It was May 5, 1995, and I had just walked in from my evening show of Damn Yankees on Broadway. I wouldn’t have a cell phone for another couple years so if family wanted to talk to me, they called the home phone and hoped I was there.
“Hey, it’s Shari.” I looked at my clock. It was about 11:00 p.m., really late for a family call.
“You better sit down,” she said.
“Okay, what’s up?” I asked, my stomach already in a knot.
Oddly, it took me a minute to figure out she was talking about my brother. My first thought: Greg, who? Looking back, I really think it’s odd how my brain tried to protect itself. But of course, within a mille-second, I knew whom she meant and my heart sank.
My brother, Gregory Taylor Cussen, was 39 years old and Captain of the Volunteer Fire Department in Wabash, IN. He was tall, handsome, and had a wicked sense of humor. He was also a wonderful father to 3 boys.
On the late afternoon of May 5h, one of the local schools caught fire. The fire department was called, and being a Volunteer, my brother was not at the station, but at home. He had his own truck with a little red clip on light that he used when responding to an emergency. It was protocol for him to meet the big fire truck and his crew at the scene.
In May, the corn is kind of high in the country, which is mostly what Wabash is: good ol’ Indiana Country. Greg was driving, speeding; down one country road and he could see the smoke coming from the fire off in the distance to his right. What he couldn’t see is the stop sign, or his Stations Fire truck racing up the cross road. Greg’s truck and the Fire Truck met dead center of the intersection. The crash was so bad that the driver of the fire truck, a friend of Greg’s, broke his leg. Even though Greg was not wearing his seat belt, it wouldn’t have really mattered.
My other brother, Robbie, his wife Nancy, and their daughter Gina was in their car travelling directly behind Greg and saw the whole horrible collision. They opened the door of Greg’s crushed truck and found the mess. I don’t know how they cope with those memories.
“How’s Mom?” I asked my sister.
“Not good, as you can expect. She’s in shock.”
“Does she want to talk?”
“Let me see…”
I know I talked to my Mom that night, but I don’t remember what I said, or what she said. I do know my Dad had to go down to Mom’s work, ask her to come outside so he could talk to her. My mom found out her oldest son died while sitting outside on a break table at Wal-mart.
I had to take off work, get someone to cover my show. I was 23 at the time and was not prepared for people to be uncooperative to my personal life. I mean, my brother was dead; I had to go home, so… But it didn’t work out that way. I had to wait a couple of days to get my show covered before I left.
I flew to Indianapolis, and then drove up to Wabash, which is a 2-½ hour drive. My brother’s gravel driveway was full of cars when I pulled up. I got out, and my Mom was at the door. She looked pale and shaken, but she had had her hair done in a really pretty up do, so she wouldn’t have to think about it for a while. The rest of the weekend comes to my memory in flashes.
I don’t remember the ride over to the funeral home, but I remember walking in. Mom had her arm through mine as I walked her in the door, Dad had her other arm. The funeral director met us and started to usher us into the room where Greg was laid out. It was going to be an open casket for the family, and closed for the public. I saw Greg lying there in his casket and I stopped without warning. My Mom kept going a step or two before she realized I wasn’t moving. She looked at me.
“Mom, I can’t. I can’t see him like that.”
She took her arm out of mine and told me that it was all right. Robbie came up and took my place at her arm and led her slowly to the casket. My mom looked so pretty that day. Heels, dress, her hair all up in a gorgeous style. I hadn’t seen her look that good for years and I thought it was so sad that the best she’s looked for a long time was to see her dead son. I wanted her to dress like that for other occasions, too. I wondered if she ever would again.
I watched Mom take tentative steps up to the casket while I stood by the door like a complete pussy. I watched her reach out and use her fingers to fluff a little hair off his forehead. She turned to Rob and said, “They got his hair just right.” Then she broke down over his body and wept.
I had to leave, get away from the scene that was so much more real than anything I have ever experienced before.
The next memory is of Mom greeting people as they came in to the room. It was a big deal that the Captain of the Fire Department was killed and so many people came out to pay their respects. Greg had lived in the same town for all his life and knew pretty much everyone. And everyone came to say goodbye.
I watched my Mom handle all of those people and their well-meaning comments with such grace. I was so proud of her and she taught me so much in those few hours during the visitation.
Before the funeral, my mom had asked Robbie if the guy that hit and killed Greg would be at the funeral. He told her he would be. Mom was quiet for minute and said that she didn’t want him there. Rob gently told her that it wasn’t fair to the driver not to be able to pay his respects and grieve for his friend and Captain. Mom quietly shook her head and then said she didn’t want to know whom he was when he showed up. Rob said that was fine.
