F is for Funerals
Teachers know what letter grades mean.
“Don’t you dare FAIL (or even FALL) at this funeral parlor gig.”
As I prepared for it, I realized that everything I knew about funerals came from my senior high school play, “Our Town,” in which I sang Bless Be the Tie with the rest of the mourners in the last act. There was safety in numbers, and no one even really knew (unless they were standing right next to me) that I couldn’t carry a tune.
When I lived overseas, I didn’t stay in one place long enough to attend any funerals. The same held true on visits home to the States. When my father passed away, I was still in overseas mode (having recently returned) so I figured any faux paus I’d make would be excused. Besides, I was so in shock, the event passed by in a blur.
These days the blur is physical and thus, problematic. Not only was I terribly sad, but now I had to worry about managing in a dark environment. It wasn’t a good scenario. If only I could return to my safety zone singing my off-tune lyrics in the group scene. I wished it were a play and at the end, everything would be all right and there’d be a big cast party.
But, determined to face my fears, I headed out to the funeral “parlor,” (my mother’s word). In the 2-4 pm calling hours, as soon as I entered, an older bearded man hugged me and said, “it’s been a long time, my dear. So sorry for your loss.” I bit my lip. The obvious question … how long had it been? From the growth on his beard, I wondered if this mountain man had been a hermit in the forest for some time and was just now emerging for the funeral. He seemed kind and thoughtful. I listened for clues to his identity in the lengthy conversation and tried to guess. I learned he hadn’t picked up a chain saw in years, and he and my younger brother were on a first name basis. I left it at that.
I gave myself a “C” for my courtesy.
When he and his wife wandered off, I was about to move, too. But, then, a neighbor and his wife came into my view. I lunged at the man and held him in a tight vice-like grip. We were kindred spirits, so I thought. He had macular degeneration, quite a profound loss at that. In my relief, I might have been too aggressive because he mumbled, in equal parts of protest and apology, “I’m blind. Can’t see squat,” as he pried my fingers off his back one by one to step away and take a much-needed breath of air.
Definitely a “D” for desperation.
His wife shared her condolences, then added kindly, “You can still come to dinner. ” She corrected herself, “I mean for dessert.” I hadn’t been to their home “for dinner” in about thirty years. But they faithfully sent me a piece of leftover birthday cake from every one of their family celebrations. The cake, sandwiched between two paper plates and hand delivered to my doorstep by their daughter–my childhood companion, was worth it! Decorated by the local Giant Eagle bakery, the minute she left, I sliced the cake into three pieces (the one with most frosting went to my brother) and we all savored the unexpected (but expected) treat.
I smiled at my friend’s mother, who seemed a little ill at ease meeting me in the unfamiliar and quite formal surroundings. We let a few more words pass between us before they walked on to meet other family members.
While I had the opportunity, I sped to the left-hand side of the room and stood safely next to my mother. At 84, it made sense for her to be seated. Several people from my mother’s church attended and the faces were familiar enough to me that I didn’t have to guess who they were in the darker light. Their voices gave them away. Most of them were older members so they gathered in one place. It was fairly easy to keep track of the conversation. And, if I questioned what anyone said, I was in good company because being older, the guests questioned, too. No one was completely certain of anything. When all our church friends filed out the door, my brother kept Mom company and I stepped a short distance away.
I awarded myself an “A” for fitting in well with the aged.
The room was packed. Even so, I noticed blobs of people passing through the center of the room and leaving without speaking to me. I tried to remember if I was to go up to them or if was their responsibility to corner me in order to deliver their condolences. Since I was holding my cane by then, they might have thought I was simply one of the blind guests and gave me a wide berth. After all, friends of my sister and nieces wouldn’t have known there was anyone in the family well enough to know if we suffered vision loss.
I did make things easier and I could write this post in my head as I stood alone waiting to be approached.
A “B” seemed appropriate for maintaining good balance with my cane.
In the 7 – 9 pm showing, the room was perceptively dimmer. I licked my lips and massaged my eyes, hoping to open the blood vessels and somehow “see” better.
