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Collard Greens

There is one key difference between collard greens and a regular cabbage. No, it isn't that cabbage tastes better, or vice versa—that's personal preference. No, it's not that they look astonishingly different. The two vegetables actually look quite similar.

Give up?

Collard greens have no heart.

When Mike learned this fact, he couldn't help but feel as if he was a head of collard greens in a garden of cabbages. The only one without compassion. The only one who turned a blind eye to the people around him. The only one who never shed a tear.

One morning when he was sitting at the kitchen table, eating his breakfast, the phone rang. His mother, Rachel, answered it, and within moments, she was reduced to tears.

"What is it, Mom?" Mike's sister, Elizabeth, asked, placing a hand on Rachel's shoulder.

Rachel couldn't speak for a few minutes; each attempt at speech was conquered by her sobs and hyperventilation. It wasn't the first time Mike or Elizabeth had heard her cry—she had cried when their father left. But never in front of them; Elizabeth and Mike had to put their ears to her bedroom door to hear her. So it was a shock to see her emotions pour out of her, the woman who had always worked so hard to keep herself composed in front of her children.

Elizabeth—who at age seventeen was older than Mike by three years—began to stroke her mother's back. Rachel had done this so many times for her children, but, if just for now, the roles were reversed.

Meanwhile, Mike just sat at his chair, not knowing what to do, what to say. He knew he wouldn't be able to calm her, so he just left that to his sister.

After a few minutes, Rachel finally quieted down a bit, just enough to apologize for breaking down and to say, "Your grandfather . . . died."

*****

Over the next few days, there was a lot of crying in the house. Elizabeth and Rachel were often on the couch with an old photo album and a big box of tissues between them. They talked and talked about Grandpa Hugh, and their cries seemed to be an important release. Mike knew that crying was the right thing to do; he knew that he should be on the couch, with his head pushed into his mother's shoulder as he was overcome by the uncontrollable feeling of sadness that came when a loved one died. His mother's shirt should be stained with his tears, and his with hers. He shouldn't be able to sleep at night because the pain was too much.

Instead, he couldn't sleep because he wondered what was wrong with him. He wasn't crying. Was it the time that he fell and hit his head? Was that why he was like this? Had he always been so heartless, so stoic?

The questions kept him tossing and turning through the night, flipping his pillow over to the cold side countless times. He put his hand on his chest, and felt for the thump of his heart. He could feel it, which was somewhat consoling, but perhaps it didn't work right. For no matter how hard he tried, how much he focused on it, his eyes never dampened. They might as well have become dried and shriveled up for all the use they were doing for him.

He wondered if he'd be able to cry if his mother or sister died. He loved them, no matter how annoying they could be, but he just couldn't picture himself tearing. Which made him feel even guiltier, because he knew they would weep if he died. They were cabbage, and he was just collard greens.

*****

There was nothing extraordinary about the day of the funeral. There was no rain to reflect the atmosphere in the funeral parlor. But there was other falling water. Tears fell from people's eyes. Some people quickly wiped the salty liquid away with a handkerchief or sleeve, while others let the drops dribble down their cheeks.

Elizabeth, Rachel, and Mike sat in the front row with the rest of their family. It seemed like they were all crying or red-eyed, except for Uncle Stanley, but he was what Mike's Aunt Tessa called "a grump."

Mike tried to not blink. Maybe that was what he had to do. Maybe that would make him tear up. If he couldn't naturally cry, maybe he could force himself to. But the attempt was to no avail.

He tried to conjure the sad image of his grandfather lying prostrate in the coffin. His family had been allowed to see the body before the funeral started. Even though the corpse was made-up and rosy-cheeked, there was no denying the lifelessness of the man who had once enjoyed playing golf and collecting stamps. As the rabbi continued to speak, Mike focused on this picture—the closed eyes that had once been bespectacled, the stiff arms that had once embraced a child. Mike tried to channel in his eyes the feeling of nausea that had churned his stomach, twisted his gut. But they remained dry. He only felt the stinging that came when eyes were left open too long.

Later, the people in the parlor piled into cars and drove to the cemetery where Grandpa Hugh was going to be buried. Everyone was silent in the limo that took his family from one place of loss to another. Mike had always expected to be excited the first time he rode in a limo. But there was none of this excitement. Only mournfulness.

At the cemetery, Mike watched as the coffin was lowered into the ground. He had seen this in movies: Depressing music would be playing. Violins. Violins would drone dolefully. Everyone's eyes would be downcast. The atmosphere would be succumbed to sniffling and soft whimpers. Sadness. Sadness everywhere. Crying. Crying. Crying.

The rabbi said a few words, and Mike couldn't help but wonder what the rabbi was doing there, talking in front of everyone. Was it like a game for him? How Many Funerals Can I Tend To Today? He didn't know Mike's grandfather. How could he talk about someone he had never met as if the person was his lifelong friend?

Soon after, the family began to scoop dirt into the hole in the ground that held the coffin. His grandmother was first. She was too weak to scoop the dirt up by herself, so Rachel helped by supporting her arm. Together, mother and daughter, they watched as the dirt fell from sight and blended in with the rest of the earth at the trench's bottom. Rachel shoveled in some dirt by herself, and Mike watched as she whispered some indecipherable words to her now-dead father.

Mike watched as each family member shoveled the soil into the cavity, the sounds of crying and whispering mixing with the whooshing of the dirt clanking off the coffin's top. Mike noticed that each member of the family shoveled, but he had never thought that the spade would be handed off to him until Elizabeth pushed it into his hand. She gave him a big hug, her eyes red and damp, then walked over to their mother.

It felt like it took forever to get over to the dirt pile, when in reality it was only seconds. It felt like he was moving in slow motion as he dug the shovel into the mound and came up with a heap of soil at the shovel's end. Mike watched as he tilted the tool over the depression's edge and the grains of earth began to fall onto the coffin. And that was when Mike felt it. It started in his heart, but worked its way up to his eye. He felt the salt sting as it oozed over his eyelid and trickled down his cheek. It was only a single tear that plummeted down to meet his grandfather—only one drop of water, one bead of saline liquid. But, oh, it was so much more.

Mike might not have been a regular cabbage, but he sure wasn't collard greens.


I hope you enjoyed that. Again, please vote for "Harry McGilligan" for the best non-romance (incomplete) SKoW Award. Link on my profile.