We were heading past the funeral home, down Mass. Ave searching for parking, when I saw him and recognized him immediately. No one else in the world naturally looks like a forgotten member of the Rat Pack, slightly stumbling in his dark suit, smoking a cigarette in that particular way. “There’s ____.” I told my parents. It couldn’t be, they said, he can’t be here; he has a show tonight. But I was right, it was him. He was stumbling away from his godfather’s memorial service, crying, escaping. Doing exactly what I wished I could do. I worried for him. I always worry for him. He has MS, and he is gifted, and sometimes I worry that he’ll feel too awful or too good and push himself too far and get hurt or lost or stuck or what. I can only imagine that he must feel trapped in his life these days. It’s because I feel that way too.
We found a spot across the avenue, practically beside the crosswalk that ends directly in front of the mortuary. I hate the place. I have been here, so many times that I often find myself outside the door giving directions to incoming mourners. “The viewing is in the reception room, through the lobby on the right – just follow the line. Yes, there are restrooms. Go straight, through that small anteroom there and they will be in front of you – it’s a straight line from the front doors.” I’ve memorialized so many loved ones here, that I can tell you where the phones are, where they hide notepads, pens, extra mints and tissues. I’ve even been upstairs in the residences/offices.
When Mum gets out of the car I am worried. She doesn’t handle these situations well, it’s hot out and she isn’t healthy. She has atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure. I am beyond paranoid that sometime soon I’m going to be in this situation again, only this time I won’t be filing in to pay my condolences, I’ll be on the receiving end.
We get across the stairs and go inside, only to be greeted by the countless throngs that comprise my extended family. Everyone is smiling, even those who are crying. People are reminiscing and laughing. My cousin – who died this week of a sudden (mere days between diagnoses and death) and devastating re-occurrence of cancer – wanted this to be a day without tears. And being atheist and not one to stand on maudlin formality, this memorial service would be it. So we were instructed to be happy and not to cry; there should be no sad tears in the celebration of a life.
I spent most of the time in a corner talking with some of my close cousins (the deceased’s niece and nephew) comparing photos of our dogs and talking about our new grown up lives, the other part of the time I spent with another cousin, an eleven-year-old with whom I am so close I consider her a little sister. We were in a little anteroom, next to the central air vent, goofing around. When a family member asked us (bemusedly) what we thought we were doing I replied: ‘Putting the ‘fun’ back in ‘funeral’.”
All around us was this almost painless, least-stressful wake/memorial service I had ever spent in this particular building. That is until I encountered the widow, a woman whom I have loved and respected and truly admired throughout my entire life. I should say rather, that she encountered me. She appeared seemingly out of nowhere, a specter, a ghost. Pale and in obvious shock she said my name, hugged me lightly, kissed my cheek, and then disappeared.
I have never in my life seen someone so completely devastated, heartbroken and destroyed. My breath left me. I was afraid for her; I am afraid for her. I wonder if she is eating, if she is sleeping. I worry that this is all too much for her, and that she shouldn’t have had to endure this stupid event.
I want to tell her how much I love her and that I’m there for her. But I’m the weird, black sheep little cousin, more like her niece than anything else. But I worry. I so, so worry.
We left the funeral home after two hours – four hours early, therefore missing the speeches and official reminiscing. This was surprising as my Mum is usually a stickler for the formalities. We wound up at my grandparents home, the ancestral manse, conveniently within walking distance of the service. We talked to my Gran, who having learned that I recently began seeing a therapist (or The Rapist, as I call her) insisted on knowing what for. “For lunacy” I told her. She was not amused.
My cousin died this week. He was a brilliant man, gifted and giving. He piloted planes and helicopters. He taught English in inner city schools. He was a sports car aficionado and driver. He was an accomplished bluegrass musician and he was teaching me how to play Jolene, the banjo Santa left for me by the tree. What’s more he was a survivor; he wasn’t supposed to die – he had been cured.
I feel cheated, but what’s more I feel like the world was cheated. Because it was.
Anyway, all week I’ve had this song trapped in my head. It came on when I was told he was dying and hangs on even now. I don’t know why this song, I don’t know if he even knew of Andrew Bird, and I don’t know that the subject matter has anything to do with anything at all or what it means that it’s trapped in my brain. But here it is.