Grandma and I sat on the porch swing, shelling peas, my legs dangling above the floor. I heard a car climbing the first hill in the long lane to the farmhouse. Grandma stopped shelling and looked up as the car growled in low gear and bounced through deep ruts. An unexpected visitor was an event on a remote farm in the hills of southeastern Ohio. We set aside the peas and stared at the place where the car would emerge from the woods. Dad’s mottled maroon 1951 Chevy appeared.
“Isn’t it Friday?” I asked Grandma with a quizzical look. “I’m not supposed to go home until Saturday.”
“That’s right.”. Her face was set in a frown as she stared at the car that was chased by a cloud of fine, brown dust. Dad came to a stop in the barnyard. Dust hovered over the Chevrolet and began to settle, further dulling its maroon finish.
Dad was alone. I pushed myself off the swing and ran past the tiger lilies, through the gate in the white picket fence, and threw myself at him crouching beside the car. After a long hug, he rose and set me on my feet.
“What’s wrong, Bob?” shouted Grandma from the gate.
“Irene and the kids are fine,” he replied with a smile.
“Thank God for that,” she replied with a sigh and led us to the porch where I jumped onto the swing. Grandma went in to make a fresh pot of coffee. Dad told me he would be right back. I pumped my legs to make the swing move.
When Dad returned to the porch, he settled himself in a white wicker chair with a steaming mug and asked if I had picked blackberries or milked Gene, the Guernsey cow I had named for Gene Autry years before. After I told him some of the neat things I did during my week at the farm, Dad leaned forward, and said, “Michael, I have some sad news. You know Mike Spires has been very sick in the hospital. I’m sorry to tell you this, but he died yesterday. We’re all very sad.”
I nodded silently. Mike was 9, two years younger than me and not my best friend, but I played with him sometimes. Dead. I would never throw a football with him again, never see him fly a toy airplane in our backyard or tug on his tie in church. Never again. He was gone. Why did he have to die?
“He’s in heaven with God, Michael. He’s not in pain any more. Do you want to ask me anything? It’s hard to understand when someone dies.”
The swing was still. I stared at the lilies by the gate. In a small voice, I finally said, “I understand.”
Dad moved to the swing and put his arm around me. A crow cawed in the distance. After a while, not sure how long, Dad said, “Mike’s funeral’s at St. Gabriel’s tomorrow, and your Mom and I think you should be there. He was your friend, and you should come to say goodbye.”
“Isn’t it too late to say goodbye?” I muttered.
“Well, yes, but attending a funeral is another way to say goodbye. Just being there for him will help you accept it. Mike’s parents and his brothers will be pleased to see you and his friends at the service. I know this is hard for you.”
“I can’t believe he died. He was supposed to get well at the hospital and come home.”
Grandma brought sandwiches to the porch for lunch. I ate hurriedly and stuffed my clothes, books, and a black snake’s skin I found in the barn into Mom’s scuffed plaid suitcase. Soon Dad and I bumped down the lane to the county’s graded dirt road and Route 33. I watched the woods, pastures, and farmsteads scroll by from the front seat. Ordinarily sitting in Mom’s seat was a delight, but I was thinking about Mike. Dad tried to interest me in a “hot rod” without fenders that zipped past us, and a black stallion that galloped in a field as if racing with us. I nodded, but I was remembering the last time Mike, Ronnie, Skip and I played hide and seek as shadows lengthened and it grew darker and darker. It was a few weeks ago, before he was too sick to come out and play. Then I was sure Mike would play with us again.
No one in my family or in our neighborhood had died. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all alive. I saw a kid in my class get hit by a car, but he came back to school in a few weeks. On TV, outlaws often died from gunshots. Sometimes a good guy would get shot and say to Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, “I’m a goner.” The star would track the killer to his hideout and bring him to justice by the end of the show. In the movies, Chicago gangsters would machine gun other crooks and sometimes innocent people, but they always ended up with a cell door clanging behind them. No blood and no screaming in pain from those who got killed. Anyway that was all acting. No one actually died on TV or in the movies. But Mike really died.
“Why did Mike die?” I asked Dad.
“He had leukemia. It’s a blood disease,” Dad replied casting an appraising glance at me.
“Will Skip catch it? They were buddies, always together.”
“No, no. Leukemia isn’t contagious like the measles or the flu. You don’t need to worry about catching it.”
“Well, how did Mike get it then?”
Dad hesitated, and said, “The doctors don’t really know why a some kids get it. It’s very rare. Very few kids come down with leukemia. I can’t imagine what Mike’s parents are going through.”
“It’s not fair! Why did he have to die?” I said staring through the windshield at the road that seemed to narrow in the distance.
“It’s absolutely not fair. Mike didn’t deserve to die, and his dad and mom didn’t deserve to lose their boy. Poor Mrs. Spires cries and cries. It’s terrible to lose a child. Or anyone. It was terrible to lose army buddies in the war.”
