01 Feb I wrote a eulogy to give at my uncle’s funeral
The authorities found my uncle at the end of a rope – that much is certain. He hadn’t shown up to work in two days, so his boss called my grandmother, who found my Uncle John dead in his one-bedroom apartment. His suicide note, which was written on a small piece of yellow looseleaf and was stained with brown liquid, simply read:
Don’t follow him.
Everyone agreed it was my uncle’s handwriting, except me. I thought it looked a little off. The letter F, in particular. The top stroke looked too wavy. Not by much, but just enough to notice. And I would know: I knew my uncle best.
No one in my family knew what the note meant. The popular thought was that it was a warning for those who lived a life like my uncle – usually alone, often drunk, and ultimately hanging from a shower rod. But most people in my family didn’t know my uncle the way I did. John told me things he told no one else, and I’m not exactly sure why. I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I know the story behind the note – enough to have an idea of what it truly meant – and who might have written it.
But, like most things with Uncle John, the truth is a bit complicated.
I planned on laying it all out at John’s funeral. I composed the eulogy and shoved it in the back pocket of my black dress pants. But when the time came, I never took it out. Reading it didn’t feel right.
Below is what I wanted to say but couldn’t. I guess I just wanted to get it off my chest.
There’s two things you should know about John. The first – which all of you probably know – is that John was always looking for God. He openly questioned everything. And while this made John not a very popular guest at Thanksgiving and Christmas, he stuck to his guns. He wasn’t trying to make anyone upset – he was just always searching for truth. Even when John was alone, he was still searching.
And – I’ll just say it, in case you didn’t know – growing up, I wanted to be like John. I looked up to him. He bought me my first bike, and he gave me advice on girls. Not the best advice – actually, it was spectacularly bad – but he tried. But as I got older, it was John’s passionate search for truth that I really admired. We disagreed on things, sure. I believe in order, in a plan for us all, in a universe built on creation. I believe in God, and John… well, Uncle John did not. He wanted to, but he didn’t.
He had his reasons. John saw disorder and chaos everywhere. He saw evil and things that no God would allow. And while John and I didn’t see eye to eye, I respected his reasons and his fiery drive for truth. I think it’s what I admired most about him.
The second thing you should know about John might come as a surprise. John was haunted – not in the figurative sense – but in a very real, literal way. John confided in me that a young woman was appearing to him in the middle of the night. Actually, she was hardly a woman at all by this point – she was a corpse. She’d appear at John’s bedside – a fresh, young corpse with a bloated body, blotchy brown skin, matted and long black hair, no eyeballs, and sopping wet. She’d always gargle the same thing with an utterly blank and expressionless face:
Don’t follow him.
At first, John didn’t know what to make of it. He thought she was the result of too many late nights at the local watering hole. Too many trips to the gas station for another sixer. John just wished she’d go away, and he even prayed for her to go away – even though he was convinced that praying was useless. But the corpse always came back, and it was always with the same message: Don’t follow him.
It pains me to say that I didn’t believe my Uncle John. To me, his delusions were a symptom. Of his boozing, his isolation, his general mindset – John had a lot of demons. But I always listened to him, and eventually, I thought, it didn’t matter what I believed. What mattered was that John believed it.
And belief was something that was lacking in his life. And this dead woman – this ghost – filled John with purpose. There was truth to be found.
He was determined to find out who this young woman was. If she was dead, then she had to have once been alive, my uncle reasoned. Based on her appearance, she probably drowned in a lake or river. And then there were those words – Don’t follow him – John suspected some form of foul play. It was a gut feeling, he said. The words were too cryptic, too foreboding.
And – most importantly – if this spirit was coming to John, she must have had a specific reason. Some form of a connection to John.
John sifted through obituaries going back decades. He searched for any drownings in a twenty-mile radius, and when he didn’t find what he wanted, he expanded that radius to fifty, one-hundred, then two-hundred miles. He analyzed photographs, spent days in public libraries scouring microfiche, and chatted up members of historical societies from across the state. He called police departments, and he combed through records of missing persons. John even contacted parents of runaway teens from all across the country.
But he found nothing. And the young woman kept coming back, water dripping onto John’s linoleum floor and empty eye sockets oozing with algae and seaweed – and always with the same message:
Don’t follow him.
John told me all of this, and even when he was reeking of booze with eyes so bloodshot I thought the white would never return – I told him that I believed him. It would have broken his heart if I told him what I really thought.
I think it was because I didn’t want to derail his journey to truth.
But John’s journey was ending. He didn’t find any records of the young woman he was searching for. And slowly the girl’s message became not about her danger, but about my uncle’s. She was no longer bearing the truth about her own fate, but John’s. She’d gone from a cursed visage to some form of a guardian angel.
For a moment, there was a glimmer of God.
And that’s when John’s life began to unravel. The liquor became harder and more frequent. He sequestered himself into his apartment for longer periods of time, convinced someone was out there trying to hurt him. John just didn’t know when or where. All he knew was Don’t follow him was a message for his own well-being. He was driving himself mad with paranoia always looking for the him.
About a week before John died, he found him. John told me the whole story, chapter verse.
