Two Weddings and Three Funerals (This Has Nothing to Do with Hugh Grant)

My family drove to a country church in a small town southeast of Dayton. Sonny, my father’s boyhood friend, had a daughter who had chosen to marry young. The arrangements for the wedding had been rushed, and she may have been pregnant. At any rate, we were all aware that Sonny was not pleased, and the bride walked down the aisle with her eyes fixed on the planks of the wooden floor. The priest took his place before the couple and began the wedding Mass. He opened his sermon with these words: “The divorce rate in the United States is fifty percent. Half of the young people who stand before me to take their vows have chosen a doomed path.” The priest smiled, pleased by the shocked reaction of the crowd, then explored the pitfalls of wedded life in detail. After the service, I asked a regular congregant whether the priest always spoke so rudely. He told me that the man was known and loved for his direct manner.

A young priest married my nephew Dan and his bride Rachel. I had trouble paying attention to the ceremony as my eye kept drifting up to the mural painted on the wall behind the altar. Jesus crucified gazed up to heaven with one eye, and down toward Mary and a disciple with the other. These two suffered from a similar ophthalmological disability. Although they faced away from the cross, each attempted to look up and over their shoulders at Jesus while also gazing forward at the clouds above them. Lazy eye, according to the artist, was a common affliction in Jesus’ time. The priest stumbled along during the sermon, and pointed up at the mural and said, “Marriage is just like this painting.” He might have meant that a good relationship involves sacrifice and putting your spouse’s needs before your own, but I assumed he meant that marriage and crucifixion (a slow death so painful that one’s eyes no longer maintained unified focus) were equivalent. I shuddered as I repressed a laugh, and my wife gave me a warning glare that promised suffering long and hard if I failed to maintain proper church decorum. “By God,” I thought. “That idiot’s right.”

My grandmother died when I was nine, and the unfamiliar funeral rituals shocked me. I remember sitting in a pew in a dark Catholic church reeking of incense and flowers. Grandma rested in the wooden box before the altar. I studied the service bulletin as I listened to the priest intone, “May perpetual light shine upon her.” A narrow beam of light shone from the middle of the printed cross and split the blackness of the bulletin’s cover. I suddenly saw my grandmother’s soul trapped in a dark place. Only a thin glimmer of light offered her meager comfort. And then a wave of fear washed over me as I wondered if there was any light at all, or if my grandmother existed in any form anywhere.

My great uncle Norby died when I was about twenty. I had become accustomed to memorial services and could follow the proceedings with more detachment. The monsignor celebrating the funeral mass had a pale, waxy complexion, and when he spoke he sounded as if he’d never had a moment of passion in his life. His monotone delivery gave away his underlying boredom, and he said nothing specific about the man who had died. Instead, he told us that Norby looked down from heaven and prayed for our sinful souls. If he had bothered to learn anything about my great uncle, the monsignor would have known about Norby’s wicked sense of humor, his occasional sarcasm and irreverence. If Norby witnessed this funeral, he would have laughed at us as we sat in the hard pews and endured the cold observances.

Another priest displayed a similar lack of knowledge about the character of the deceased, though the cleric spoke with greater warmth and care for the mourners. He recalled his encounters with my sister during the time when she still came to Sunday services. He’d asked her how things were going, and she’d reply, “Peachy.” Apparently, he remained oblivious to my sister’s dry sense of irony, and that “peachy” could mean just the opposite if one paid attention to her tone of voice. Or perhaps he didn’t see her reserve, her unwillingness to complain about her affliction. Or her habit of offering minimal feedback to folks who had no idea what her condition was like. The priest went on for a bit, and one would have thought that Carla was the Mary Poppins of ALS. He paused for breath, and Clare, Carla’s four-month-old granddaughter, let loose a loud splutter. She gave the priest the raspberries. Dan, Clare’s father, started laughing, and the folks seated around him joined in. At the reception after the burial, Dan told me that he was sure that Clare had delivered Carla’s rebuttal.


All About After

I don’t care for the aftermath.  Taking action feels a lot more powerful, and living in the moment offers less time to consider one’s regrets.  After is an ugly guy who comes for a visit, sleeps on the couch, eats up all the food in the fridge, and won’t tell me when he’s leaving.  But After gives me an opportunity to arrange recent events in a framework that makes sense.  Then I can move on.  Then I can make peace with What Is.

My Daily After is the butt end of a day, and I’m the last two inches of a smoldering cigar.  While I’m in the middle of teaching a class I’m usually caught up in the process of communicating with students, evaluating their work, giving advice and planning ahead for the next exercise.  I sometimes teach Drawing I and II simultaneously and have little time for a breather.  When a class is over I answer follow up questions and tidy the studio before making my exit.  On the walk to the parking lot I download the emotions I’ve pushed aside in class.  (An instructor must create the illusion of self composure at all times.)  As I trudge to the car my adrenaline fades, and my books and equipment feel heavier the longer I carry them.  Then I discover how much effort I’ve expended.  My mood dips, and I relive each mistake just made in class.

