Wednesday, May 09, 2007

 

In Which We Pay Our Respects...

Wednesday, my parents came home.

We went to see them at the funeral home. The funeral director, a lovely woman who knew my parents, warned us that she was not satisfied with the cosmetic work that her husband had performed, although he had done his level best. Mom and Dad had numerous cuts and bruises on their faces and this alone would have altered their appearance, no matter how much make-up was applied. But it didn't help matters that the coroner had to autopsy their skulls, which required making an incision in the back of the head, an act that couldn't help but alter their facial features.

The funeral director was right to warn us.

I entered the darkened viewing room and a hush fell over my life. In one coffin, there was a corpse with a beard and glasses, wearing my dad's old suit. The face of the corpse was slathered in waxen makeup that barely hid the black bruises beneath, and did absolutely nothing to shadow the swelling on one side of the corpse’s head. This body resembled my dad only slightly.

In the other coffin lay the body of a woman I didn't recognize, so severe was the swelling from numerous facial injuries. The body had hands that looked like my mother's--one hand even sported her wedding ring--but otherwise, this body looked nothing like my mom.

My Big Brother stood next to me, eyes wide, lips pressed together, as though he were afraid to speak or utter any kind of sound.

"Doesn't even look like them," he finally said.

"It's not. It's not them. They're not here," I agreed.

"We can't let people see them like this," BB said. I nodded. We told the funeral director it would be a closed-casket viewing, and except for a few close family members--my parents' brother and sisters--no one else saw the two bodies in the coffins.

"You okay?" BB asked as we drove home. He looked as waxen as the corpse that resembled our dad.

"Fine," I said, staring out the window. "I'm fine."

That night, Her Lovely Self called.

"You okay?" she asked.

"Fine," I said. "I'm fine."

There was a long pause. "How did they look?" she finally asked.

"Just awful," I blurted. Then, for the first time since hearing the awful news almost a week ago, I started crying.



Thursday, we met the mourners.

The viewing started at 4 and for the next three hours, BB and I were overrun by an army of well-wishers. I was reminded obscenely of my wedding reception, when I got to see people from so many different chapters in my life mingling and interacting with one another, as though every character from every book you ever loved were mashed into one unlikely opus. Here were Chris and Mike, my best friends from childhood. Standing next to them were my dad's cousins, the whole clan of them, who I recognized on the spot even though I hadn't seen them in 30 years. Here was one of my editors, who flew in for the funeral, rubbing elbows with one of Her Lovely Self's best friends, someone who had met my parents only once, but who came to pay her respects to them.

There were groups as well as individuals. Dozens of my brother's coworkers arrived as one to comfort him. A contingent of local members of AA showed up, sober-faced but all looking like they could use a drink, men and women my dad had helped either as their sponsor or just by being at their regular meetings as he had for the past 20-plus years. Several of my mom's friends showed up, women that she had coffee with or spent hours on the phone with (an inexhaustible talker, my mom was). They just kept coming. Later, I counted more than 250 signatures in the guest book, and many of those were signatures on behalf of entire families who had come.

To give them something to view besides two closed caskets, we had hung several collages of photos, ranging from one of the few surviving pictures from my parents' wedding to a 70s era snap of my parents standing on a doorstep in Maine, my dad with a bushy red beard and a long swoop of thinning black hair; my mom next to him, slim and beautiful in a stylish topcoat, her flaming red hair in an almost festive perm. In another collage, my dad winked into the camera, a wonderful candid shot from our visit last summer. Next to it, a letter from the Brownie, saying goodbye to her Grandma and Papa, and hoping that they have a good time in heaven. It was hopelessly mawkish and yet it brought a tear to the eyes of every person who read it.

The priest from the local Catholic church was supposed to come and say a prayer, but due to a miscommunication, he didn't show. The mourners milled about, some kneeling before the closed coffins, others seemed to be looking at BB or me. They seemed to be expecting something. They seemed to want a prayer, a benediction, a speech, even a simple word or two to help make sense of this utter senselessness. But BB and I had no words for them.

