This is what I said to myself as a total stranger popped into the official mourning room for the family. Just as the door was being shut for the official Family Prayer. For FAMILY only. “What gall, to just mosey on in, like he belongs in the FAMILY ONLY area!”. I didn’t want onlookers out of the onlooker area. We had set it up to be in the foyer and/or the chapel. Clearly marked. Plus, I was busy with a fresh wave of sadness and hurt and… hunger? My belly growled loudly and I played it off as Uncle Gassy-Britches-On-The-Right’s business. I was also busy with being tired. And numb. And…noticing that nephew #7 was picking his nose and wiping it under great-aunt Stone-Deaf-So-I-Will-Yell-Instead-Of-Whisper (to be spoken in a hurried and hushed voice)’s…wheel chair seat. eck. I just didn’t have it in me to walk over and usher this person out so we could relax and stop being so dignified.
I looked around the room and smiled, both in affection and slight distaste. Uncle Creepy-Vibe was a little too close for my comfort. But that aside, affection. So what if the family was enormous, yet hadn’t gathered for a family reunion in years? If ever? So what if they were a mixed lot, with their mourning attire ranging from a peach tuxedo and frilled button-down shirt, to a velvet pair of pants with a torn AC/DC T-shirt that was justified as “Well, it’s black, isn’t it?”. So what if the grand kids had already tried to climb into the casket to play hide-n-seek with Grandma 3 times so far? So what if irreverence was the dominant trait? Pshhh. It was amusing and colorful and ridiculous. And mine.
And, glancing back at the guy that sauntered in, it doesn’t mean that just any stranger can just be part of such an intimate thing as the family prayer. No siree, Bob. Not on my watch.
The problem was, I noted, no one else was booting him out. Preteens were walking around him, and toddlers shot through his legs, just as if he had always been in this room. In-laws and out-laws alike (Uncle Had-A-Slight-Run-In-With-The-Cops-In-A-High-Speed-Chase-But-Those-Days-Are-Behind-Me-Now, to be exact), talked with this guy in a slightly deferential manner, and I started to get suspicious. Even stoic old Great Aunt Bat-Any-Child-That-Comes-Near-Her-With-A-Cane stopped fanning herself long enough to take his hand and make clicking noises with her mouth as she shook her head and sighed.
I think I am missing something…
That was right before I was introduced to him as The Mortuary Guy. And, yeah, he was asked to give the family prayer. (Slight gasp at the thought.) He had declined, however, and was just there as a guide to facilitate the process of grief. A supportive onlooker.
Luckily, I had not let my facial expressions match the righteous indignation that was written all over the insides of my eyebrows. I kept quiet the frowny muscles on my left lip, and the puff of air that threatened to snake out my nose. Also, the shoo-ing tendons in both of my hands. (Hmmm. Those tendons also doubled as angry hands when put juuust-so on my hips, I notice.) No, these inside urges simmered slowly down into a bit of embarrassment at my secret snap judgements.
I instead did a properly saddish, yet formally welcoming smile. This, i assumed, was the right degree of “ok, you are in. You may stay and experience the intimacy of the mourn with the rest of us.” Which was kind of a silly proclamation, even to myself, considering I was about the newest family member in the room. 19 years new, roughly. And one of the in-laws, at that. You just don’t break into this crowd easily. But I am pretty protective of this group. And they overlook my flaws, I hope, as simply as I overlook their warts. So to speak. (There IS a cousin on the wobbly chair in the corner that really pushes the wart limit. By 17.)
The door to the room closed, and I knew that this was the time to focus my thoughts and to say my last goodbye’s to a woman that was, herself, the epitome of overlooking flaws. Craaap. The tears, which I thought had just left my eyes for at least another hour on lunch break, crept back in through my stuffy, red nose, and leaked out stubbornly. As Mortuary Guy gave us directions on what would happen next, and who would say the family prayer (Uncle Stuffy-From-Out-East would actually take this role, as Slightly-Tipsy-Cousin-On-The-Other-Side-Of-The-Family didn’t have the authority to extend this invitation in the first place.), I saw that there wasn’t a script, or an invitation list, or a role to play at all.
