Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Silver Cord

Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
 - Ecclesiastes 12: 5-7

A long time ago Dad had emailed me a lot of stories from his childhood. Dear Husband bound them in a booklet and we put out copies for folks to take. Turned out to be very popular. Even the funeral director read it. Of course, he’s probably somehow related to us. It’s one of those sorts of places. You can’t fling a cat without hitting some kinfolk. I was never too into my kin, so I was pretty much clueless about family members and how they are related to each other. I always look a bit vague at family events.

Why at a funeral do people feel the need to comment favorably on the visage of a dead embalmed person? The man in the coffin bore only the faintest resemblance to my dad. He looked a bit like my grandfather, actually, if my grandfather had been worked up for Madame Toussaud’s. At least no one said anything about him looking peaceful. There were two pastors, one from the church he went to with his current wife and one he attended with my mom. You can’t always depend on pastors to forgo an altar call, even at a funeral, so I thought they restrained themselves nicely.

As an aside, my brother told me that just before my dad went on the respirator, he took off his mask (keep in mind that he was struggling to breathe, so he thought what he was about to say was of some importance) and said, “Larry, don’t ever get mixed up in the Church of Christ. They’re a bunch of nuts, and they’re all bipolar.” That was so completely my Dad. I can hear his voice saying it. He had very little tolerance for churches that white-knuckle their doctrines. The Church of Christ doesn’t allow instruments to be played in church. My dad thought that was the stupidest thing ever. I’m not sure what else he objected to. I’m not that familiar with the denomination, but this particular church seemed to focus on rules and doctrine rather than Grace, and that probably affronted my Baptist leaning dad. So Dad wasn’t particularly fond of his second wife’s choice of church, which is why we called in his former pastor to share the funeral service.

Dad had a military send off. There was a military funeral. Dad was in the Navy, the Army, the Navy and Army reserves and the National Guard reserves. Turns out he was the youngest Chief Petty Officer in the Navy during WWII. Didn’t know that. He was retired by the time I was born, so I didn’t know much about his military career. After hearing relatives talk about it last week, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out he was a Storm Trooper. There was a 21 gun salute – or something like – and two vets to fold the flag and one whippersnapper to play Taps. This being the rural South, the officers looked ramshackle and unwell, as if they might spend their spare time cooking meth, and one was shaking so much I was seriously worried that the flag would slip from his hands. His partner appeared equally concerned and seemed to telegraph instruction through some secret eye communication. But the shaky man was very careful and meticulous, and we all sat their mentally encouraging him, “You can do it! Just a bit more.” The whole time – a very quiet, reverent stretch of time I might add - Firecracker kept asking in a loud whisper, “Mom, why is he shaking?”

There were a lot of people at the funeral because dad loved to socialize. He didn’t get to do that so much with my social-phobic mom, so I think he particularly enjoyed getting out and meeting people in his later years. And although he didn’t much care for the church, he made friends there. He was that sort of guy – affable and good-humored. Almost every day he and his wife went out to eat at a particular diner, and everyone knew them, and everyone knew they could find him there if they wanted a chat.

This being a Southern funeral, the church ladies laid out enough food to send us all into a diabetic coma. And, this being a Southern funeral, they wrapped up the copious leftovers and sent them home with our family, where they were stuffed into no less than two refrigerators. Grief never seems to prevent anyone from eating in the South, and you haven’t properly showed someone you care without a casserole or pie in hand.

