Saturday, January 30, 2010

Funeral Post #2

I just went to another funeral. Retrospectively the naming scheme I came up with for my first post about funerals almost seems like I was taunting the gods of irony into doing something to make its format suddenly utilitarian. Those gods being what they are, I can't reverse engineer the process by writing a post titled, "Fabulous Wealth Descends on Me," because then someone would throw a wad of coins off the 40th floor of a building I was passing under, a stray penny whizzing through the air and pulverizing the skull of whomever I was walking with, and then we'd be on Funeral Post #3 and Physics Post #1.

Whenever I read other people's blogs, I'm struck by how bizarre it is that the authors assume any part of their audience has the slightest interest in their lives. Even if a regular audience cares, the casual passersby surely can't, and it's not as if the authors' experiences are unique in human existence. When I started writing this thing, I issued myself a silent warning of, "Don't make this about you; not even you care some of the time." However, I feel that people I like dropping dead warrants something like exemption: after all, funerals are occasions when atheists go back to church and family members treat each other with more than neglect or contempt. Surely the exception extends to blogs. Then again, I'm sure the people whose personal blogs I can't stand employed this same process of rationalization, so really I'm no better than they are, except for the fact that I'm not fat or writing about my cats, video games or collectible figurines.

The funeral this time was for a great-uncle, which sounds like not very much of an issue initially. I don't know many people particularly intimate with great-aunts or -uncles. Usually those elders are too busy with their own grandkids to worry about their siblings', and even if they like you a lot, they have to worry about playing favorites. Other times, they're already far too old or incapacitated by the time you figure out your relation to them. That or they're dead. Still other times, they're assholes. On the whole, losing great-aunts and -uncles usually isn't such a big deal.

In my case, the GU was closer to me than a granddad. One of my grandfathers was killed in a traffic accident nearly half a century ago, and the other one died of cancer when I was very little. I grew up in a granddad vacuum and just assumed that he was my grandpa; he seemed like one. He always treated me with the same warmth he gave his grandkids, so I was no different. Also, he was my family's pediatrician. These facts were cause for confusion. When I was perhaps six or so, he had to patiently explain to me how he was related to me and that, sorry to say, he was not my granddad. Later I thought it was remarkably nice of him to apologize.

Also, at about that age, some kids on the playground confused me very much by telling me how much they hated their doctors. This seemed perfectly absurd to me, because of course my doctor was a really nice guy and one of the people I saw each Christmas and the guy who helped teach me to play tennis. At some point, it became clear that I thought everyone must be related to their pediatricians, which earned me months of ridicule from my peers. Had we been older or had milkmen, someone could have really scandalized me by suggesting the milkman was my dad, but for the most part I just thought everyone else was stupid for having doctors who were strangers.

Although it was overwhelming and sad at points, I really can't complain about this funeral. My family was involved, and, like all things involving my family, it was more fun than somber or even serious. I'm not immune to having a few relatives who manage to make anything they do tiresome or needlessly prickly, but on the whole I think my family has prepared me to weather crises fairly sensibly and itself manages to sail through things with a minimum of drama and a surfeit of goodwill. Almost all gatherings with that side of the family feature variations on the same schedule:
Some family members invade another family member's kitchen in preparation for the day. Driving is involved, meaning that at least three (routinely more) people colluded over which cousin or brother it would be more opportune to harass and exploit first thing in the morning.
The brand of coffee will be mocked. If it's Starbuck's, it's over-roasted and too burnt. If it's Peet's, it's overrated and too rich. If it's Illy, it's too expensive and not rich enough. If it's anything other than those three, it will be thrown away in full view of the purchaser while someone else leaves to get better coffee. Those present will shake their heads at the ground in shame that the godforsaken bean was even bought in the first place.
If there is no bacon, the host's cheapness will be mocked. If it's any store brand, it will be carped about in favor of any other brand. If it has been purchased from a deli, the bacon purchases of anyone else present will be compared unfavorably with the deli bacon. Regardless, all of it will be eaten. The enthusiasm for it has little to do with the strange internet-fatass fascination with bacon — no one in my family is fat, actually — and I suspect has everything to do with bacon's being the most expensive staple item in the generic American breakfast. If everyone ate salmon for breakfast, my family would eat all of someone's salmon and deride whether it was farm-raised. The point really seems to be to get something good for free while highlighting someone else's cheapness and poaching on their food. It's merely teasing-via-breakfast, and it was about ten times funnier before compulsive and repulsive people on the internet inextricably linked another perfectly decent food with obesity, tackiness and an absence of control.
Everyone goes to play tennis or soccer.

