Sunday, January 25, 2009

Til Human Voices Wake Us

I went to a funeral on the weekend. It was sad. I didn't know the dead fellow very well, although I'd known him for about 18 years. He died relatively young, and relatively quickly, of a brain tumour.

We went there with the kids and a friend. We got a few quizzical looks, from people wondering what the heck we were doing bringing young kids to a funeral. I thought to myself 'no one brings their kids anywhere anymore.' And it was true - our kids were the only people under 18 there. We sat down, Richard with FDPG on his lap, Dominic next to him, me nursing my sad sore stitched jaw, now minus one large molar and slightly amped up on Advil Extra Strength, and Max next to me, eyeing my wad of Kleenexes uneasily. I could just hear him thinking 'oh god, she's going to cry all the way through this thing and I'm going to have sit next to her and I didn't even bring any Lego.' The room was way more crowded than expected and the air was getting hot, what with all those people breathing and sighing and wiping their eyes. I looked out the windows at the cold, grey day, trying to avoid looking at the dead man's daughters. They were standing at the doorway, greeting everyone as they walked in. They were pretty composed, although the younger one had shiny red eyes. They were a few years out of high school.They were too young to have to bury their dad, I thought.

The service started. People said funny things, people said witty things, his sister read some of his poetry, then his daughters stood up before the mike, broke down a bit, then said lots of sweetly funny things about what a great dad he'd been. There was a board at the back that seemed to back up their statements: there he was, skating with his daughters, camping with his daughters, picnicking with his daughters, wearing funny hats, barbequing in the snow, laughing, and holding his daughters when they were newborn babies. I nursed my throbbing jaw, cried into my Kleenex, and worried briefly about having something stuck in my nose after blowing it. Nothing worse than having a conversation with someone who stares at the crevices in your nose the entire time. So I wiped more assiduously and sighed and stared at the back of Richard's head and listened to FDPG, who was actually listening very carefully to all the speeches, laughing merrily at all the witty bits and charming all the damply sad people around her. It's comforting having kids at events like these; one can be reminded that there is life after a death when there's kids around. They tug at your coat and remind you that you promised them a hot chocolate if they behaved themself and that they happened to see a Starbucks on the corner a block or two back and maybe you could go there right now instead of standing here with a bunch of adults, who are all inexplicably clustering together and crying.

If only they hadn't played this song at the end of the service, I would have been fine. We all would have. But, in what Richard thought was the dead man's final joke on us all (and one he would have loved to witness, I'm sure, because he was an eccentrically witty fellow), we were asked to listen to a piece of music before leaving. We sat there, wonderingly, until the first few bars sounded, and then it was as if the rains came. Mouths trembled and eyes filled. The dead man's daughters dashed down the aisle towards the family dog, ancient and mouldering on the carpet by the door, and hurled themselves around his neck. Sad sad sad. I leaned into Max and whispered, more to take my mind off the sadness of it all, "please don't play this at my funeral, okay?" "Oh stop it," he replied, "You adults always cry at all this stuff, I don't know why."

And when we came home, I googled this song. I wanted to know who sang it, with such a lovely voice. I cried all over again, thinking of those poor girls, mourning their dad. But I'm maudlin that way. I like funerals, even though they are unspeakably sad. When I was a kid all my aunts and uncles and grandparents were sent to the Great Hereafter with an Irish wake, and all the still-living aunts and uncles and grandparents would drink way too much scotch and sing and tell the most fabulous stories about the deceased's indiscretions as a youth. And there always seemed to be a ton of indiscretions, too. My relatives prided themselves on them. In the Old Country there would be an open coffin at these wakes, but when I was a kid it had been reduced to a Viewing at the Funeral Home. My nanna once told me that she'd been at a wake where they'd had to stand the coffin up against a wall, there were so many people there, and at one point the coffin lid had fallen open and the dead man had fallen out of it, but they were all so drunk they didn't notice immediately. I have no idea if this was really true, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least, given all the things that I DID see at some of these wakes. But now everyone seems self-conscious and shy about death. No more open caskets. No more wakes. Instead it's ashes to ashes, dust to dust, most discretely. Ah well, we can still cry. And drink too much afterwards. And remember the funny stories.

On your way, Michael.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


Anonymous said...

My sympathies to you Sheila. A very bittersweet post.

sheila said...

Thanks Nicola. I can see my group heading towards to front of the line these days, as the old guard die off.

Gosh, I'm just too cheery these days, aren't I? I hope the moon changes soon or I might get soggy.