One thing brought home to me during this sad event was the utter disparity in my and my brother’s upbringings. They were close in age and ran about as a pack. The youngest is 16 years older than me, so I grew up pretty much as an only child, my brothers having all gone off to college and their adult lives. The stories they told abut their childhood adventures made me wonder how they survived. They also had a completely different experience living with my father. He and I had a troubled relationship that grew out of the frequent and often virulent fighting between my parents. I saw behavior that I loathed in both of them, but ultimately I found my mother more sympathetic than my father. It wasn’t until my mom’s last few years that I began to appreciate his good qualities, such as loyalty, integrity, and a sly sense of humor. My brothers never experienced that anger toward my dad, or my mom for that matter, despite the fact that she had to be institutionalized twice and they witnessed her more extreme expressions of mental illness. Maybe it’s because my brothers had each other. Maybe that’s why they roamed around where they were unsupervised and pulled pranks and got up to mischief. It’s not that they emerged undamaged – the legacy of dysfunction is quite evident – but they never seemed to hold it against my parents. And, after all, they grew up in the 40s and 50s when there were different expectations for parent-child relationships. My parents were strict with them but also hands off because they were boys, whereas they were beyond lenient with me but were also more protective.

Now I have lost both my parents. It makes me feel unanchored. That little corner of Alabama on Miracle Dr is now just a building full of stuff, its contents to be distributed among us, the center gone. As Dear Husband said, people live on through the stories you tell. I often think that may be the only afterlife there is.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rest in Peace, Dad

My father, Charles K. Akins, died yesterday at 6:45 pm. My brother who was with him said he went peacefully within minutes after the doctors pulled the respirator. He died after a long battle with pneumonia, complicated by acute interstitial lung disease (probably as a result of exposure to asbestos). He was 89 years old.

This is one of the last photos of him, from his 89th birthday party in April.

 I am traveling to Alabama today, and Dear Husband and the girls will join me this weekend for the funeral.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

And we're off

School began this week. Every year it comes earlier – some districts have year-round school, and we may be headed that way. I love the start of school. Not because it gets the kids off my back, though. After all, they’ve been in a day camp all summer, so there isn’t much difference, except that I don’t have to monitor homework. No, I love the start of school for a number of reasons:

  • The end of the disgusting hot, muggy, inhumane summer is just around the corner.
  • Fall – fall is nearly here! Red and orange leaves! Nippy air! Halloween! Fall festivals!
  • The stores are full of school supplies, and I love school supplies. I like to see the wide variety of notebooks and pens. I like the smell of paper and pencils. These are the tools of learning, fresh and unused, full of potential. I want to breathe deeply among the binders and pencil-top erasers.
  • I can dress the girls in cute new clothes. I love shopping with them – so much easier than shopping for myself. The clothes in my section are dull and shapeless, boring and frumpy. Their clothes are bright, cheerful and playful. I dread the day the girls enter their teens and start fussing over clothes.
  • I love the structure of school. Now when I get home there is a regular order to the evening – school work, dinner, chores, bed-time. Well, it’s supposed to work like that.
  • The change in routine fills my head with impossible goals. I’ll get more organized – all I need is a hole punch, a binder, and $200 dollars worth of storage boxes. I’ll start that exercise program. I’ll cook more. I’ll finally put all our photos in albums. We’ll paint the house! We’ll take daytrips every weekend and spend more time at art galleries and theaters. I’ll reduce our grocery bill by clipping coupons! None of this will happen, but the ideas are bright and shiny and exhilarating.

Recently I was flipping through the latest Woman’s Day. Yeah, I get Woman’s Day. I’m a bit sheepish about it because it seems somehow – I don’t know – déclassé. If Real Simple is Talbots, then Woman’s Day is Wal-Mart. But this is what I do with our few skymiles – get magazines I would never pay for. Anyway, I ran across an article by Jennifer Weiner that expressed my feelings about fall so perfectly. You can read it here: It’s very short. Everything in Woman’s Day is short. Do any magazines let articles go on for pages anymore? Maybe the New Yorker. I could never finish anything in there. Yeah, if I had to choose between the New Yorker and Woman’s Day, I would definitely choose the latter. The New Yorker doesn’t have recipes that I can clip and ignore.

I plan to recap our LA vacation in the next post, because it was so much fun. Now, if I could only start that vacation scrapbook…

Monday, August 02, 2010

I'm Back

We’re home from LA but too frazzled to do more than note that:

1. Great time
2. School starts next week
3. It sucks to be back at work
4. Our house looks dingy
5. Dad is doing somewhat better, last report