As the last of the mourners left, I knelt in front of the coffins and said a muddled prayer that was directed both at God and at the spirits of my parents. Wherever you are, please be all right. I don't know why You let this happen, but please look after them. I'm sorry this happened, so sorry I lived so far away. You were better parents than you thought you were and you were hands-down the best grandparents the world has ever known. Please be at peace. Please give me some sign to let me know that you're all right. Please help me find the strength to get through this.

I was interrupted by Thomas, who knelt next to me, and the Brownie, who squirmed into my kneeling lap and put her head on my chest.

"Are Grandma and Papa really in there?" she whispered, staring at the coffins.

"No honey," I whispered back. "Only their bodies. Their spirits...they're up in heaven. And they're here with us too."

She thought about this for a moment. Then she said, "Good." She slid out of my lap to go find her mother and the Eclair, her new baby sister.



Friday, we buried my parents.

Cars were parked on the shoulder for the entire length of Cemetery Road, from the town meetinghouse, where we would eventually gather for the pot-luck wake, all the way up to the very top of the hill, right up to the gate that led down the slope that overlooked the foothills beyond the valley. It was cold and windy up here, but bright and sunny too. Perfectly defined, billowing clouds skidded along the tops of the swaying evergreens. Beyond these, a mile distant, I could spy a scrap of granite poking out from the hill beyond. That was Aaron's Ledge, a favorite hiking spot that my family and I walked to at least once every summer.

I helped Her Lovely Self out of the car and got the Eclair unhooked from her seat. She wasn't happy about the stiff breeze, no not one bit, and she squawked enough that my mother-in-law finally stayed in the car with her.

I sat with BB, Her Lovely Self, and the other two kids as a wall of more than 200 people crowded around us, blocking us from the wind. Father Byron stood in the center of the circle, facing us and the small patch of earth in front of us. There on the ground sat dozens of floral arrangements--several of which baffled the family and rest of the mourners, since they were all sent in the name of one person, a mysterious but thoughtful gent named Stu. In the center of it all sat a small marble box which contained the ashes of my parents.

Father Byron leaned in to my brother. BB is the older of the both of us, after all, so it was assumed he would be the leader in all things related to the family. "Did you want to say a few words?" he asked BB. My brother blanched, began fumbling with his glasses and nervously poking at his face. "Oh, uh, no, uh, I couldn't, I just couldn't..." And then he and the priest looked at me.

"Oh, I didn't really plan anything..." I began. And it was true. If ever I thought words would fail me, it would be now.

"I think he wants to say something," Her Lovely Self said to the priest, squeezing my arm as she did. And at that second, I realized she was right after all. The priest nodded, stepped back, and began the service.

When he nodded to me and I set the Brownie from my lap to my chair and I stood to face the assembled throng, my mind went completely blank. Actually, it still is. Later, in the town hall, where we all reconvened to break bread and to share a few drinks and tell a few stories, at least a dozen people came up and grasped my hand and told me how wonderful my speech was, how much it moved them, how much it helped them to accept this tragedy. And all I could do was thank them in a slightly embarrassed way. Because the truth is, I don't really remember what I said. Not everything, anyway. But here's my best guess:

"You know," I began, my voice high and reedy as I practically shouted to be heard above the wind, "I really didn't plan to say anything. But my mom, she never would have passed up any opportunity to talk--" this drew a fond chuckle from the audience, who knew exactly what I was talking about "--and I guess I am my mother's son, so here I am.

"Just down the hill from here, right over there, my grandfather is buried. When I was little, I remember my Dad taking BB and me over to pay our respects. And he said something to me that I found myself telling my children this week, something that they would want you all to remember."

I gestured with both hands at the ground, at the marble box at my feet.

"They're not here. We're not burying them today. They're with us, in the memories we carry, in the stories we'll tell, and in the love we had for them and for each other. And they wouldn't want you to remember them here, like this. They wouldn't want you to dwell on how they died, but on how they lived. They were doing exactly what they wanted to do. They were together. And they were happy.

"They would have wanted me to thank you all for coming, but they also would have wanted you to get in out of the cold, so with that I'll just add my thanks to theirs and I look forward to sharing our stories down at the town hall."

