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Death and Ribs

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

When people die and the funeral is in Knoxville, I travel with my wife up there, and when we have finished with our time at the funeral home, she buys me ribs.  We go to Calhoun's, the restaurant with the self-proclaimed "Best Ribs In America."  Here's the thing:  I think they're right.  People's opinions about ribs are vast and varied and based on idiosyncratic traits--smoked or not smoked or charcoaled, fall-off-the-bone or with a bit of chew, wet or dry, baby back or St. Louis style.  Me, I like Calhoun's ribs better than any others.  

So it isn't that hard to get me to take that long trip to Knoxville, even in the middle of the week, even if I didn't know the person or the family that well.  That's pathetic, I know.

I know that I should be talking about the funeral, about the person who died.  In this case, he was a 97-year-old man, a Steeler fan.  I never met him.  But his son works with my wife, and his daughter-in-law taught both of my children, and I taught his grandson.  So there are many connections, and I celebrated them all.  We spent significant time at the funeral home, talking with those we knew and meeting those we didn't and getting praised for having made the drive from Chattanooga and all of that.  But no big deal; we were happy to do it.  And then we went and got ribs.  Even my wife who tries her best to be vegetarian most days of the year got ribs.  

I think she needed them.  I know I did.  

At this stage in my own life, I don't ever get ribs.  They're too dangerous, too high fat, too much of everything.  Most times, at a barbecue place, I get chicken, in some misguided belief that chicken is healthy.  But in Knoxville, when there has been a death, I get ribs.  

That is life.  After I have grieved and mourned, I have to find something that confirms in a dramatic, over-the-top way that I am still alive, that life will go on.  In Knoxville, ribs are that thing. 

While we were eating ribs, we got a phone call, a curious call where a friend tried to determine if, indeed, another friend had died.  Or was it his son?  The email he received was cryptic.  I said that I would try to find out.  So I called a friend whom I knew could find out and he promised to call me back when he knew something.

I also asked him if he wanted some ribs.  He said yes.  He knew these ribs were special.  We had had a special time with these ribs when he reached a coaching milestone in Knoxville more than 10 years ago.  The players and the parents all went to bed in the hotel that night, and we went out and had ribs.  It is the first memory I have every time that I walk into Calhoun's.

Last night, when we were finally home, when we were back from Knoxville, when we had confirmed that my friend, who has had a very difficult year, now has a son who has died, too, and, after we had dropped off a full rack of ribs with beans and slaw to my other friend, my wife called out to me and said, "Have we reached that stage in our lives when this shit is going to happen all the time?"

"Yes," I said.  Yes, darling.  Yes, honey.  Yes, dear.  Because I knew and she knew that we would be grappling with "this shit" together for as long as we can, and that, yes, we have reached that stage.

That is why there are wives.  That is why there are friends.  That is why there is beer.  That is why there are rolls, and slaw, and salad, and baked potatoes, and sweet tea.  That is why there are ribs.

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