A DEATH in the family, like a birth, underlines the essential triviality of our every day concerns.
Will making $1,000 more (or less) this year teach one how to sell a 4-year-old a favoite uncle is gone? Will improving one's backhand volley help one to find comforting words for a grieving sister? Does it really matter if Billy Carter conned the Libyans, or they him?
What does matter, when one gets down to it, is the fate of those related to us, and of that larger circle of "family" hardly less dear, those close friends whose joys and sorrows one has shared over the years.
We know with our minds that each of us, sooner or later, owes God a death, and that whether He calls his sheep this year or the next is of small consequence. One generation, as the Preacher of Ecclesiates teaches, passes away and another comes, yet the earth abides forever.
Still, the loss is there and cannot be denied.
Within hours, relatives start arriving from Virginia and Delaware, New York and Montana. Ours is a large family, and one that still clings to at least some of the old ways: a death is an occasion for an ingathering of the clan to share the loss, and to reaffirm that, despite our differences, we recognize the call of our common blood.
There is much to do, and mercifully little time in which to do it: friends to be telephoned, beds to be made for the out-of-towners, the lawn to be cut, hams to be baked and turkeys to be roasted, bottles to be uncorked and ice to be assembled, for both kith and kin who honor the dead man by their presence must break bread with us. It is an ancient ritual and one that can have changed little since time was young.
Since the days when women washed the bodies of their dead and sewed the shroud, these have been things left largely to them. But tasks must be invented for men, such as shuffling the cars around in the driveway, if only to keep them busy and away from the bar.
Dying, like everything else, takes a heap of doing these days. Arrangements have to be made at the church. There's the undertaker to argue with: there'll be no showing of the body in their cheerless, antiseptic chambers; those who wish to call will pay their respects at his home, around which the memory of him still hangs, like a well-worn favorite sports coat.
People are remarkably kind: baby-sitting is volunterred and food offered. One cousin, who dislikes funerals so much it seems unlikely he will attend his own, gratefully agrees to sit in the dead man's house during the funeral service to forestall a visit by burglars (yes, we have come to this pass in urban America). Beds enough for an army are made available by neighbors.
The flow of visitors, speaking in hushed tones but cracking an ocasional quiet joke -- this is an Anglo-Saxon family and the stiff upper lip is expected -- seems endless. Much bourbon is consumed. There is a telling of tales about "the time he . . . "
One is proudest of the children.
When a father takes his 4-year-old on his knee to tell her that Uncle John is dead, she replies in a small voice: "Yes, I know," and hugs him very hard and long, as if she is more than a little afraid that Daddy may cry. And that, of course, wouldn't do.