fill Jr's shoes, but that I helped him in his helpless time and loved him as they did. Now I'm a citizen of Whitehead. It's the community God gave me. Of course I love it.