Thursday, January 7, 2010

Funeral Post #1

A friend of mine died the other day. She wasn't a very close friend — we started out as antagonists and only moved years later and, it turns out, too late toward unguarded fondness for each other — and naturally it's upsetting that she wasn't and now can't be. I'm not going to the funeral, although I suppose I could.

So far, if pressed, I've explained begging off with the truthful reply that I don't want to introduce myself to her mother and have her mother only remember me as the guy who got in something like an old-fashioned epistolary feud with her daughter where we each accused the other of being an addict and a criminal. But I'd also hate to go there and be confronted by lines of mourners of longer friendship and greater intimacy, and worry that my being sad was a luxury of affect I had not earned, some pose I was enjoying, some voyeuristic grab for the raw and genuine. Although I suppose if that were my motive, writing this is no less emotionally predatory.

Maybe I'm overthinking it. I've never especially understood funerals, beyond what I'd like mine to be: Pogues playing loud enough that people could have intimate conversations where they wouldn't have to worry about "he was a bit of a prick" being overheard, lots of ashtrays and no smoke detectors, Jameson dispensed not too far away from anyone's chair, a sensible abundance of handrails and bannisters for those who'd eventually need them to get around. I've never been able to picture myself lying in a coffin without thinking of at least one friend of mine rushing up to it, not to fling his body across mine in some cold final embrace, but rather to say, "Fuck, I just got here! Sorry, man. No—don't get up." In fact, most of the time my vision of it just descends into ludicrously inappropriate abuse:
"Raise your hand if you want to reopen the casket after the ashes-to-ashes dust-to-dust part and see if it's just filled with crushed Camel Lights butts."
"Be honest: how many people wanted to plan the funeral since they already had a ton of ideas on note-cards?"
"When they said he was being laid to rest, I just assumed it was college again and he'd passed out after giving a woman 22 seconds of intermittent displeasure."
"I don't know if I believe in Hell, but I know he's in it right now. He's stuck in a room with a bunch of people and he can't fucking say anything."
"Anyone who always wanted to kick dirt in his face, you've got a hell of an opportunity coming up."
"Fucker found one last excuse to wear a suit when nobody else wanted to."
"It's like his own personal wet dream: he's completely pickled; every one of his friends is miserable, and he stiffed someone with the bill."
"Speaking of stiffs, at least he finally has a decent excuse for that permanent stick-up-his-ass expression: it's probably the only thing keeping his anus from leaking fluid."
And so on. The scenario is no help at all, since it'd be objectionable in about 99% of circumstances that don't involve panelists, tuxedoes and a master of ceremonies who spends the lion's share of his time in Las Vegas.

I rarely went to funerals as a kid. No one in my mother's family died, and my father had a misplaced sense of how best to preserve me from suffering. Thus I visited my granddad multiple times as he died of cancer but was told after the fact that he was dead. This same strategy carried over to the family dog, who I was allowed to watch struggle to her feet with her painful and elderly hips, watch her waste away turning her nose up to food, even help bathe her after she soiled herself, but "spared" the ugliness by being told she'd been put to sleep during my short visit with out-of-town relatives. Somehow everything about the inexorable signs of decrepitude and misery, the stink and shame and resignation, were perfectly assimilable by a child's mind, but the actual catharsis of goodbye was too much to be borne.*


* — Sometimes I wonder what sort of person I'd be like if I hadn't realized this was stupid and wasn't told as much by practically everyone else. I picture myself feeling some Hemingway-esque dread at the inevitabilities of aging and diminished capacity, getting an AARP card and having it trigger an, "It's time" response. Then, as I'd learned, it would be my duty to disappear — so long, family — cash withdrawn, supplies bought, secreted off to some mountain cabin where I couldn't be tracked by phone or credit card records. Everyone does their dying business discreetly cloistered in a geographic corner like an animal afraid to soil where other people spend most of their time enjoying Not Death. Death shall have no dominion if he's just some force that only works out of town. Maybe Death can't even get a visa to come where you live, and you have to go meet him. "It's okay, kids," I could hear my son or daughter say, "Grandpa went to the East to meet Death in a magic duel, but it turns out Grandpa just wasn't strong enough of a wizard to defeat him. Only one fella was, and his name was Jesus Christ. What? Oh, no. You can't be a wizard until you're very old and the government lets you register for Wizardcare, so you're fine."