There was more, of course, but it was just as bad and cliched as the above, so it's probably just as well that I don't remember the rest of it. I went back to my seat, where the Brownie was waiting for me. She jumped in my lap and gave me a hug.

As the priest finished his prayers, the wind seemed to increase, becoming a withering force, blowing through the crowd of mourners. All around us, people staggered and stumbled. Thomas and Her Lovely Self leaned in on either side of me and the Brownie, arms around one another, hands clasped.

And in that moment, the wind ceased to matter. Sitting there, together as a family, saying goodbye to my parents, we knew that no force, in this world or any other, could truly separate us.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
Oh,MM... God bless you.
 
While it never goes away, I hope the ache has begun to yield ground to the living yet to be done. You're all in our hearts and prayers.
 
Theer's a reason for cliches. Yes, sometimes they're dumb and overdone.

But other times there's somethign and needs to be said, and the best way of saying it becomes a cliche just beacuse it needs to be used so much.

From the speech you describe you said a lot of what might be considered "the usual." But the feeling behind them, and the particular way you put them together, plus the fact that you were able to say anything at such a tough time-that's what made it so personal and special.

I wish you didn't fell so bad about living far from your parents. You've told us so much about how important your Big Magazine is to you, and how it's your dream of a lifetime to be there. I think anyone who supported you must have understood why you had to be in the geographical place you are. And of course that includes your parents.

I'd have posted here several times a day, but I doubt that would have been a good thing. KNow thatI, and many others, haven't stopped thinking of you.
 
I had a hard time reading this through all the tears. I've been checking faithfully several times a day and praying that you and your family were holding each other up and making it through. It is staggering to imagine how you must be feeling. You all continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.
 
It sounds like it was a beautiful service. You and your family have been a constant presence in my thoughts, I hope you're finding some peace in all of this as well.

My prayers will remain with you.
 
My thoughts and prayers continue to be with you and yours.
 
MM,
Nothing but prayers coming for you and yours. I cannot begin to imagine the pain, or frustration. But i can hope that the love of your family and support of your friends will help you through this.

I too live away from my family, and as i care for my aging FIL, i wonder who will do these things for my own parents. It is one of the side effects of our parents letting us grow wings and fly....sometimes we end up flying far away (but never far from their hearts)
 
You guys are incredible, and incredibly strong; I'm so glad you have each other, to help get through this time.
 
MM, that was the saddest and most beautiful thing I've ever read. I hope that you always remember what you said to your kids - it's so true.

About the wind... some Native American tribes believe that strong winds carry the spirits of those who've passed. No matter what you believe in, I'm sure they were there with you (just like they always will be).

May God bless you all.
 
They'll walk beside you from here on out. Proudly. Knowing they left behind such a legacy. It would've been an honor to know them.
 
I am so sorry.

I hope the memories of your parents lessens your heartache and the love of your wife and children help you through the days ahead.
 
Thank you for sharing this with us.

I know you don't know me, but, please know I'm thinking of and I am continuing to pray for you and your family.

My mother died a few months ago, the AA folks were wonderful.
 
Our hearts, thoughts and prayers were with you, MM. They're still with you right now, just as your parents are and always will be.
 
MM,

Beautiful words. As much as I've gone thru in the past 3 weeks with my mother's death, I can't fathom just how terrible this has to be for you to deal with. Prayers and warm thoughts to you and the Mag family.

-Hoff
 
How good of HLS to know what it sounds like you needed. It's good and right that you spoke at the service. I'm glad she and each of your children could be with you.
 
Thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece of your life with us. I am so sorry for your loss.

I keep trying to find something meaningful to say here, but I'll never get anything suitable. Peace be with you and yours.
 
I really do send my very best wishes to you and your loved ones during this process of grief and healing.
 
Posting that on your blog is one of the most generous things I have ever seen. God bless you.
 
The pain never goes completely away, but it will lessen. Thomas, Brownie, the Eclair and HLS will see to it. I'm so sorry for your loss, MM.
 
I wish you peace in mind and body- along with a few hours sleep. My love and prayers to you and your whole family MM.
 
