There’s a better home a-waiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

— The Carter Family

It was hot Saturday, standing at the gateway to hell hot. More than 100 degrees hot.

And as the funeral procession pulled onto the highway, my heart felt like it would burst with a simple gratitude as I saw Irwin County and Ocilla law enforcement officers standing out in that heat, their hats removed in a show of respect.

Since burial was across the Irwin County line, in Berrien County, two sheriff’s vehicles escorted the procession from downtown Ocilla to the county line, some 12-15 miles away.

The service, planned by my brother and sister, was about as perfect as it could be. And as I listened to first Trey Hess and then Charles Stephens talk about memories of my mother, I felt decades melt away. I was not that hardened person who’d allowed life to create a protective shell around his heart. I was a boy again, running barefoot through the woods of our property, unaware of much beyond the boundaries of our rural Irwin County land and the people who made up my family.

Funerals, as they say, are not for the deceased but for the living. And as my living relatives gathered at Paulk Funeral Home for the visitation, I was again reminded of those days so long ago, the younger cousins — all grown now with families of their own — who by the process of elimination and circumstances, were the playmates of our youth. We laughed as they told their own stories, many of which I had no recollection of but in no way doubted their veracity. What one stores as a memory, others let slip away.

We stood around the gravesite, held hands and sang the words we remembered — the chorus for most — to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I felt an overwhelming sense of parental pride looking into the faces of my son and his beautiful family, at my amazing daughter whose will is strong enough to stare down any challenge.

I took in the presence of all those cousins, family friends, and even the curious who somehow find pleasure in attending funerals, perhaps celebrating in their own macabre way the fact that they’re still among the living. I felt a collective sense of love that I haven’t experienced in quite some time. Family members always said my mom was the one who drew everyone together, and she certainly did that on this day.

There were hugs all around, as is the custom, after the service, but these did not have the feel of the perfunctoral “good to see ya,” “sorry for your loss” kind of hugs. They were celebratory; they conveyed a shared measure of loss and of strength and of unity that I had imagined had abandoned me for good some decades before. And I felt a lifting up that has remained these few days since Saturday.

We all said we’d stay in touch; of course, that’s what everyone says at times like these. But I plan to make every effort to do so. Maybe in my daily quest to answer what I’ve always felt was my calling, I allowed myself to believe that things like family and connection and shared histories don’t matter anymore. Whatever excuse I have been able to conjure up to build the aforementioned wall, though, has been wrong.

I am still among the living, and I do have a family. And what was reaffirmed in that Berrien County graveyard and at the Ocilla funeral home is that I do love these people who share my genetics. And I don’t love them just because of our intermingled DNA. I love them because they have managed to hang on to that part of our younger lives that bound us in the first place.

I may not be a better person for the experience, but I somehow feel like one. A mother’s final gift.

Email Carlton Fletcher at Follow him on Twitter @ABH Fletcher.

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