The end of the year is as good a time as any to reflect on death. The idea may offend more than a few revelers who live for the season, but I’ve always thought that if we could actually experience a December that isn‘t artificially backlit by Christmas and the feverish prospect of holidays, we might see the month for what it truly is — dark and darker as the winter solstice approaches and time begins curling tighter around itself until it’s nearly motionless, like an aged cat, and the whole enterprise of yet another calendar year closes its eyes and quietly but inevitably drops off to sleep.
Even minus its revelry, December‘s ritual of drawing in would still make it a time for family, and when I think of mine I promptly consider the deaths. I think about how at some point in the late 1970s the number of weddings in the big Aubry clan was overtaken by the number of funerals, a pattern that’s held for the last 25 years or so and shows no signs of reversing. Funerals are where we now tend to convene and catch up, and to realize anew what it means to be going to gravesides more frequently than to picnics or parties or christenings. It is also where some of us savor in secret the chance to regularly come together at all, to linger at the church social-hall repast until the old ladies put us out around dusk, to wait and gather stories we have missed or misunderstood about the past and fold them up in the napkins along with the pound cake we intend to take home.
These days, I‘ve been taking home a bit more than I intend to. The last funeral of the year was my cousin Robert’s, in October. I hardly knew Robert at all, as I didn‘t know many in his generation; he was my father’s first cousin, though considerably older because my father was the last born in his large brood, and so had a number of cousins who functioned throughout his life more as aunts and uncles. I knew the old-country story of Robert better than the man: how in New Orleans he would come around my father‘s house on Sundays with his retarded brother Edwin in tow, how he assiduously looked after Edwin and also filled a void for my father, then a little boy whose own father had died when he was only 2. My father always recalled those visits with a plainspoken gratitude and pliant wonder that he exhibited in no other moments: He described going expectantly to the front window on Sundays as the hour came close, looking down the narrow street where Robert Sr. would be walking with his sons, Robert and Edwin.
Robert Sr. died of a stroke while my father was still young; to help his mother and siblings Robert Jr. took a number of odd jobs before being drafted. After the war, he eventually became a tailor known for his care and exactitude. He followed the westward trail of other Aubrys and moved from New Orleans to Central L.A. with his wife; they had no children, though Robert gave his family — Edwin, various nieces and nephews — the modest but steadfast succor he had given my father in his early years. Robert’s wife died about 10 years ago, which saddened him deeply for a long time. He continued to live in their house on 93rd Street, even as the neighborhood around it roiled darkly with change over the years.
In an exceptionally cruel turn of fate, Robert suffered a massive stroke four years ago that left his body wholly paralyzed, but his mind untouched. My father visited his cousin faithfully during his recuperation afterward, but admitted it was tough; Robert‘s eyes — the only apparatus he could still freely move — widened in despair at not being able to communicate with family, at being finally trapped in himself. ”Like a caged animal,“ my father remarked, shaking his head in regret and a new kind of wonderment. I heard these accounts and vowed to go see Robert; I never did. I was afraid of having to endure his misery bedside with anything resembling good cheer, but more afraid of wanting to ask him things I never had, questions he could now never answer. My father, for his part, had become expert at keeping vigils at hospitals and assessing health crises and fielding bad news in the same concerned but measured way he assessed political or philosophical questions. Grief and loss had phased themselves into his work. He was the youngest, increasingly tending to the demise of the oldest, then the older, now to his contemporaries; he is 69. Where he was once the rebel who sometimes openly scorned tradition, he has become the woolly patriarch with the definitive roots by which we all measure the length and breadth of our own.
My father accepts this role, though I don’t know how he likes it; at Robert‘s funeral he went to the dais and spoke, as he has now done so often, but for the first time his care keeper’s shell cracked beneath a surfeit of weariness and uncertainty. He seemed all at once 69, and 6. He spoke of Robert‘s kindness and decency and, after a long moment’s pause, concluded that Robert ”represented what was the best about the Aubrys.“ I was comforted and troubled at the same time — Robert was the common-man hero among us who was no longer among us, a touchstone about to be put underground and out of reach. Growing up, I had assumed my father to be all that was patently Aubry — mercurial and opinionated and ambitious, sometimes misguidedly so, but always in a grand and admirable kind of way. Now I was hearing that stalwart, unassuming Robert was the real stuff of our legend, or at least its heart. Sitting in church and hearing my father‘s confession, I suddenly wanted to live up to Robert. Perhaps I had already. I wanted to find out, and hoped it wasn’t too late.
I had a warm but nodding acquaintance with my cousin. Years before the stroke he would come to our family picnics with his brother Edwin, a gently distorted version of Robert himself: gangly and distinguished and white-haired but listing to one side and smiling broadly, or squinting terribly, at everyone he encountered. The first time I met Edwin he had cried out in recognition upon seeing my father, who had not seen him in a very long time at that point and was nearly overcome. ”This is Edwin“ was about all my father could say to me by way of introduction. ”He and Robert. They were there. At the house. Every week.“ I understood the full story later, as I have come to understand many family stories, across time. I didn‘t know the full import of this particular one until that afternoon of the funeral, two months ago, when my father’s fingers trembled slightly on the dais and he ran out of things to say, because what Robert meant to him formed long before he had the words to describe it. The dais might as well have been that front window in New Orleans, where my father stood tensed but happy and straining to look, not needing or wanting words at all, but an arrival. He got it then. Now he needed to describe an exit, and didn‘t quite, or couldn’t, but in the failure he offered something else. We all emerged from the gloom of the church into the bright sun and brisk traffic with a charge that next time we came together, it would be different somehow. It would be changed.
At the last Aubry picnic in late summer, not long before Robert‘s death, somebody got inspired to take group shots by generation. It started off raucously with the great-great-grandchildren, the biggest group, then the great-grands, the grands, and so on. When it was my father’s generation‘s turn, he stood on the grass before the camera alone. We realized with a start that all seven of his older brothers were gone, two within six months: Edris last spring, Thomas a year ago this month. Like Robert, Thomas had suffered a stroke and didn’t speak and lived alone, and my father had made sure to pick him up each week from the South-Central convalescent residence where he lived and bring him home — his and my mother‘s place, the place where I’d lived before going permanently out into the world. My father brought Thomas for visits every Sunday, for years. The last one happened to be in December. Time stopped more pronouncedly than usual that Christmas, but not only because of my uncle‘s death. My nephew Julian was born, fortuitously and tragically, the day he died. Julian is 3 now and will see nothing of Thomas, or Robert. He will be more distantly Aubry than me. But with only moderate luck, he will be closer to family, to the spirit of who and what it is, sooner in his lifetime than I was in mine.