Thank you, you wonderful wonderfully large hearted man. Thank you to your Parents for making you who you are.

Thank you for sharing this with us here who are also grieving for you and for your parents.

You have a wonderful family. I am so happy they are with you.

Been thinking about you. Thanks for thinking of us.
 
I just got introduced to your blog...and what a time to do so.

As an orphan who knows this pain, I want to send you hugs. I, a stranger, want to remind you to be gentle with yourselves over the coming months. Grief is such an odd thing. It takes over the body. Numb, yes, cry, yes, pain, yes...all of it.

Blessings to you!
 
MM, man, that was hard to read. So hard. It's been 6 years since my mom's funeral. 6 years since I got home to Illinois just one hour too late to say goodbye. 6 years since I had to go through some of the same rituals you just did. Back then, there was no blog for me. Back then I couldn't have written about it when the emotions were still so raw and fresh.

I admire your strength in being able to write about this so soon. Took me until February of last year to feel strong enough to do what you just did in sharing this part of your story.

Be well. To all of your family - be well.

With my most sincere good wishes,

Melissa Jordan
 
I don't even know you except what you post here, and right now I'm crying for your loss, and remembering that I need to tell my parents that I love them more. What a beautiful tribute to two people who will be missed terribly by what sounds like many people who loved them so.
 
Thank you. I understand how hard it must have been to write that. I haven't been able to, yet.
 
MM -

I have been thinking about you all and keeping you in my prayers.

That was a truly beautiful tribute to your parents.

Kathryh
 
Your pain has made your writing even more eloquent, which I would not have thought possible. Thank you for sharing this experience with those of us who have so enjoyed your life stories. Your speech was excellent and sounded like everything I experienced and said when my father died in 1998. May the love of your parents keep you and your family wrapped in comfort for all of your years.
 
Dear MM

Your words have touched me, and I think about you and your family every day. May God give you strength to get through this difficult time. Draw strength from your family and your new baby girl.
 
MM...I've been thinking of you and your family daily and will continue to think and pray about you all. I can't even begin to imagine what that was like. Much love coming from Boston...
 
You have all been in my thoughts and will stay there for a very long time. Bless you all.
 
I blogged through my mother's death. There's a drawback to capturing the raw emotion. Time heals eventually if you will let it. Reliving it over again by constantly reading it is self-inflicted pain.

When I touched my mother's cold unyielding arm, I knew that her body was an empty vessel. She's somewhere else. I've prayed in vain for SOME SIGN that she exists somewhere on some level. I've not received a sign, or I've been too blind to see it. I must believe though because I pray (talk) to her constantly.

So I just wanted to caution you. Let time do it's job. You will look back on them with affection and a sad longing that they are no longer there. You will hate mother's day and father's day commercials. The holidays will suck. But they live on through you and your children.

God Bless
 
MM... you're incredible. You and your family are still in my prayers. God bless you.
 
MM, thank you so much for sharing that very intimate moment with your readers. You and your family have been in my thoughts and continue to be. God bless you and yours.

Julie
 
MM,

When I was preparing to give a tribute to my uncle, who passed away before Christmas, I found this unattributed quote: “Death comes to all. But great achievements build a monument.”

I believe with everything, from all that I have read and all that I know about you, that you and your family, and BB, are your parents greatest achievement...and you are the monument they have left.

I know what it is like to look at that body that used to house the spirit of someone you loved, and to not recognize the features you see. It's something the mind can hardly reconcile. But boy, does it ever drive home the truth that the body is temporary, and that when someone dies, their spirit does go somewhere else.

The biggest psychic hug to you and yours...bless you all.
 
I hesitated to write anything here, since you don't know me.

But I've been reading your blog for a long time now, lurking. I love your writing and the imagery of your family you've given us.

My father recently died in a similar way, except he was the truck driver who for whatever reason, did not stop in time.

Unfortunately, we had not reconciled, and I was not invited to his funeral. I don’t even know where he is buried.

So I suppose I want to say, I’m very sorry for your loss. But I’m happy that they were able to leave you on good terms.

In the end, all that’s important is that they died loving you and knowing they were loved in return. I suppose that’s cliché to say, but I mean it.