This was death.
This was the part where the good, the bad, the messy, and the heroic all meshed up into an event. THE EVENT. The Funeral. And not even Family, Friends, Onlookers, or Event Planners were cut and dry. There is no script, so quit trying to memorize lines. This was what I said to myself as Grandson Angst-Yet-Tender set his ball cap on top of the casket. This was what I meant to myself when Uncle Stuffy relayed words of comfort, of depth, of tenderness as he went through the Prayer, and I was grateful to him for all of his words. This was what I choked to myself as Perfect-Stranger-In-Row-Number-Three took the small toddlers so Daughter-Number-One could speak simply and lovingly of her mother. There is no script… It is what I whispered to Husband as he dry sobbed through the grandkid’s musical number of “I am a Child Of God”. And, it is what I forgot to chant as I led the closing song of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again”, snot and tears running down my face because my hands were full of hymn book and hand motions.
I forgot the proper way to gather the liquid-filled tissues on the chapel pew. So I left them. I also went back through the line that was shuffling out, because I had forgotten my phone and keys. I even wobbled on my stiletto pump as I was politely pushing back into my place in line. Can’t we do another practice run? Nope. We just kept doing The Event. Nobody pointed at me. Not one person snickered, or even noticed. Just me.
At the luncheon, laughter reared its welcome head. Food brings about smiles to empty bellies. Also, Seeing Uncle Bring-A-Flyswatter-Everywhere-Just-In-Case save his place at the table with his prize possession… Well, that’s just funny. It worked, though. (He got his space.) And as family mowed down mountains of Funeral Potatoes, heaps of ham, and pans of jello with raisins and/or carrots floating around, the laughter became…Allowed. Embraced. Nurtured, even.
Brazenly, the sorrow and heartache was put on hiatus so the hugs and smiles could be passed around. Clasps of hands. Claps on shoulders. Fingers lightly placed on forearms to emphasize a point in conversation. All walls came down as the desserts were devoured, and it became a safe place to heal. To let bygones be bygones. To exchange emails and phone numbers for future connection.
By the time the dishes were cleared, family pictures became a needed activity. Putting the cemetary on hold for just a few more moments, Grand-Dad looked on as Miss Bossy-Yet-effective niece held the camera and moved the grandkids, kids, and spouses, first just a liiittle to the left…then sliiiightly to the right….and Nose-Picking-Four-Year-Old! Hold still, or SO HELP ME I’ll spank you all the way to Grandma in Heaven!!!…. until the camera click-click-clicked to capture a generation or two of his offspring. The grin he showed was only slightly wet from tears.
As immediate family packed into cars to making the final trip to bury the shell of One Who Is No Longer There, a different energy went with us. Even somber as I was, I joked with Son number 2, and chided daughter and son number 3 for fighting over the sweet seat in Hoss. Husband backed up our enormous suburban while I thought, “If I had energy for that, I’ll have energy to get through the rest of THE EVENT.”
…and then, WHAP!!!…
Husband looked in the rear-view mirror, then and looked at me in a way that said, “There really is no script…”, and we got out to see Hoss’s bumper pushed right through the radiator of Reclusive-Great-Uncle-From-Up-North. Grandma’s brother, to be exact. Stroking his scruffy beard and quietly exiting his vehicle, he joined us in watching his rare Jeep truck’s radiator spurt fluid 2 feet out. The food I had just ingested felt cold and heavy in my stomach.
I don’t think I was the only one to contemplate the hit and run strategy. No one really knew him anyway, right? We curbed our urges, and I did the apologies while Husband and Uncle-Reclusive spoke the outlandish things men say to staunch the flow of car fluids when in a suit and tie. “Pepper in the radiator, that will do it.” “Where are my tools? Ugg. I can’t find the screwdriver!” “Here is my insurance information. I don’t know how it happened.” “No, No. I will just pick up a new …INSERT NAME OF JEEP PART HERE… at the junk yard tomorrow. I was going there anyway.” And, Great Uncle-Reclusive rode with us. (Hoss simply had a scratch on the bumper.)