“You’re standing on the wrong side of the room,” my childhood friend said, as she came up beside me. Her college-aged daughter stood by her side, her eyes peeking from under the long mane of hair she swung from side to side.
“Is there a right and a wrong side?” I asked.
Surely a family member would have told me. My sister definitely would have. I needed to stop thinking like that. Where was my mom? I finally caught a glimpse of a piece of clothing I thought belonged to her. At least, the stooped over shape fit that guess. She was holding court in another part of the room. More church members and some of her family relatives. My older brother must have stepped out. My younger brother was standing in a tightly-knit circle with his immediate family.
My friend and I continued to talk for several minutes. “I’d better get going,”Kathy said. “Are you going to be okay? Do you need me to walk with you to the other side of the room? Next to your niece?”
I had to make an immediate decision. “Yes,” I said decisively. I didn’t want to weave among the shapes by myself to reach the “correct” side. I didn’t want to trip an unsuspecting soul with my long cane in the packed room.
She guided me to a couple of feet away from my youngest niece.
“Thanks!” I wanted to give her a high-five but that didn’t seem appropriate and she left rather hurriedly, having stayed past the time she allotted.
I soon realized the advantage of standing next to my sister’s family. The long line had to pass me before they reached my brother-in-law and the elder niece. When I tucked away my cane, no one even knew I couldn’t see them well. Standing in that position turned out to be “the great equalizer.” Each person in the receiving line introduced themselves to me and told me who they knew. I heard stories of friendship with my sister and examples of her courage through the years. I was tearing up when an unknown woman reached me. I boldly said, “And you are…?”
Having politely asked, I was surprised at the long pause that followed. The man standing next to her said, “That’s Amanda.” I recognized the young man’s voice. My hand went to my mouth as I gasped. It was my nephew’s girlfriend, one that came to the house frequently.
“Well, um–” I gritted my teeth. “Aaaah, It’s just so dark in here.”
“No problem, Aunt Amy. That happens.”
When I had sufficiently recovered from that embarrassing moment, I met another, much older man, a really nice one from my church. “Let me introduce you to my niece,” I said eagerly, taking him by the arm and moving forward. He was a favorite of mine. I then turned to his wife, and promptly introduced her as “Gladys,” a name that belonged to his second wife, who had passed away long ago . The fact that I had never met Gladys didn’t stop me from uttering her name. “I mean, I mean…Elmira, no, no! It’s … Elmetta,” I said, quite shocked at the names that were jumping out of my mouth. As we all recovered, and more hands were shook, I recalled the name Elmira was something I’d heard on the Friday night specials on the TV Land channel.
No doubt about it. A big fat “F” for flat-out flustered.
I took a deep breath and pressed down on my trembling fingers.
Another blurry form leaned toward me and began to speak of my sister’s courage.
I expelled a long, softly-drawn out breath and tried to focus on the newcomer.
I could hear my sister’s voice in my head. It’s dark. You’re doing great. No one expects you to be perfect. I could see my sister’s own smile from years of watching her light up the room and warmly welcoming others, and I missed her so much. I had to hide my face so no one would see the tears rolling down.
A short time later, I heard the slow repetitious tapping of my mother’s shorter cane as she approached.
“It’s time to go…after 9 pm. Where’s your coat?”
The long line of visitors was gone. The crowd had dispersed. I reached for my long white cane. My nieces huddled around their dad like a mini football team protecting their star quarterback. I waved goodbye, not certain they would even look up. I raised my voice. “If you need anything at all, call. Grandma will get me and Uncle Mike will drive me to your house.”
Someone handed me my black hooded jacket. After zipping it up and righting my purse, I slid the cane back and forth and moved toward the exit.
“B. ” I was kind of brave and I’d done my best to honor my big sister.
A “B” wasn’t too bad. “You have something to aim for,” I would say to my students. “If you always earned As, what would the challenge be?”
The cold wind hit me and I wrestled the car door open, pinching my finger as I folded my cane before entering. Well, I don’t think I’ll run out of challenges today, that’s for sure.