The first major funeral I went to didn't do much to further any ability to feel familiar with them. It was for a great-aunt, on my dad's side of the family. Unfortunately by then he and I were so estranged that I flew into town, stayed with some friends, borrowed a car from some others, dropped in on the reception late and left early. It seemed less likely that an abusively tacky family dispute would break out if I only paid my respects and talked to uncles and aunts and cousins when there was an actual priest walking around. Retrospectively, maybe I should have tried to ignore it and stay longer, but I'm not sure what I could have noticed of my family by looking over my shoulder, if there would have been any comfort I could see needed to be given. I flew back across the country after maybe 48 hours total, without feeling much of anything except shame that I wasn't feeling enough.

My next real funeral was my friend's dad's. I'd heard about the man for a decade and met him exactly once, at my friend's wedding, at which I was the best man. Our encounter could never have meant too much. I spent some of my free time mentally rehearsing my speech, and the man himself was dwarfed by the anecdotal monument he represented in the lives of anyone who'd befriended his son. If anything, his death seemed muted because a man of such bizarrely heroic stature should have died dozens of times over already. Nobody ever objects at the end of an epic when the hero who's caught every lucky break is swiftly felled after just seizing the goal. So too did it make sense that a man of such great appetite and unconcerned health and home economy died with more plaque in him than Arlington National Cemetery.

At the wedding, he and I stood on a deck outside the building holding the wedding reception, waiting for the bride and groom to finish taking photos off on their own, staring out into the twilight. I felt confused that he wasn't a character at the moment, neither the outsized person of his son's stories, nor the dad I would have liked to have imagined at my wedding, nor the archetypal dad of a Hollywood wedding. He smiled a lot but wasn't weepy or garrulous. He said he was glad to be there, enough so it was unmistakable he was proud of his son, but without any portentousness brought by illness or authoritative dadhood.

At his funeral, I remember thinking of our rattling ice in our glasses at the wedding and doing those ahem-we're-just-meeting things that people who have to meet each other do, wishing he'd hinted at something, made some sidelong disclosure that made my bearing witness to his life make more sense — maybe that he knew he wouldn't be able to see more celebrations in the future, that he was glad his son had friends and a wife who'd look after him. Instead I stood for what seemed like hours during the Russian Orthodox ceremony, listening to the beautiful falsetto of the cantor, feeling impotent for never having gained much to have lost, mind wandering to how a nation of people whose liturgy sounded to the untrained ear so much like a Hebrew service could have heard those same high pretty songs and then run Jews down in the streets under their carriage wheels, driving them through Odessa to the Black Sea to drown. Later, sitting in a parking lot, I remember sending an update to Twitter, faux-bitching about how the church didn't have wireless. I think that was the first time I did that.

This current funeral is being held in mid-afternoon at a professional funeral home with many franchise locations within the county, suggesting it's less a funeral than a "viewing." This is when the family has an earlier religious ceremony or personal gathering, then invites others to pay their respects on a neutral site that can be managed by the hovering ghouls who run funeral homes. The burial itself is a separate process held later that either accidentally or, by dint of invitation restrictions, winnows the crowd again; that, or there is no burial at all, as the viewing precedes a cremation.

The procedure and location are so familiar and brutal and painted-up pretty. The enlarged pre-fab facade look of the funeral home, regardless of the size of the edifice — the manicured lawn of lot-appropriate size, the main driveway and the discreet admissions driveway. The indoor/outdoor utility carpet and sconces for flowers as well as the indirect lamplight, the corridors sweeping visitors along toward viewing rooms spilling with chairs but conspicuously bereft of tables, as an extra one would make them wonder if an extra body would be wheeled in later. The chairs arranged diagonally to let the family — The Bereaved — examine those emerging from the corridor and behold The Dead at the same time, wondering if this person will walk straight to the coffin as if to have face-time with the only person they recognize, or if they will walk to the family, assuming they even know the family. The whole thing redolent of another business convention held at a Radisson that's seen better days: white tablecloths trying to disguise the same pressboard tables that professional wrestlers throw other professional wrestlers through; metal pitchers of water sitting on metal crosspieces set in metal trays that catch the condensation; wallpaper patterns of flowers nobody can remember actually seeing on this earth; the chairs that seem light enough to move with a nudge of the foot but stubbornly cling to astroturfed carpet with enough tenacity to send at least one person pitching over embarrassingly; acoustical tile ceilings nobody wants to examine too closely lest they accidentally discover the impact crater of a pencil tip; the ghoulish minder obtrusively-unobtrusively bankshotting his nose around the slightly open double door, acting like the gatekeeper cordoning everyone inside and away from the Prom for the Damned; and of course the thing very much like the person you knew, cushioned and dressed like the sample meal of conference rubberized chicken you're supposed to file by while riffling and drawing out a paper plate in eager anticipation of the keynote speech and dinner.

That's at least what it looked like on the internet, seeing the shabby online announcement the home posted and the street view. That was enough.

