The funny thing about the days afer a death and before a funeral is that we tend to sort of forget there’s anything happening. I mean, we know what’s happening – why else would I be spending so many days and nights at my parents’ house? But by day three, things started to get a little… odd.
The first day was the day after my grandfather died. I’d said my goodbye to him the Saturday morning before, believing he’d be gone within hours, and I drove the roadtrip back to work. On Wednesday, I’d just gotten to my desk when I got the call. But on Thursday, I’d decided to give my parents some time and space, since they had spent most of the last nine days – and some nights – at the hospital. When I called to let them know my plan, they were at the mall. A 93-year-old needs a new shirt and socks to be buried in.
Shopping for a dead person. Surreal Life Event #107.
The next day, Mom and I ran down to my aunt’s house to drop off some photos for the collage my cousin’s wife was making. My aunt, you’ll know if you read my last post, is just this side of certifiable. She lived with my grandfather and got the house in the will, and there is every chance she will turn full-on hoarder and begin collecting stray animals. Yet, somehow, she was the sanest of the sisters that day. The visit was blessedly brief, but when we got back in the car, my mother began an out-of-nowhere rant against President Obama that lasted 35 minutes. Captive in a moving vehicle, I could not throw myself clear. As we pulled into my parents’ neighborhood, she declared once more her insistent – and apparently persistent – belief that he is a secret Muslim.
I told her that I love her and we would therefore absolutely not be having that conversation, at which point she punted to his un-Americanness as indicated by his refusal to wear a flag lapel pin and the photo of him without his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance in 2008.
That got us into the garage.
There are many layers of madness endemic to families forced together by death.
That night, all my siblings and nephews came to my parents’ house for dinner. Mom liked the idea of having us all there, and since we all potlucked it, she didn’t have to do any work, which was a bonus. As the evening came about, though, two sisters got caught in rush hour traffic and wound up quite late. As it progressed, all three nephews engaged in various levels of meltdown, one of which was inflicted by a Goldfish cracker stuck in the toe of a pair of footie pajamas. By the time Sister 1 was deeply entrenched in a seemingly endless and mostly solo post-meal discussion about high school bullying, I was ready to check out. I was still abstaining from alcohol because of yet-unidentified GI issues, and frankly, I really needed a drink and was beginning to resent all those who were sipping on wine. Wine, I might add, that had come from my wine rack. I was completely socially unlubricated, and it was starting to chafe. It was 8:30pm and I felt like it was an hour that hadn’t yet been invented.
That was when Sister 2 put her head down on the dining room table. Didn’t say a word. Just rolled her eyes back and put her head down in a silent declaration that she was simply depleted of the emotional energy required for a conversation the beginning of which we couldn’t remember and the reason for which we presently could not possibly care less about, anyway.
Sister 1, not always good with the cues, continued the topic, which is a fine topic except it’s too heavy to go with grilled chicken, quinoa, veggies and dead grandfathers. So I got up and left the room to go watch “The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” with the barely-conscious Twin Nephs. Solving color puzzles was about as much mental hurdling as I could summon the will to do at that point.
On day three, Saturday, my father told me that Mom wanted some quiet time to herself, so we were going to vacate the premises. Fine, I get that, and I’m ready to get out, too. We went to the mall to get Dad a tie (the man just retired from upper management, yet he needs a tie?) Then we went to lunch, and then stopped by Target to get Mom a flash drive since her laptop is threatening suicide. When we got back to the house after 2 1/2 hours, Mom hadn’t slept as intended when she went back to bed at 11am, but she was still in her robe. The only thing that got her out of it was Mass.
Mass on Saturday evening meant absolutely nothing to do on Sunday. Sunday was the day before the funeral. I’ve long since decided that the day before a funeral is the most surreal day of all. You know what’s coming, but you’ve sort of pushed the reason for it away from your psyche in the days since the death. It’s a vacuum, a kind of sensory deprivation day on which you realize you feel almost normal, but not quite, and you can’t seem to figure why. It’s a kind of numbness. You’re worn out despite sleep and bored despite company – company that, at this point, you’d probably just as soon forego. There’s a strange sense of loneliness that settles in, of restlessness, being too long in each other’s space and not enough in your own, that leaves you feeling set apart and out of sorts and longing for the person not in your family who could hold you and comfort you the most and make everything fit in your head again if they were willing.
My proposed solution was to go to a movie. Dad didn’t want to come. As we arrived at the theater, Sister 3 said to Mom, “Do you know what the movie’s about?”
“George Clooney” was my mother’s answer, and I was satisfied with it.
Handy tip: if someone you love has just died after a tense time full of crazy people, endless communication problems, misdiagnoses and incorrect prognoses, questions about exactly what his advanced directive means, parsing of the difference between a DNR 1 and a DNR 2, and how the hell some total stranger’s signature wound up on an order you didn’t want that changed his DNR 2 to a DNR 1… don’t go see “The Descendants.”
***Spoiler alert*** The whole thing, turns out, is about how George Clooney’s wife is dying a slow and peaceful but tedious death in the midst of intractable family drama.
I was surprised by how absolutely it appeared that this woman was truly dying, never speaking, never moving, never even with her eyes open, lying in a hospital bed connected to tubes and wires and wasting away, sallow and bent. Even the crust around her mouth looked like what had settled around my grandfather’s. Her whole look was stunningly similar to his. I was okay; I mean, I didn’t cry. Instead, I swore repeatedly in my head about the fortune of this particular film choice at this particular time. Sister 3 and my mother, they cried.
Good movie, though.
But then Monday came, and early rising. Showers and oatmeal and don’t forget the hymnal because “In the Garden” isn’t in a Catholic songbook, and it’s my solo after communion. Nylons and lint rollers and the tricky clasp on my grandmother’s bracelet. The viewing was only an hour, but felt like seven in the cold church. The American Legion representative played Taps from the back of the church. The accompanist was ridiculously late and practicing was nixed when she wanted to play over the American Legion veteran’s pre-Mass eulogy. Sister 3 started the first reading from the book of Ecclesiastes and immediately got hung up on “a time to be born and a time to die,” needing several moments before she could go on. Cousins and sisters presented offertory gifts and Bible verse, and a beautiful, delicate, quilt-pieced eulogy sewn from the memories my grandfather’s grandchildren had exchanged in the days before. It made me realize, only now, just how much I had learned from a man who was always so quiet. It took me back to the childhood I shared with my cousins and let long-latent memories dawn anew.
I sang, and my mother’s cousins told me at the luncheon afterward how much the hymn choice meant to them – a credit that goes to my mother and aunt. My grandfather was a gardener. He’d grown the food for his family as a teen and a Victory Garden after he’d returned from war, and he kept on growing vegetables and flowers until he couldn’t do the work anymore. It is because of his garden that I love roses and tulips and hydrangeas. And though his Episcopalian roots had long ago been tilled for his conversion to Catholicism, he had always loved the hymn I was honored to sing for him. I had never sung it before, but I haven’t stopped singing it since.
In the icy wind of a clear winter day, alongside the woman he’d missed so desperately for so long, we laid the last man of his generation to rest.
The next day, at work, my friends gave me a planter as a sympathy gift. They had no idea my grandfather was a gardener. I’ve given it his nickname. No gardener myself, I’m hoping he helps me keep it alive.