Open caskets tend to disarm me. There’s a disconnect in my mind when death takes the person and still leaves the body. There they are. There they are not. What if, when someone died, they just disappeared? What if they vanished, and the only things we had left were pictures or memories?
But in this case, my high school teacher Mr. Bassett’s body remained behind, and when I walked into the church and saw him lying there in his casket, it was…I don’t know what. Words do not easily escape me, but in this case seeing him there left me wordless.
I remember Mr. Bassett as one of those passionate teachers: friendly, firm, and never afraid to let a student know exactly how he felt. But even when he got angry, there was one thing you always knew – his emotion emerged from a root of love for that student. I always got the feeling that he so desperately wanted us not to screw up our lives doing stupid stuff, perhaps more than any other teacher I ever had. He genuinely loved us, and for all of our foolishness and immaturity we probably did not deserve it.
Then, coming across the church foyer, an apparition: my little league baseball coach, one of the deceased’s best friends.
* * * * *
The first time I saw Mr. Perella, I was six years old, squeezing my baseball glove and releasing it, squeezing it and releasing. I chewed on one of the leather strings as he spoke – it tasted like sweat and, well, chewed up leather. I don’t remember the chaos, the wild throws, the sense of cats being herded, but last year I coached my son’s little league team (he is 8) and I’m sure all of those things must have been present.
I remember how he used to talk to us with his pipe in his mouth, the smell of cherry tobacco drifting out over freshly cut grass. I remember how he taught us how to catch the ball with our palms facing up, if the ball was below our waist, and how to face our palms toward the person throwing the ball if it was at or above chest level. I remember how I didn’t listen, tried to catch the ball palm up at head level. I remember seeing stars and catching a bloody nose when the ball slid against my face. I remember how he ran over and walked me to the bench.
* * * * *
Mr. Perella’s son and I became best friends that year. He was at the funeral, too. As were so many other wonderful teachers and old friends. The first thought I had was, It’s a shame you only get together with people like this when someone dies. A few moments later I thought, It’s really great that people get together like this, when someone dies.
Strangely enough, I think funerals give us a glimpse of heaven. Not the sadness, of course, or the feeling of separation. The look on Mrs. Bassett’s face (my angelic 2nd-grade teacher), and the anguish evident in her son’s face, would quickly tell you that was no heaven. Not yet. But there was this palpable sense of community, and the magical appearance of recognizable faces from long, long ago.
* * * * *
Perhaps tonight I’ll take an umbrella out on the deck and smoke my pipe. I’ll smell the cherry tobacco and look out over the green, wet world and remember Mr. Bassett. I’ll remember all the best things about him. And I’ll tell myself I need to make more time for those still here. I’ll think of good old Mr. Perella and hope to see him around town again soon. And I’ll watch the pipe smoke drift out into the falling drops, vanishing like a spirit, or the past.