For several miles, we were silent. Finally Dad cleared his throat and said, “I’m sure Mike is in heaven with God and the angels. Everything is part of God’s plan. Sometimes we don’t understand why things happen, but we have to believe in God. The good Lord has a reason for everything, and we need to pray for our faith in Him.”
I knew better than to tell Dad I was thinking God must be cruel. He let Mike get leukemia and die in the fourth grade. He didn’t have a chance to grow up and have a life. It was cruel to Mike and his parents, his brothers and to me, Ronnie, and all the kids in the neighborhood, too. I would get into big trouble if I was cruel to my brothers and sisters or Mom and Dad. It just wasn’t fair. Mike wasn’t a bad kid. God didn’t have to do this. God must be cruel.
Mom met me outside the front door and hugged me tight, but I pulled away. I took the suit case upstairs. The shirt, pants, and jacket I wore to church for last year’s Confirmation were laid across my bed. I wondered if they still fit.
Mom untied her apron and told me supper would be ready when the potatoes were done. She held my shoulders at arm’s length, “Did you want to stay at the farm?”
“No. I’m OK,” I replied. “I just thought Mike would come home from the hospital and play football in the street like before. I never…”
“I know, Michael. It’s hard.” She pulled me close and wrapped her arms around me. “Your dad and I thought you would want to be in church for Mike.”
I nodded and said, “I’m OK with it.”
Soon after supper, I said goodnight from the bottom of the stairs and went to bed early, but lay awake until after midnight. The lights from the Spires’ house flooded into my room. Extra cars were in the driveway. Mike’s aunts and uncles, maybe grandparents. Where would they sleep? Would someone sleep in Mike’s bed? Creepy.
Then, I thought of his empty bed. I pulled the covers over my head and cried. After I wiped away the tears, I wondered why God let this happen. My catechism said he was all-knowing and all-powerful. My muscles clinched. I threw off the covers and pounded my fists into my pillow several times. It was after midnight, but I stared at the brightly lit ceiling. I wasn’t even sleepy.
Mom shook me. “Time to get up. The funeral’s at 9 o’clock. I’m sure you need a shower.”
The funeral. Mike’s funeral. What’s going to happen? I’ve never been to one. Mrs. Spires will be crying. Maybe Mike’s little brothers will cry, too. I won’t. Will other kids from the neighborhood be there? Lorraine, Marsha, and the other girls will cry. That’s OK for them, but not me.
When I emerged from the bathroom, Mom shook her head. “Those pants are above your ankles. Don’t put on white socks. You’re growing like a weed.” I nodded and smiled. Maybe my growth spurt had arrived. My first happy thought since I heard about Mike.
As we walked toward the church, my best friend Ronnie caught up with me and said, “You came back. I was glad to see that flattop. Like trees in the forrest. Can I sit with you? Dad dropped me off.”
“Sure. Who else is coming?” I replied after Ronnie exchanged greetings with Mom and Dad.
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to any of the guys. I didn’t know what to say to them.”
“Yeah. It’s hard to believe. I thought sure Mike would get well,” I said in a whisper as we passed through the vestibule and entered the church. The morning sun streamed through the rectangles of colored glass that substituted for stained glass in our new church. The cement block walls were painted white, and the high ceiling and pews were varnished a honey color. The strong fragrance from flowers was overwhelming. We clambered into a pew. Dad and Mom knelt, crossed themselves, and closed their eyes, so Ronnie and I did the same.
I heard a soft rustling behind us and turned to see six men in dark coats guide a flower-strewn, dark wooden box on wheels up the aisle to the communion rail. Ronnie whispered, “Is Mike inside?”
“Yeah, that’s the casket. Creepy!” I whispered back with a shudder. I looked up and saw Mom frowning at me. I sat up straight and focused on the altar, but I didn’t look at the casket.
Father Eyerman stepped to the pulpit and sympathized with the sorrow of Mike’s parents, relatives and friends for the loss of their beautiful boy. He recalled that Jesus loved young children like Mike. Father quoted St. Paul, “In the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the dead will be raised,” and promised that Mike’s family will be reunited in the loving presence of God. A woman next to Mike’s mom cried out and sobbed loudly. Mike’s mom buried her face in her hands.
Father continued calmly, again citing the words of St. Paul, “We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love him.” He called upon everyone to pray for God’s grace and acceptance of his will. I remembered my thoughts yesterday in the car with a twinge of guilt.
After church, Ronnie and I walked home. He said, “At least, he’s is not in pain anymore. Like my Dad said, he’s in a better place.”
“I guess. But it’s not fair. Just not fair!” I said louder than I intended. Ronnie nodded and we parted.
At home, Dad talked with me about the mystery of the God’s plan and urged me to pray to God. He said I would understand when I got older and studied theology, but he said for now I must put my faith in God.
I promised Dad I would pray hard and learn to believe in God’s love. Yet my favorite teacher, Sister Miriam at St. Gabriel, and the scholarly priests at St. Charles Preparatory were unable to make me understand why God allows innocent children to suffer and die. Why did Mike Spires have to die? I’ve never received an answer to this question.