Heather said...

My condolences on the loss of a friend, Shelia.

I always find that after a funeral (especially of someone young) I get very reflective about my own life and how I am choosing to spend my time...if I am really living my best life. I also always find that I am very grateful for my family's good health.

I also find music very emotional even at the best of times. Iz is very popular here in Maui, you hear him everywhere...all the time. I have a CD of his and I really enjoy it, especially that song.

When I read the part of your post on the song it made me think of the funeral scene in Love Actually and how they played a Bay City Roller song. THat was touching in a funny sort of way.

I hope that your jaw heals up quickly and you start to feel better.

Sandylein said...

Bravo for bringing the kids. You're quite right, they do help us remember the circle of life.

And, uh... thanks for the humbug. Some...where...o-ver the rain...bow has been whirling through my brain ever since.

Becky said...

Beautifully written, Sheila, and so very, very sad.

At first I thought we were the only people bringing children to funerals because we hs and the other kids are in school. But then, several years ago, when my husband's grandmother died, one of his siblings did not bring the children to the funeral, which I thought was very odd.

Really, no wonder so many kids feel a lack of a sense of community or don't feel close to extended family and family friends.

I've told the kids and my husband I want to be cremated and dispersed, and then I want a ripping good party with an open bar, lots of food, and happy songs. And anyone in attendance is to say "dead" and not "passed on".

(PS hope you're feeling better and the Advil has kicked in)

sheila said...

It's funny how kids don't get to go anywhere anymore, isn't it? I'm sort of struck by that.

Heather, when that song came on I thought almost immediately about Love Actually. There was the same sort of "it's too early for this person to die" feeling going round at this one, too. (and yes, I DO know it's a movie, it's just very real to me) Hope you're having a good holiday. If you see any cheap IZ CDs buy me one and I'll pay you for it. I'm a convert now.

And Becky, I am SO with you on the "passed on" bit. Ugh. I just HATE that term. It's in my "Least Favourite Expressions" along with "thinking outside the box" and "stepping up to the plate."If I'm still alive when you've passed on (snort) I'll come to your funeral. I'll be happy to rip and drink and tell everyone how dead you are. I'll even write a terribly sad post if blogging is still going on.

Sandy! The dog! OMG! SO CUTE! I saw it on L's blog first, actually!

And thanks for the well wishes about that stupid tooth of mine. Turns out it was infected. That was why I've spent the week in total utter sleepless agony. Gosh, and to think I used to pride myself on my intellect (why the heck didn't I phone the dentist like - THREE days ago?)

shaun said...

What a beautifully written post -- reminded me of Garrison Keillor. And I really like Garrison Keillor, so even if you don't, it's supposed to be a good thing.

I'm sorry about your friend. I can imagine how that song would open the floodgates.

I have been to a few open casket visitations of people I was close to -- I never think, "oh they look just like they are sleeping." They look really really gone -- somehow it is oddly reassuring to look at the body at think that whatever they were in life isn't in there anymore.

My mother wore white to my grandfather's funeral -- one of his favorite of her outfits -- and at the visitation she gave out mini Almond Joys, his favorite candy bars. Only my mother would give out funeral favors. My cousins were deeply disturbed by her cheery demeanor (not that there wasn't also lots of crying), but I think she had figured out what my grandpa would have wanted.

sheila said...

Shaun, that is one of the BEST stories I've ever heard!

At the funeral I was just at, everyone joked about this man's calves. Apparently he was very proud of his calves and come spring he'd be in shorts, parading his calf muscles.

Calves and Almond Joy bars are touch points for those left behind - ways we can still connect without totally losing it. Your mother sounds incredibly sweet.

Becky said...

Shaun's comment reminded that at a dear friend's memorial service last summer, his daughter (my age) picked up a case of Eat More bars at Costco and set them out on the table near the sandwiches. They were his favorite candy bar, and for some reason knowing our friend and his family -- all a bit unconventional and not overly sentimental -- it seemed just right. Also good to help conjure up our old friend again.

Yes, please, do come to the party. No blogging required :)

Vivian said...

Oh, man. I shouldn't have listened to the song...My kids are wondering why I'm grabbing tissues and crying.

I'm so sorry to hear about your friend.

This is a very thoughtful post. We were recently at a funeral of a dear relative and people (except family) kept shooting us looks because we brought the kids. I think they half expected the children to climb over the pews, jump around and make a mockery of everything.

Hope your tooth is better.