I've no doubt this is cowardly of me. I've no doubt there's a great deal of cowardice in refusing to learn this lesson for another few months. My dog — my best friend for a decade, the only other "person" I can claim I've spent almost every day with during that time — has terminal cancer. My grandmother, nearly a nonagenarian, worsens more rapidly by the month. It would be more alarming had I not just spent a Christmas visiting my wife's grandmothers, one so deaf and senile that she no longer has any compunction about openly hitting on me, and the other one so blind that she might do so out of confusion. This has been a holiday season steeped in the certitude of death, if for nothing more than I had to send apologies to family that we could not afford to give them nicer presents — omitting, in the explanation, that the spare money went to aspirating, biopsying and otherwise treating the dog now wheezing fainter and fainter breath beneath a massive lung malignancy. Taking a drive to another funeral, even a short drive, seems like seeking out extra death when it's already so ripe and imminent.

Still, I can't help but feel an insufficient friend, even if the girl — woman, I guess — and I weren't anything like great friends. We spent so much adversarial time it would be easier to couch everything in that. I liked tweaking her. She enjoyed annoying me. She berated me. She foisted her copy of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs on me while calling me a "fucking idiot" for not owning it (an album which, in one of those tiny conspiracies of observation or coincidence, has been my computer's favorite album to return to on random for the last two nights). She was a classics major, and I asked her how to say "You are a fucking retard" in Latin and if she had a Latinized version of her name.

Then we both grew up around the same time. Step away from college and the intensely petty atmosphere engendered by familiarity recedes. The Rest of the World rushes in, making you wonder why you spent so long nurturing the tiny distinctions that kept you away from others sharing identical experiences. A year out of taking classes, we got along far better than before; I remember we met at an alumni-related party. We'd actually both expected to spend the afternoon/night chatting with other people we'd planned to hook up with; instead we kept yammering at each other. Mostly the same sorts of arguments as ever, but fun this time, pleasure instead of inconvenience. Then at one of those drunken junctures in the evening, we each disappeared around a corner and didn't know how to find the other again. She'd written down her home number in the new town she was in, but I guess it fell out of my pocket when I was doing something very drunk. Twice, when stuck in a traffic jam on the interstate outside her new home town, I called information looking for her number, but I didn't get anything helpful.

Last year she wound up stuck back at her parents for a while and was bored enough to not mind what might happen if she bugged me. Facebook chat is terrible, but I sat happily through it's "pock!" alert sounds and chatted with her for a couple hours. Eventually I begged to be let go from the computer, so she called my cell phone, letting me fuss around the house and do chores to not feel so restless. Together, four hours slipped past effortlessly. Eventually I had to go, and we chatted again on Facebook, each time planning for an afternoon where we'd have plenty of time for arguing about absolutely anything. Pretty soon she went back to South America, where she'd recently been living, where her life was busy enough not to want to talk to too many school weirdos, and in any case there was always the international cost. I guess she'd been back in the States for a bit before she died.

When she was in college she partied in a superhuman college way, something I can hardly sneer at since I did the same thing. She'd knocked that off for a long time before we last spoke, but what had recently captivated her were sincere studies about a conversion to Judaism. She spoke with the happiness of the convert but with the openness, humor and almost triumphal pleasure in wrestling with doubt that you get from the lapsed atheist and cynic. I've not been a stranger to converts, but she was neither needy nor officious. Neither my validation of, nor my participation in, her personal changes was needed. She just seemed happy to hear that I was happy to listen. And it's that last thing that shone through indelibly: that in every other respect, sharing a conversation with me was important and a treat, but irrespective of what I might say, she would walk away happy and assured in the person she was, more completely than at any time I'd known her. She died from a prescription drug complication, in what only seems to me to be an excess of ironic cruelty.

I would like to find a homily, here, but I can't. Instead, I'll turn this over to my friend whose father died, who also knew this friend, newly dead. I've embroidered this only slightly. He won't make the funeral, either:
I’d try to say something comfortable but there is no comfort here. The generic bag of things we say at funerals comes from the assumption that only the old die. Most people are not old. From the vantage point of the relatively healthy, losing someone who is less so makes the group appear more healthy. Then the luckily vital can cheekily say things like, “He’s gone to a better place,” or, “At least he’s at peace.” It’s easy to say things like that because we really are in a better place without them, and an ailing and cantankerous Dad isn’t around to argue about how things should be. And then—then!—the dark nabs someone in their prime, and the self-serving illusion falls to bits. The platitudes aren’t right anymore. “In a better place”—really?—she seemed pretty happy to me, and I don’t see this “better place.” The group is weaker. All of a sudden there’s nothing to say, or think, or do. Things were better. Now they are worse. The death that takes the young wears an undisguised face, one nearly impossible to say nice things about.