My Rejection After varied during my dating years.  Sometimes a girlfriend dumped me long before I was ready to call it quits, and my feelings for her lingered painfully for a month or two.  Other break ups left nothing but a sense of relief and freedom.  Time and reflection sometimes gave the realization that I had been mercifully spared.  But in one case it took me three years to figure out that the object of my desire had treated me badly and always would.

The Grieving After:  My sister suffered a long decline as she died from ALS.  During a visit I presented an even tempered demeanor.  I reminded myself as I talked to my parents, brother and sister that my emotions were not the most important thing. Time spent with my family was not about me.  My true state of mind asserted itself on the plane ride home.  I took an upgrade to first class if the ticketing agent made an offer, and I ordered a complimentary whiskey before the plane took off.  I felt no shame as I gulped my drink even if the morning sun had just crossed the horizon.  As we flew south I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, and a heavy sensation filled my chest.  On the trip home from Orlando International my wife drove, and I sobbed.  I became functional after two or three days passed, but during the down time spoke little and kept to myself.  I found it difficult to adjust to the concrete realization, reinforced over and over during my visit, that dying is a process of losing everything.

My father in law died in 2008.  The kind and solicitous representatives from the funeral home drove us from the grave site to my mother in law’s house.  The man riding shotgun opened the door to let us out of the limo and quickly turned away without saying anything in farewell.  I realized that the funeral directors had finished their work, and any compassion shown at the viewing, service and interment had been part of a contract just ended.  We were on our own.  My mother in law drove us to her favorite local restaurant for lunch.  It had rained hard at the cemetery, but now the clouds scattered and weak sunlight brightened the wintry hills of eastern Pennsylvania.  The crowded dining room hummed with conversation, and the checkered table cloth and vase of artificial chrysanthemums made our table insistently cheerful.  Our group said little at first, but after the food arrived we chewed our salads, ate our bread, and told a few stories about the man we had buried an hour before.  We even laughed at a few jokes.

E-mails from Beyond

My sister Carla sends me very short e-mails from time to time. She says, “Hi Denny.” And then she wants me to click on links for cheap pharmaceuticals, penis enhancers, Rolex watches, and investment opportunities. I know better than to move my cursor anywhere near the links and spam the message.

But she persists. A few months later she wants to know “How’s it going?” and supposes that I’d be interested in time shares in Florida, buying gold, building my retirement savings…Her husband, Dan, warned us a year and a half ago that someone had raided her account after he thought that it was closed. Hackers had gotten hold of her address book and were using it to e-mail friends and relatives. Dan said that he was contacting her internet service again, and apologized for the confusion and trouble. I didn’t see any messages in my inbox from her for several months after that, but then her name started to pop up again.

Carla has also communicated with me in two dreams, and in neither one was she interested in selling me anything. In the first I saw her standing on a sidewalk on a hot summer day. She told me that she had always loved me and that she was fine. She looked sleek, tan and healthy and moved with quick assurance as she helped my parents unload the trunk of their car. Mom and Dad were donating old clothes and shoes, putting them into a metal donation box by the side of the road, finally clearing out some of the clutter from their house. Carla told me that she and I were responsible for looking after them as they headed into their final days… And recently I woke up with her second visitation still fresh in my mind. She was at the bottom of the steps in my parents’ basement standing next to a friend of hers that I had never met. Carla looked at me expectantly as I stared at her, and finally she said, “Aren’t you going to hug me?” I said that I was afraid to because the last time I saw her she couldn’t breathe very well. She said, “But I’m fine now,” and I stepped up and wrapped her tightly in my arms.

One night in the spring of 2013, before her e-mail account had been compromised, she instant messaged me on Facebook. We chatted about the birth of her first grandchild, a girl named Claire. I asked about her panic attacks, what started them, how severe they were. Mom had told me about them with a note of caution in her voice, and I was worried. Carla wrote that just about anything could set her off, and that happy drugs were her best friends. I said that I wanted to be there to visit her, but that my wife was still recovering from surgery and I couldn’t come any time soon. Carla told me that she wasn’t good company right then, that I should stay home and take care of Judy. We exchanged messages for twenty minutes, but her response time gradually grew slower, and her phrases started to disconnect from each other into less intelligible fragments. I wondered if she were falling asleep in her motorized wheelchair with her headset on. The last thing that I wrote to her was that I would talk to her soon. She didn’t answer.

Her husband Dan called me several weeks later at 10:30 a.m. and told me that Carla had died early that morning. She had gone into a panic attack and couldn’t catch her breath. A nurse was on hand and gave her an injection, but she suddenly stopped breathing and couldn’t be revived. The funeral was in three days.

Shortly after I helped her sons and my brother carry her coffin into Ascension Catholic Church for her funeral Mass, after I pushed it on chrome rails back into a hearse and rode out to Calvary Cemetery with friends and family, after I sat by her grave and endured the final burial rituals, I got her first e-mail from beyond: “Hi Denny. How are you doing?”

