I Thought I Hated Funerals

My grandfather’s passing comes as no shock, but it hits my heart like a freight train, and I feel that part of myself has died along with him. Oh, how I miss that ridiculous old man. I attribute so much of who I am to him; the way he saw the world with such childlike awe, and laughed at every little thing, making hilarious morbid jokes and forging stories that delighted in life’s vast treasures.

I reminisce on the soft touch of his wrinkled hand grasping mine with enough strength and passion to break my fingers. I cherish the shock on his brightly animated face when I’d enter the room, as if it were his first time meeting me. “Are you a movie star?” he’d gasp, then curl in on himself in raspy chuckles. Then his pale blue eyes would go soft, close to tears, as he’d say, “You’re so beautiful!” and cover my hands in a million wet kisses.

He was a brilliant man, his unquieted intelligence often at war with the little boy within him that just wanted to play. He doted on his friends and family with such an unabashed and affectionate love. How I miss his letters and notes, always signed off with a little heart drawn in red ink. With this goodbye, I say goodbye to the last of my father’s family; the end of an era that spanned most of my life, one I will now only have in faded memory.

I thought I hated funerals, but I was wrong. Dressed in black, we enter the funeral home—myself, my siblings, sister-in-law, and parents—to see his body before the wake. Rain pelts the windows in violent sheets, echoed by growls of vibrating thunder. I choke a few solitary sobs in the bathroom, then compose myself before returning to my family’s sides to share in one another’s comfort. We smile wetly as a slideshow of joyful memories play on the wall.

I want to remain alone—but when other people arrive, I find myself touched beyond my expectations by their presence. Friends and neighbors I haven’t seen for years come to pay their respects and offer us comforting words and embraces. Even strangers who worked at his assisted living home show up to share stories of how he impacted their lives. Despite tears on my face, I feel an immense joy: here is Grandpa, the social butterfly, bringing people together even after death.

My family and I stay with some of my parents’ closest friends, in a home much like the one I had to say goodbye to just a few months ago. The circumstances of our visit does not negate the inevitable pleasure brought about by good company in an environment of love, surrounded by familiar and beautiful landscapes. We resurrect a sonnet of summer memories: like catching fireflies under a sorbet sky speckled with dancing bats; quickly-melting ice cream licked to the sound of katydids chirping in the trees; piggy-back rides under a pale moon down crisp petrichor-scented streets; stargazing through dad’s old telescope, once named “Skelletope” by a littler me.

At the funeral Mass, we pray for Grandpa’s soul. We are reminded of our mortality and how precious this fleeting life is. Once again, friends from my past whom I hadn’t expected to see come and prove that not only was Grandpa loved in life, but we who remain are loved now.

The day of the burial, the breeze smells of grass and hay. Grandpa sleeps now beside Nona and Uncle Dino, finally reunited, and there is peace. It moves between tombstones and flaps through small flags of red, white, and blue. Then it settles in my chest. A yellow butterfly dances past the coffin as I blow one last kiss in his direction with a tear-streaked smile. “I’m-a comin’ Mary Bary!” Mom quotes his voice, and Nona replies, “What took you so long?”

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We drive away, and with each mile added between us and the cemetery, I feel a life that was once mine slowly dissolve. Generations after me will never have the chance to know what I knew, beyond feeble words and printed pictures. But I can feel Grandpa’s presence in the afterlife, now. Pressing my face to the window of the car, I savor his memory while it is still fresh.

Outside, cloud shadows paint the parfait hills with hazy blue, while sun-kissed patches glow like citrus treetop lanterns. I picture dinosaurs and jungle men swinging from the lush limbs that cling to dynamited stone. Brass-topped steeples peek through the massive mossy slopes, pointing heavenward. The milkweeds that grow on the side of this Pennsylvania road are the same that Grandpa used to build me a fort in his backyard, years ago. They’re an invasive species, I’ve been told; but to me, they’re a reflection of the unquenchable wildness in my dirty bare feet—the venturing spirit passed down to me from grandpa and my mother.

I still remember how the bricks of his and Nona’s patio smelled like a rusty oven when they baked in the summer sun, which turned the elusive hand of their sundial. It made the back porch too warm for comfort, but I didn’t mind—so long as I could hug the striped yellow velvet couch cushions and pet the pussy willow blossoms on display by Nona’s stone water fountain. Joe would climb his favorite tree and I would attempt to follow; or we would fly kites over the neighbor’s lawn.

Grandpa would point out baby bunnies through his kitchen window in the morning, before treating me to apple cinnamon Cheerios. I’d eat them from his massive green throne-like chairs designed for swallowing children, and wait with eager anticipation for the rooster to emerge from the cuckoo clock. Then I’d pad barefoot down the cold, metal-lined basement steps to ring the cowbell a few times and play hide-and-seek in my grandparents’ clothing bags with Joe. If we were lucky, we’d get to watch an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle on VHS. Sometimes we’d play with the wooden puppets that hung on strings by the window, making them walk on the treadmill while we listened to Bill Cosby’s comedy show on Grandpa's record player. He had a poker set with chips I pretended were cookies, and a keyboard that played a handful of annoying jingles when I mischievously pressed a certain well-used rubber button.

I’ll never forget the time Grandpa washed my feet after I cried when Joe and Dad were selected to partake in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and I, in my childish jealousy, felt left out. “It’s not the same,” I insisted, as he filled the tub with warm water at home. Silent tears streamed down my face as he gently dried my feet with a soft towel, then kissed them each with so much love he may as well have been Jesus.

Now, I pray he is with Jesus in the communion of the saints in Heaven. When he passed, I lamented that he had not done so surrounded by his family; but then I felt the Lord gently whisper in my heart, “he did.” Mary, Ethel, Kate, Arthur, Ed, John, and Dino were there, and he never has to be parted from them again. He had been so lonely after Nona died years ago, yet so afraid of death. I hope that, at the end, it came peacefully like an old friend to welcome him into that radiant reunion.

“Thus says the Lord God: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel… I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.” (Ezk. 37:12-14)