No one seeks certain jobs as their life’s work. Sometimes, things just get handed down through the family, sons or daughters picking up the trades of their parents, with little to no say about it. Maybe it’s all they’ve known all their lives, and they feel it is their duty. Maybe nothing excites them, and whatever comes, comes. Sometimes, it is just a calling, and it whistles insides ones’ very bones until nothing can stand in its way. That whistle comes out steaming.
Born into a farming family, Jake Charles just never saw himself that way, no matter how much, or how little, he tried. He had two older brothers for Dad, and a sister that took after Mom, even though she, too, wanted to work alongside the men. Jake was the restless type from the beginning, that being the only thing he could say about himself. Everyone else you’d ask, they just said he liked to talk as much as he liked to listen. Most would admit that his talking was almost always precise, never out of turn, and always-always-rang of truth. If there was anyone who could pretty honestly say “I ain’t told a lie” it would be Jake. He just never had to attest to that fact, and hid the small petty lies that kept others out of harms way.
It didn’t take all of his teen years to make him restless: Jake was raring to go, and at 17 he left home. Packing only what he could carry on his back, Jake set out. He went from one odd job to another, working enough to eat, usually earning a place to rest, keeping him warm and dry, out of the wiles of what nature brings. He didn’t answer to laziness, but there was a deep sense within him that told him all the manual labor he put forth would not answer what was inside of him.
Seven months after he set out from home, Jake came across a large gathering outside of a hillside church. It was a funeral procession, and the people were winding their way along the road, following a casket being borne by six large men. Finding himself in the path, Jake stumbled along in its wake, doing what he did best: listening.
Between the tears and the pockets of shrouded silence lay a great deal of stories about the deceased. Most of them were flattering. A few brought smiles to the few who heard them. One or two cursed under their breath; Jake passed those by, but took the words in as well. By the time he and the others arrived at the cemetery, Jake had a pretty good picture of Mr. Peterson, who was in the pine box, in no position to hear any of what was being said.
The preacher gathered all around, asking for quiet prayers, and then spoke. He told of Mr. Peterson’s life, an outpouring of that man’s life, sticking to the praiseworthy and godliness he lived by. Tears were shed, and when finished, a few of the folk said a few words. But, to Jake, so much more was left unsaid. He had heard so much more along the way, in such a short time, and a man this cared for, to have so few words said at this time felt…well, just not entirely right. The preacher asked if anyone else would like to say anything about the deceased.
No one volunteered.
The box was lowered into the ground, the dirt scooped on top, prayers were said, and little by little, all the mourners left. Jake stayed besides the grave, watching the last of the people go, the cemetery workers. It was getting on in the afternoon. All the words people had said about Mr. Peterson milled through Jake’s head, all that hadn’t been said by the grave-site. Sitting down, Jake spoke out loud all the things he had heard. He pieced together what felt like a fuller life of the man now lying six feet under, combining all those snippets that had been expressed by others.
He got up and brushed the dirt off his pants. As he walked away from Mr. Peterson, a clarity about the path he should take came to Jake.
Five years passed by. Jake, now 23, returned home. In those five wandering years Jake had made a name for himself as a proper eulogist. Before him, there were words said at the graves of those who have moved on, but Jake gave it something that had not been heard before: the dead were as alive as when they had been standing beside them by the time Jake had finished. People knew he had a way with words: they sat within him and they stewed around, and when he spoke it brought all to attention, and all found it just and fair. He took in all the information that was given, or that, subtly, he coerced out. When he would finally got up to speak, it was as if he had known the deceased not only his whole life, but had been like that person’s shadow, knowing all these details, nuances, hopes and dreams.
Jake was preparing to give his 141st eulogy of the year. Falling on the winter solstice, the shortest day; for Jake, it was terribly long in its passing. This day was hard on Jake, for in this case he had known the one who had passed on. It was one of his own he came to talk about, coming back after too long an absence.
Word had come to Jake through his sister that their father was ill, and most likely would not see the new year in. He made it back, only to be there to console his mother and stand under the accusing eyes of his brothers. He then went about what he did best, speaking to all the family, gathering his father’s life in. When he felt sated with their tales, Jake sought out all of his father’s friends, gathering in their memories of good times and hurts and everything in between.
The time came, and he and his sister walked with their mother, holding her up along the hard winter packed road to the church and the cemetery grounds. His brothers, and their families, came right behind them, followed by all of those who knew Jake’s father, who were friends of the family. Jake took his place carrying his father, William Charles, from the church to the grave-site, weighing all that he carried inside as well.
Jake spoke for close to an hour, relating the life his father had led. The visible vapor of his breath in the cold air gave an added dimension to the love that poured out of Jake. They made his words even more tangible, feeling like you could grasp the life being talked about and take it in even deeper. Everyone who listened to Jake knew he spoke the truth, with loves and loss, of hard work and harder times, of perseverance and a righteousness that struck them all.
Jake turned to his mother.
“As we walked along, coming here to an ending we all wish had not happened, you asked me ‘Jake, how can I go on without him?’ Turn around, please.”
With her sister still holding onto her, their mother turned and looked at the throng surrounding them.
Jake called out: “How many of you counted on William Charles as a friend?” Just about every one raised a hand.
“How many of you shared a laugh with my father?” Again, just about every hand was raised.
“How many of you faced him when he was stubborn as a mule?” Laughter, and more hands.
“How many of you knew you could count on him if things were bad?” All hands were seen.
“How many of you know your life is better, in some way, having known William Charles?” All hands were raised, many people raising both hands, and smiles were mixed with tears among the crowd.
“Mother,” he said, taking her by the shoulders, turning her around and hugging her, “this is how you will survive. These people are your reason, as you are a reason for them.”
They buried William Charles, and Jake was the last one there, seeing his family off. He sat down by the grave, and spoke to his father one last time.
Dedicated to Lisa, for believing in me.