I wasn’t doing all that fucking well.

The Intersection of Two Mourners

My sister Carla died of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in August, 2013.  I got a call from her husband a few hours after she passed away.  He told me that she had a panic attack and stopped breathing.  The funeral was two days away and I had to quickly book a flight and cancel my classes.

My daughter drove me to the airport early the next morning.  I hadn’t flown in a while and had trouble figuring out the computer’s directions on the check in monitor.  A man at the airline desk reluctantly gave me a few tips, and when I asked another question he was openly annoyed  and spoke to me as if I were mentally challenged.  I was tempted to tell him that my mind was a foggy from stress, and that I was grieving and had trouble putting two logical thoughts in a row.  I could have gone on and told him that when I landed in Dayton I would also be staying with my parents and would be a constant witness to their suffering.  But I didn’t bother.  I had dealt with service counter jerks before, and knew that their capacity for empathy was usually stunted.

I made it through security and took my time getting to the gate.  I tried to read a book that I had brought along, but while it was very funny the humor was deeply cynical.  I put the book aside and tried to meditate.  The crowd noise and announcements over the P.A. kept interrupting me whenever a moment of peace began to quiet my mind.

We got the announcement to board, and when my area was called I got into line.  A woman ahead of me was pulled aside and sent to the service desk at the gate, and she was irate.  She said very loudly, “First you give me a hard time when I checked my bags, and now this!”  The airline rep ignored her as he studied his computer monitor.  When she continued to complain he looked up and said, “We’re moving you up to first class.”  And then added with a patronizing tone, “That isn’t so bad, is it?”  The woman glared at him and muttered angrily as she went past him to board the plane. The rep and a stewardess rolled their eyes and shared a whispered joked about her behavior.

When it was my turn to show them my ticket they pulled me aside also.  I wasn’t concerned.  I was moving along in such a mental daze that I didn’t care where they sent me or what the problem might be, and I suspected that I might be in for an upgrade too.  They gave me a seat in first class, and when I got onto the plane I saw to my chagrin that they had placed me beside the irate woman who had complained so bitterly.   I didn’t want to sit next to an irritable person who seemed to be looking for a fight.

I took my seat and got a better look at her.  She was a business woman in her forties with short, curly brown hair and a round face.  She looked supremely tired and distressed, but was polite to me when we exchanged a few words.  She described her problems at the airline counter, and I told her that we must have run into the same hostile ticketing agent.

After the plane took off I asked her what her final destination was.  Our flight was headed to Atlanta, and I assumed that we would be catching separate connecting flights.  She got a stricken look on her face and told me that she had got some very bad news the night before while attending a conference in Orlando.  She was flying home to North Carolina because her son called and told her that his best friend had an accident while white water rafting.  He was thrown out of a raft, struck his head on a rock, and was submerged for a long time before being pulled out.   The doctors gave him no chance of recovery.

The boy had been in and out of the business woman’s house when he and her son were teenagers, and she looked upon him as her second son.  She also grieved for her son and worried about how he would deal with his friend’s imminent death.

I let her talk for a while and she told me about happier times with “her two boys”, the effort she had made to have a successful career following a divorce, and about the health problems of her current boyfriend.  She relaxed as she talked and we began to enjoy each others’ company.  She finally got around to asking me about my trip, and I told her about my sister.

We talked for a short while about our experiences with grief.  I said that I believed in an after life because I had a dream in which my deceased grandfather appeared before me and reassured me that he was fine where he was.  He had crippling arthritis in his knees and walked with a cane the last few years before he died, and in my dream he did a soft shoe dance and said, “Look at me now!”

By the time we landed we had settled into a comfortable and companionable silence, and I remember thinking about how wrong my initial judgment of the woman had been.  She was a caring person who had snapped because the stress had been too much.

When we deplaned I saw her briefly as she came out of the gate.  She looked anguished and disoriented again, and I realized that the weight of her problems had resettled on her shoulders, that she was thinking about the difficulties that awaited her when she got home. Our conversation had left me calmer and steadier, and I wanted to say one more thing to help her feel better.  But the look on her face told me that she was locked in her own private hell, and I decided to let her go.  I wasn’t sure if anything I said would help or hurt her situation.  I knew from experience that when people try to comfort someone in mourning they often find the wrong thing to say.  I had been guilty of that on a few occasions.

I caught the next flight and landed in Dayton around noon.  I picked up a rental car and drove down I75 to my parents’.  I began to feel a sense of dread as I got closer, and I realized that I was worried about providing comfort to my parents and to my sister’s boys.  I had a long history in my family of acting as an irritant rather than a balm even when I had good intentions.

The thought came to me when I hit the outskirts of Kettering that the real pain was about to begin.  My sister had opted for a traditional viewing, funeral mass and burial, and I had always found that whole process to be an exercise in prolonged torture.  I thought about the expression on the business woman’s face when we deplaned, and I wondered if it was a mirror image of the way I looked at that moment.