As the teen boys yammered about the street cars they would SO have if they only had thousands of dollars, I thought about what small talk was appropriate with this family member that belonged in this EVENT, yet was just a vague name to me and my immediate family. I simply looked out my window and let curiosity do it’s job. Just as I started to inquire, Great Uncle-Reclusive spoke. And spoke. And spoke. About cars and trucks, and everything motorized. Engines and carburetors… and The boys slowly tapered off and listened. He spun short stories that understated just how talented and varied his life was, in the motor arena. He had raced, fixed, and smuggled (eluded to, but still…) cars that my boys had only dreamed of, and that brought him right into their inner sanctum of adoration. Thank goodness for accidental bonding. We was upgraded from Uncle-Reclusive to Great-Uncle-Mysterious.
The last leg of The Event was here. As we pulled up to the rolling hills of the Cemetery, wind blowing and clouds racing by, I saw something that made me giggle and breathe hard, all at once. At the end of the dignified trail-way that led to the grave site, 6 children congregated over the open grave. Kneeling, squatting, chasing around, sitting in the chairs designated for the 8 most prominent members of the family…. irreverence just oozed off of these kids. Without thought, I tramped through the manicured lawn in my stilettos, aerating the whole way, and somewhat pompously shooed those kids away from there. I also looked around to see which parents were not keeping the kids in tow. Eyebrow raised. Lip muscle tugged down. Angry hands kept firmly in place with those tendons. I even think I harrumphed a bit.
All the kids obediently followed me, explaining that they had permission from the parents, and that if they promised not to climb down into the hole, didn’t go past the step, and didn’t push each other AT ALL…. They could play one last time around the place where Grandma would stay for a while. Yeah. I felt ridiculous. Especially because when I looked back, the parents were staring intently at us all. Where they had always been looking, now that I recalled seeing them right by the trees nearby. Pomp and circumstance were just not invited to this day.
There is no script to Death. It happens whether I ask it to or not. It brings people together in ways that don’t make sense, and heals on it’s own time. As quickly or slowly as it takes. And that is none of my nevermind. It never was.
I joined the grownups just as they start back toward the grave site, this time without my pumps. Sons, Brothers-in-law, and Nephew bring the casket with the formal fashion that is half tradition and half necessity so they don’t trip or drop the precious cargo. It is lovingly laid in it’s position and a simple dedication is made. Carnations are added to the flower spray, and it is over. Nothing else need to be added to The Event. But, thank goodness, we don’t follow scripts, so grandkids touch the casket. Grandma’s kids sit by and talk for the last time to the great lady that left such a legacy. And finally, Grandpa hugs family members, comforting them, smiling and laughing as he lets go of what is to be lowered down, and lets in the reminders of the life he shared and memories he made before the need for The Event even happened.
More pictures. More hugs. More chasing around the lawn. And just like that, The Event was downgraded to When We All Got Back Together. or possibly, What Started The Hugs and I Love You’s. Uncle Stuffy-From-Back-East had somewhere along the line become Uncle Reserved-Yet-Approachable-Kindness-And-Humor-Guy. Uncle Had-A-Run-In-With-The-Law… became Uncle Grown-Into-A-Grounded-And-Humble-Man-That-Posseses-Tenderness-And-Love. I let go of what came next in the day.
Strangely, we did not seem to want The Event to end. 2 hours passed before we went back to our cars, and back to our rooms to change out of wrinkled or spotted dress clothes. And, there was still the next day, a spontaneous trip up the mountains for a picnic. And rock climbing. Yeah. Rock climbing. A fitting end before traveling the 8 hours home.
I am thankful for the mysterious man that slipped quietly into the Family Mourning Room. He was the only bit of guidance that moved our family through the day. The rest came on it’s own. And took care of itself. Thank goodness I remembered to get out of the way.