There was a horrible blizzard, and my uncle was out in the middle of it. He was driving home late at night from a bar on a backcountry road. In John’s words, he was “only a little worse for wear” – I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on what that meant.
The roads got bad in a hurry. John’s car trudged forward, slipping and sliding its way towards home. Bad weather never deterred John’s confident – some might call, aggressive – driving. There was no one else on the road, save a pair of headlights behind John that eventually vanished. John wasn’t sure when or where.
About ten miles from John’s apartment, the car began to sputter. He pulled off to the shoulder, and the car died. John had no phone, no blanket, his driver’s side window was stuck halfway down – had been for six months, and John was too lazy to get it fixed – and the snow was piling up all around him. He considered going out on foot. It might have been his only chance to make it.
But then John spotted a figure in the distance. It was slowly slogging through the blinding snowstorm, walking across a vast farmer’s field, approaching John’s car. A dot in the distance, slowly getting larger.
John froze up. His reaction was sudden and immediate. This was the man – the him – that was coming for John. My uncle knew. Deep down to his core, he felt it.
Don’t follow him.
John was being tested. The young woman with the bloated, dead and wet body had come to him for a reason.
The man plodded closer. His hands were shoved in his pockets, and his face was obscured by the large hood of a navy parka jacket. John tensed up as the man approached the passenger door. He rapped three times on the car window, and John did nothing. The man rapped again, wiped snow off the window with a gloved hand, and he peered inside. The man’s face was soft but with blazing, intense eyes. His cheeks were red with cold. My uncle absent-mindedly nodded, and the man pulled open the car door, plopped down inside, and he slammed the door shut.
“You okay?” the man asked my uncle. John told me – and, I’ll never forget this – that the man’s voice was deep, like it had come from some unseen cavernous depth.
John only nodded. But his internal voice was telling him, Don’t follow him.
“There’s a gas station about a mile up the road,” the man said. “I have an extra pair of gloves. We should get there before this gets impassable.”
John rubbed his hands together, made a fist with his right hand, and blew into it. Snow swirled into the car from the half-open window.
Again, John heard the voice inside his head: Don’t follow him.
“I’m going to stay here,” John told the man. “Where it’s warm.”
The stranger grimaced. He stared at John fiercely. The man leaned in closer, and John knew he wasn’t to be trusted. The stranger slipped his hand into his pocket, and he held it there. John’s breath vanished for a moment – he waited for the man to pull out a knife or a metal hook, but all he removed was an extra pair of gloves. He handed them to my uncle.
“Suit yourself,” the stranger told John. “I’ll tell them you’re here. Hopefully someone can make it through and find you.”
The man left the car, pushed the door shut, and trudged ahead up the road. The snow rushed down faster and thicker. In less than ten feet, the man was out of sight.
Don’t follow him.
Twenty minutes later, John’s car miraculously started up. The snow on the road was at least five inches high and falling faster and heavier. John inched ahead, careful not to spin out on the rarely-traveled back road. He drove a few miles when he realized: he hadn’t passed a gas station.
The stranger had lied.
The dead woman was right. John had found his truth.
A ditched car appeared on the side of the road. John slowed. The driver’s side door was swung open, and there was no one inside. Two sets of barely-visible footprints in the snow traveled from the car up the road.
John forged ahead, and a half mile past the car he saw the body. It was lying face down on the shoulder of the road half-covered with snow. Five minutes later, and the body would’ve been totally obscured. John stopped and rushed to the figure. He flipped it over, and he didn’t even have to check his pulse. The man was dead.
The second set of footprints led away from the corpse into the snow-covered cornfields.
John pulled the man’s body into his backseat, and he eventually made it back into town. He went straight to the hospital, and as the medical staff rushed the body inside on a gurney, my Uncle John could not get over how peaceful the dead man looked. He was content. He was smiling, almost.
Curiosity bubbled inside my uncle again.
John attended the frozen man’s funeral. The message from the man’s family was clear: he had finally found God, and the man had gone to a better place. The frozen man’s sister gave a tear-filled eulogy, and in it she told a story how she’d been dreaming about her brother’s death when it happened. Only in her dream, her brother been called home by the Lord – that an angelic figure had been with him in the snowstorm when he died. He had walked beside him, before easing her brother’s soul into the great beyond.
There was sadness for loss, but she was overjoyed that he’d finally found God. Because he had always been searching.
When John told me this part of the story, his eyes dropped. A sense of absolute sadness and dread permeated his tiny apartment. He looked at me, and he said:
“That dead woman tricked me. It was supposed to be me.”
That was the last time I saw Uncle John. He emailed me the next day, telling me that the corpse made another visit. She was still bloated, still soaked to the bone, and there was still hollowed horror where her eyes should be. But she didn’t say anything this time. She only smiled mischievously. And she didn’t look so much like a lifeless corpse anymore, my uncle wrote, but fiendish and full of deception.
I was out of town when I read the email. I wrote my uncle that I would come see him when I returned in a few days.
By the time I got home, he was dead.
