Of all the things we do in life, nothing makes me less comfortable than attending funerals. For a Catholic who has been promised an afterlife of epic proportions, I always have trouble squaring my distaste for death with my faith. For days leading up to one, I’m a cranky mess. For at least a week or two after one, I’m discombobulated beyond comprehension. Even my muse, writing, leaves me and I’m unable to put together coherent thoughts or artful prose. It’s like my head becomes the “Spinning Wheel of Death” and I’m just tasting the rainbow.
Last week, we were wobbling between life and death with my wife’s grandfather. He was nearing 90, had been on rocky ground for some time and suddenly took a turn for the worse. He apparently had fallen, not told anyone and his body had not reacted kindly to his silence: Two broken ribs, bruising and a raging infection that was shutting him down for good.
Friday, we got the call. He was gone. Funeral slated for Wednesday.
The next four days led to a blur of driving, planning, emailing, calling and more to get my in-laws down from the Northwoods, my wife off of work, my kid cared for after school, the dog sheltered and everything else we could pull together. In explaining what I was doing (including driving about 12 hours in a single day so that everyone could be where they needed to be), the only explanation I could muster was this: “It’s what we do.”
Or as Yogi Berra used to say, “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t come to yours.”
We had a funeral, a mass and a lunch. We interred him at a veterans cemetery, a final benefit for his service in World War II and we all went our separate ways. For reasons I can’t fully explain, none of it felt normal to me. None of it felt right. It still doesn’t and I still don’t.
It’s hard to explain how and why I’m screwed up. I know I need to do work. I need to write. I need to fix things around the house. I have time and work and a purpose and yet all I want is to lie in bed and wait for something to come along and fix me.
I don’t know why.
It’s not the person, as we weren’t close at all. We rarely saw that side of the family and the members of that family aren’t particularly close either.
It’s not the emotion. No one really seemed to be impacted by the funeral, including the man’s children. My wife was sad, but I’ve seen her much, much worse and I’ve been able to pull her (and me) out of it much more quickly than this.
It’s not some issue of fairness. The man lived a long and fruitful life, survived World War II, worked a cop in Chicago and patrolled Cabrini Green when it was CABRINI GREEN. He retired and lived out his days watching his programs on TV. He wasn’t cheated, I’d say. If he was, he didn’t make a fuss about it.
At that small gathering of people on Wednesday, one of his sons noted that he didn’t expect a lot of people at his father’s wake. The man had outlived all of his contemporaries and this would basically be the family who could find the time to show up. That led me to believe the man spent a lot of time doing what I was doing: Attending funerals and pondering mortality.
It is, after all, what we do.
Someone explained to me once that funerals are more for the living than the dead. To be fair, it’s unclear exactly how someone would know that, given the dead have never spoken on the issue. Even more, it’s tough to understand why we do this to ourselves, given that at least in my case, I’ve always felt like I’ve left the events worse for wear and more or less with a set of scrambled innards and a broken brain.
Still, when the 21-gun salute rang out and the tears fell from my wife’s eyes, I was able to hold her hand and give her a thinning smile.
It was what I could do.