The room was packed with firemen in full uniform, pretty much every fireman in the county and those surrounding. At one point, the alarm went off on their walkie-talkies and they all quickly ran out of the room. Apparently, something had happened and that dispatch sends out an emergency signal with a loud squawk. I watched my Mom cringe and, for just a quick second, loose some of her grace that she was exhibiting so exquisitely. I walked up to some guy in a uniform with one of those squawking boxes and asked him if they could turn those down while they were inside.
“I can’t do that. We need to hear if we’re needed.”
I didn’t display near the grace my Mom had been showing. I looked him right in the eye.
“I don’t care if you’re needed right now. The sound is upsetting my Mother, the Mother of Greg Cussen, so turn them the fuck down now.”
I remember Rob stepping in to smooth over my breach of etiquette, but nothing after that until we went to the memorial.
There were so many people that we couldn’t have it in the church. We had the memorial in the High School Gym. Most everyone in the town had turned out, it seemed. The family was up front. I sat next to Mom. Dad was on the other side of her. I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of flowers everywhere. I’m sure a Preacher said nice things and I kind of remember the high school choir singing a couple hymns and then that part was over. Now we had to go to the graveside. We all went out and got into some requisite black cars. As I was getting in I looked behind me and saw dozens of fire trucks.
“What’s with the trucks?” I asked Robbie.
“Every county in Indiana sent a truck for the procession,” he said as he was getting into the car.
We drove past the firehouse where Greg was Captain and members of his crew were saluting his casket as it passed. The flag was at half mass.
I noticed people were pulling over, getting out of their car and putting their hands over their heart as we passed. I hadn’t known people still did that and I was so touched.
The next memory is standing behind Mom’s chair at the gravesite. Greg’s casket is in front of me, covered in flowers. The preacher said the requisite “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and then all those fucking squawking alarms went off in unison. My head jerked up, I was ready to kill someone and add to the graveyard we were at. No one was moving and a voice over the radio broke the alarm.
“Attention all units,” the female voice said. “This is the last call for Captain Greg T. Cussen.” Someone flipped a switch and the casket started to lower in the ground. I couldn’t breathe. I was static inside like 4 a.m. on an antenna TV.
My last memory of the day is just after the service. Everyone was breaking up to go home and we were still under the tent. I saw my Mom look out into the grass and I saw who she was looking at.
A large guy in a fireman’s uniform, his face bruised and busted, his leg in a cast from ankle to thigh was hobbling over slowly to the tent with the help of his crutch and, I presume, his girl friend.
My mom turned to Rob. “Is that him?” She asked.
Rob nodded and quietly said, “yes.”
She turned and walked over to one of the giant wreaths in honor of Greg and pulled out a single rose. I watched her walk up to the injured man. He stopped, and he towered over her little 5’2 frame. She looked up at him and I heard her say, “I’m Greg’s mother.”
The fireman’s breath hitched and his face crumpled. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
My mom stood on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around him and hugged him. I heard her say, “I forgive you.” The man cried in the arms of the mother of his friend that he had accidently killed. When she let go of him, my mom handed him the rose and walked away, back over to the gravesite. That’s the last thing I can remember of the weekend.
My Brother, of all my brother’s and sisters, was the coolest of them all. He was wild in his youth like I was. He was the only one who was more than okay about my homosexuality that had driven miles of silence between me and my other siblings, with the eventual exception of my sister. As I write this, I’m 39, the same age as my dead brother. I wonder how much closer we would be now that I’m a proper adult and have learned to have good relationships?
My mother never got over the death of her oldest son. There was a shrine set up for him over the next 15 years. My mom passed away on May 23, 2010, fifteen years and 18 days after her son.
I had sat with mom many nights during her last days and I asked her if she thought she would see Greg again. She smiled wistfully and said that she certainly hoped so.
At my Mother’s funeral, I was shaking hands and greeting people I hadn’t seen since my brother’s funeral. My mother’s actions during Greg’s service stuck with me and I was determined to act with the same grace my mother did on that sad day, no matter how gutted I was. If she could do it for her dead son, I could do it for my dead mother, in memory of my dead brother. I hoped they would be proud of me, of the job they did shaping me and molding me into the man I was.
I still don’t know if I believe in Heaven or some other kind of afterlife- but if it exists, I hope that Mom and Greg are there, looking down at me, holding hands and smiling.