You are probably wondering why I told you all of this. Why here, why now. I guess I just wanted all of you to know what Uncle John was really going through. Because he was a tortured soul, but I really think, a blessed soul. Who among us is so concerned with truth and God that we consume ourselves trying to find it?
I know Uncle John’s last message was, Don’t follow him, and I pray that none of us here today take our own lives like John did. But searching for truth and reflecting on the nature of our existence while we’re still here? I think it’s okay if we follow John’s lead, just a little bit.
I didn’t read any of that. Not a word. Instead I mumbled a few generic sentiments about how John left us before his time. It was impersonal, and it could’ve been about anyone, really.
Uncle John’s funeral was four months ago. Had I written that eulogy this morning, it would have read a little differently.
A few weeks ago, I had a late-night visitor: the bloated dead woman. I awoke to the sound of water dripping onto the floor, and when I opened my eyes she was standing next to my bed. She was exactly as John described, except he failed to mention the smell. I might have vomited if I weren’t stricken with absolute fear.
Her expression was blank. No mischief, no deception. I would have read her eyes, but there was nothing there. Only the empty, black eye sockets my uncle had stared through on too many nights to count. The woman leaned over my bed, turning her head to and fro. Very slow and methodical, like she wanted me to get a good look at her.
She leaned closer, and my sweaty fists clenched the bedsheets tighter.
I awaited the woman’s message, waiting for her to say words, the words that drove my uncle to the end of a noose. I pondered a future always on the lookout for the him that would enter my life one day, and the decision that would define my fate.
But the corpse said nothing. All I heard was the plop plop plop of the water trickling onto the floor. I pulled the covers over my head, and I stayed that way until first light.
In the morning, she was gone. At least, the bloated and very dead version of the woman was gone. But she appeared to me in another form. Her picture was splashed across the front page of my local newspaper, which I found staring up at me at the end of my driveway.
Missing woman’s body found, the headline read.
In the photo she was young and pretty. Smiling, and full of life. She was photographed wearing a red baseball cap and a light, plaid shirt leaning on a boulder on some outdoor expedition. You can usually tell who someone is by their eyes, and while I didn’t see the corpse’s eyes, in a way, that’s what clinched it for me.
They looked like the eyes the dead woman would have. It’s hard to explain. It’s like I just knew.
The woman’s body had been dredged up the day before. She had been missing for weeks, and, after attending her funeral, I learned exactly why.
Four months ago, the young woman – Helen – had been driving late at night with her friend, on the same stretch of road my uncle had been on. In the blizzard. Helen had been closely following the car ahead of her, driving faster and faster to stay on the fresh tire tracks in the quickly falling snow. Without a doubt, the other car was driven by my uncle.
Helen’s best friend was in the passenger seat. She begged for Helen to slow down, to pull off, to do anything else than follow this car.
In the words of Helen’s best friend: Don’t follow him.
But she did. Helen lost control, the car spun out and hit a tree, and the passenger flew through the windshield. Helen’s best friend died that night, and Helen blamed herself, sinking deeper and deeper into depression over the next few months. She eventually threw herself off a bridge.
Helen’s mother laid bare all of these details – quoting direct passages of Helen’s diary – at the funeral. The truth was difficult to share, her mother said, but it was worth sharing. Maybe it could help others avoid the same fate or to properly seek the help they need.
The distraught mother ended by holding up a page of Helen’s diary: Don’t follow him was written every which way, in a variety of styles and colors, all over the page. Helen’s best friend’s horrified and panicked words had haunted Helen to her death.
I spoke with the grief-stricken mother after the service. I told her I was a friend of Helen’s, and I expressed my sincere condolences. I asked to see the diary, and the mother obliged. I took a close look at that one page, the one littered with Helen’s best friend’s final warning.
It was what I suspected. I’d seen that letter F before – on my uncle’s suicide note. The top stroke was a little wavy.
Not by much, but just enough to notice.
I’ve awaited Helen’s return every night since she first appeared to me – maybe she’d gargle out her dying friends words this time – but Helen hasn’t come back. I don’t think she will. I read that once a ghost’s unfinished business is settled, they are able to fade away into the afterlife. Or something like that. I’m not sure what I believe anymore.
What I do know is that Helen had been following a drunk man through a snowstorm that night, and she shouldn’t have. Now people are dead, and I’m the one left holding the truth.
But truth doesn’t mean a whole lot to me anymore. I used to think I knew truth, that I knew of God and his plan for this universe and all of us. But now all I see is evil and disorder and chaos, the things my uncle saw. I see a world where a woman can die, and somehow four months before that happens her spirit can haunt the person she deems responsible. This world that made so much sense is now in disarray. Right is wrong, real is fake, and things that were true are an absolute farce.
If I gave my uncle’s eulogy today, it would read very differently. I’d no longer say I wanted to be like him. I am him. I’m driving recklessly on a snowy road with knowledge of time-hopping ghosts and pre-hauntings leaching deeper into my brain. I wish I didn’t know these things. It’s much rosier on the other side.
I dream of having a family one day. If not, maybe a niece or a nephew. And I don’t want them to know these truths. To not know what I know. If anyone looked up to me and aspired to follow my path, hopefully someone would warn them:
Don’t follow him.