Congratulations on your new baby.
 
My thoughts and prayers continue to be with you and your family. Thank you for posting that. Thank you for letting all of us into your family's life, even in tragedy. God be with all of you and hold your hands as you walk through this.
 
MM,
I read your blog every day, but rarely post.

My thoughts and prayers are with you during this time.
 
Re: funerals and weddings

Funerals are weddings in reverse. At my grandmother's funeral we even had the "line up and let the attendees greet you" event. It was really weird because I could only think like I was at a wedding.

Peace be with you.
 
Cliché or not, they are powerful words. They were able to comfort the Brownie, your close friends and family, your blog community, and I can only hope, yourself. That is something.

Laura
 
All my love to you and your family, MM.

I know how it is when something happens and all you can do is write about it. And it's not enough, but it's all you can do, and you have to do it.

What you didn't have to do was share it with us, and I thank you for doing so, for letting us know how you are, and for allowing us the privilege of understanding your pain so we can try and shoulder some of it for you.

We may not be able to do much. But we're here, and we love you.
 
I just happened upon your blog last week and I found myself thinking about you throughout the week. When I checked in today and read this entry, I shed more tears for you and your family. This entry was heartbreakingly beautiful, if such a word can be used in this situation.
My thoughts are with you and your family.
Rory
 
I wish you peace and strength. and memories of happier times.
 
Thank you for sharing this with your readers.

Monday, my friend of 20 years died. She'd been sick, but it was still a shock. Yesterday we receive a cancer diagnose for Gilly, our dog. MM, we feel about our dog, like you do yours; she is family and we will do everything we can for her. Surgery is scheduled for Monday.

Crying as I read your words, I couldn't separate which were for you and your family, which were for my friend and her family and which were for our baby girl, Gilly. Maybe the tears were for me. It all just hurts, ya know.

Clique away - some things in life are universal and loss is certainly one of them.
 
Well said.
 
Not much to say that hasn't been said - but just another note to say that you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.
 
I don't believe there is much else I can add since your lovely, intelligent readers before me have expressed similar sentiment.

I admit that even though we're strangers, I've been on pins and needles with worry since your last entry. Perhaps I analyze too much and sift through words to find latent meaning that doesn't always exist but when you had mentioned previously in closing about seeing your parents, I felt my insides knot.

It's the way I felt when I had to look on at this macabre doll of an infant laying in a coffin only 2 weeks after I held him and played with him. He wasn't my son but, we, the extended family, were his Moms and Dads since his own didn't really care. It was the hardest thing. To look down at his sweet face, realizing those warm brown eyes weren't going to open again and that this wasn't him at all anymore.

You're strong, MM. Even if it feels like the despair is too much, you will carry on their wonderful memory no matter what. It is a bittersweet burden, I admit.

Your speech, no matter how "cliche" you believe it to have been, was sincerely from your heart. And that's what is important.

I wish nothing but happiness and healing for your whole family, MM.
 
I'm sheepish about intruding on your life with a comment from a stranger, but I wanted to offer my condolences and tell you how sorry I feel for your loss. Please keep heart and safe yourself in the love of your family.
 
Thinking of you and BB today. This is my dad's first Mother's Day without his mom, too. I cannot imagine how painful it is for you.
 
I echo what everyone has said. I am so touched with your generous spirit in letting us share in your grief. Your family, BB included, has been beloved to many of us not just as characters in your tales but as the people that make you who you are. An amazing writer, Dad, comic accident prone genius.... all of it. I send my affection and best wishes to you and your family.
PS: I don't think that your words can be considered a cliche given the sincerity of your feeling.
 
Thinking of you today, MM. While my own mom is 7000km away and I'm missing her, I can't imagine what your day has been like.

Sending lots of prayers...
 
Just wanted to let you know I've been thinking about you and your family today for Mother's Day. I can only imagine how today must be for you all.

Thank you again for sharing all of this with us. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
 
I think it would do everyone well to read that post every morning before they step out the door.

We should all cherish every miniscule part of life because it can be gone in a second.

Thanks for sharing, I know it must have been difficult.

So sorry for your loss.
 
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