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.