The food came mainly from the church — the small-town funeral way. Creamed corn. Barbecue chicken legs. Salads with peas. A ham, spiral sliced. It was set out nicely on the island in the kitchen of the suburban home. End of the block, big corner lot. Cars parked all up and down the curbless street. The last couple of SUVs didn’t find spaces and just parked on the medium-frozen front lawn.

And then we were in the kitchen in Gastonia, N.C. A handful of the people we knew. Mary and I were the dwindling family connection on the dwindling side of the family, and we had come a long way to represent the Cassidys of South Dakota, of Iowa, of any number of places stretched along the Mississippi River a generation ago and before, going on two centuries. Most certainly we were representing Mary’s brother David — yes, David Cassidy, same name, same age as the pop star, but better looking. David died four years back. He was the father of Ryan, who died suddenly a week ago at age 26. David was also the father of Keegan and the grandfather of her three kids.

The other side of this made-by-marriage family was better represented, being all local. People not thought of in years, now front and center, in three dimensions, were still able to provoke a spark. The others though, family members we’d never directly known, only alluded to, were not as anticipated. If they had been bitter, it had burned off. They wanted connection, too.

Mainly though, the kitchen and the living room, a level down in the split configuration, were filled with young men and their young women, happy to have survived the church service, the passing by of the poster boards of pictures, the box of ashes of their good friend, now, astoundingly, gone. First death, not counting great aunts and grandmas, for most of these fellows, I’d assumed. First stunning realization that death is right there for each one of us.

The church service, South Gastonia Church of God, was all about death and assured new life. “Ain’t No Grave (Can Hold My Body Down),” was the booming, rhythmic anthem. To most in the room, Jesus was real, his presence palpable, their certainty in heaven, their certainty in their faith, its exclusive ways, was an adrenaline-laced comfort, a determined bridge over the ashes, past the oversized photos of that young man with the fabulous smile. Family members offered intense witness. The church’s pastor came on for the hard close: Choose. Now. This moment. Jesus.

But that moment passed. And now there were paper plates balanced on knees. Small kids trying to find their places between happy play and touching base with their adults on a day they knew was about a loss that was real to them but unknowable. The young men, clutching hands with girlfriends they had never needed more, gradually departed with pledges of ongoing connection that may actually be real in a small Carolina town.

And then there was just family. And the complexity of family. Profound love. Divorces. Half-siblings. The dead spoken of. Past efforts at reconciliation revealed. And then worries, doubts, hopes. Funny stories. Memories plumbed. Small questions answered. Fears acknowledged. Anger and doubt allowed. All in the knowing that a clock was ticking, that the Midwest splinter of this family would soon depart, that the tensions in the Gastonia clan would play out over months and years, that the tender connections between an aunt with a dead brother and a niece, now with her own brother dead, are paramount, fragile.

It is a long, lovely drive home through the Great Smoky Mountains. There is much to consider, some to be discussed, more to be mulled while staring out at the passing, forever landscape.

Join the discussion on social media!

Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...