Friday, December 6, 2019

Nurse the Hate: A Winter Funeral

I was driving across the Poconos.  Central Pennsylvania is not a drive to be savored but endured.  Making the drive more exciting was a seasonal storm, rain turning to ice turning back to rain.  Enormous SUVs passed me confidently at 75 mph.  Twenty five minutes later I would see them smashed into the shale ridges carved during The New Deal, their useless four wheel drive failing them on the slick ice.  I trudged ahead leaving them and their blinking hazard lights in my rearview.

This was a familiar drive.  I had made it dozens of times in the band, but it was familiar even before the days of constant miles.  When I was a boy my family would make this drive to my father's hometown of Scarsdale NY during Christmas.  Time lasts longer as a child.  Sitting still for Sunday Mass was a trial.  The seven hour drive to New York was the equivalent of a flight to Sydney.  It was a lifetime in the rear bucket seat of a mid 70s Mustang fighting petty turf wars with my brother to pass the time.  "He's on my side of the car!"  I was not!  

I was driving to Scarsdale for the funeral of my Aunt Mary Carol.  Her husband Rollo would be at the wake, the last man standing of his generation. They were all gone.  I grew up with a routine for the holidays.  Christmas Eve at Jack and Rose's house in Tarrytown.  Christmas Day at Rollo and Mary Carol's in Scarsdale.  It was an annual get together I always enjoyed.  There is a grace and beauty to that area in the holiday season.  The topography is more interesting, the buildings richer in history.  It's the closest thing to traditional as we get in the United States.  I have always liked New York, falsely transplanting my family's roots in the city into my own identity.  My extended family got together so seldomly, all of my memories from family are from those holidays I spent in New York.  My mother died in the early 90s.  My father re-married later.  Then he died.  Rose died.  Jack soon afterward.  The links had been broken.  Christmas in New York became a memory, a fading color photograph.

I had taken on radical changes in my own life and the unexpected funeral shook my own unsteady foundation.  I veered into New York on the icy roads, hours behind schedule.  I was supposed to arrive hours before the wake, change in the hotel and arrive crisply later.  Instead I struggled to get there at all, crawling past jackknifed trucks.  Sleet, snow and slush combined to make a dangerous slop as I got closer to the old funeral home in the heart of Scarsdale.  The sleet turned into a driving rain.  I walked into the funeral home shaking it off.  I glanced into the viewing room.  I didn't recognize anyone.  I didn't recognize the body in the casket.  Shit.  I was at the wrong wake.  "Greg!"

My Cousin John saw me and offered a greeting.  His son wobbled past down the hallway with the joy of a toddler's newfound mobility.  I walked around the room offering condolences to my cousins.  I felt awkward, positive I should have said something else, but not sure what exactly.  I watched strangers say awkward things.  I waited to greet Rollo, my father's brother.  I looked at Mary Carol in the casket.  I couldn't recognize her.  Sometimes the mortician captures the person with their craft, offering a last glimpse of the deceased as they lived.  Sometimes the person's essence has completely left the body at death.  That was the case here.  I left and went to find my hotel in the rain.

The service was the next morning.  I found a diner near the hotel and settled into a booth.  I eavesdropped on two men talking in the booth behind me.  "So I call him in for the job, right?  And I hate, HATE this fucking guy, right?  And I go, hey!  This is no little thing!  This is big shit here!  Right?  So he's telling me, look Joey I can handle da job...  He tells me he can take care of it...  All I want is a little respect..."  It sounded like dialogue from The Sopranos.  It was two roofers talking shop.  Fucking New York.

The funeral was at a Catholic Church in the heart of Scarsdale.  The gray sky contrasted with the rich wood and warm candles inside the church.  It felt like walking into a John Updike novel.  I had not been to Mass in years.  It began and I automatically slipped into the ritual pounded into me as a child.      There were readings and prayers.  I stood and kneeled on cue.  Family members came to the altar to say a few words.  Rollo walked to the pulpit, a bit unsteady.  Rollo is 87 years old, his body betraying him.  He leaned against the wooden stand, tilting the microphone towards his soft voice.  The relative quiet of his voice made the words even more impactful as everyone focused to hear.

I remembered Rollo speaking at his brother's wake, a calm voice in an otherwise shocked room.  A man of great faith, he had every confidence his brother had moved to the Kingdom of Heaven and the only mourning was to be for us as we would miss him.  He was an anchor of certainty.  Years later, he was in the role again.  There he stood at the altar, his wife of 60 years gone.  By any measure, this was a truly difficult circumstance.  He was calm.  He seemed off-the-cuff yet prepared. 

He began by talking about Mary Carol, and her joy at performing simple acts of service for others.  These acts, largely ignored in life, were a defining trait.  He discussed Jesus, and his life of service to others.  He said something that impacted me then.  "So why am I standing here saying these things?  To canonize my wife?  No.  A lot of you might not know this.  We have four boys, but we also had a daughter first.  She died.  Eight months old.  I remember the service and they brought the casket for burial and Mary Carol cried and said, "it's so small... it's so small".  The priest came over to her, placed his hand on her shoulder and said "You are actually very lucky.  When you pray, you have someone that will hear your prayers in heaven."  Rollo then shifted his weight a bit.  "And I know now that I have one big girl that is finally with her little girl that will be listening to me."  He then straightened up and walked off the altar.  

The casket was taken out through the front door.  Wet snow began to fall in lazy flakes.  Christmas lights from the town glowed in the gloom of the overcast morning.  There was a fuzzy dreamy quality to it.  It was 1978.  It was 1993.  It was today.  It felt like I was burying my own past.  I climbed into the car for the long drive back to Ohio.     


At December 11, 2019 at 12:56:00 AM EST , Blogger old man taylor said...

Your uncle is amazing.
That speech really got to me.


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