Take everything I said about mocking the quality of coffee and apply it to every facet of everyone's game, whatever the game is.

Take everything I said about bacon and apply it to cold-cuts.

Most ridicule is temporarily reoriented toward whomever is playing whatever sport happens to be on TV.

Take everything I said about bacon and coffee and apply it to the entree and wine.

Same thing as the morning sport, except this time it's ping-pong and everyone's getting slightly drunk, so the abuse increases.
This is pretty much how I spent last weekend. We just interrupted it to listen to a handful of moving and funny speeches and to put a box of the ashes of someone in something that looked like a church safety deposit box.

I've had a few friends over the years suggest to me that this kind of mockery is inhumane or callous or evidence of an absence of empathy or capacity to feel, and frankly it's always struck me as a lot of cowardly horseshit. Swaddling oneself in sorrow and being affected offers just as much of a pose while deflecting just as much engagement with others. If anything, the appearance of great emotional discomfort gives one a free pass to ignore some things and refuse to interact with people; it grants a presumption of sincerity without any necessity to prove it while shielding the stricken party from any question of their motives. Say what you will about someone joking around, but at least they're more accountable. You can't bust on the hairline of a cousin and then, when challenged, press the back of your hand to your forehead and swoon out of the room. Well, you can: it just has to be funny.

In any event, two days before the funeral I walked into my cousin A's living room — having never set foot in his new house nor seen him for ten years — took one look at my cousin T wearing running shoes, tight thermal pants and a giant overcoat, said, "I'm guessing you're ready for the big race at sundown when you try to beat all the other drifters to the good benches," and followed it up with, "No, seriously, how many years have you been running the Tom Waits Invitational?" and the first thing both of them did was break into big smiles and give me a hug. I remember thinking, "This is gonna be all right."

For the most part, it was. We yelled at the AFC and NFC Championship games on the TV. Everyone played everyone else at ping-pong, with the requisite number of players turning into mid-game lawyers and trying to litigate the ball over the net and onto the table and prompting comments like, "Your honor, counselor is being a big goddamn baby." There was even a farcical and needlessly protracted visit to Costco complete with everyone trying to stick everyone else with the bill (and responsibility) for funeral reception supplies. Each item had to be debated vis-à-vis the attendees and its cost. Things went into carts, back onto the shelves and back into carts. All it needed was a wealthy dowager accidentally getting hit in the face with a rolled-up rug.

I realize it's ultimately futile to tell strangers about what's moving about a funeral or a wedding, since both are quintessential you-have-to-be-there events. If you're not there, neither can really hope to signify much to you, since your non-attendance already bespeaks your non-investment. Still, at the risk of further tedium, a few things seemed interesting enough to me to be worth mentioning:

My thinking it felt inappropriate to have chafing dishes of Indian food at a funeral for about 10 seconds until I asked myself what else a billion Indian people must eat before or after burying family or setting their corpse across a burning raft on the Ganges.

Then I spent a long time wondering what would constitute proper white-American funeral food until I hit on the very Presbyterian idea that ideally it should involve turkey finger sandwiches that are really really dry and potato salad that's got too much mayonnaise.

One cousin, seated for almost all of the reception, children arrayed about them in a phalanx as if to ward off the tiresome imposition of being spoken to by anyone outside their immediate unit, this mini-klatsch of insular allegiance — the children themselves exuding simultaneously a learned discomfort at the prospect of being free to move about and interact with others and yet also bristling at being deployed as an animate social blockade.

My initial genuine dismay that all the kids hopped on a trampoline until I thought about it and it seemed both hopeless and cruel to take aside anyone under ten and calmly explain mortality and loss to them; then my happiness that at least kids were bopping around on a trampoline; then my wondering if they could at least keep it down a bit; then my remembering again that they were kids and wondering what the fuck I was thinking.

Sincere and stupid pleasure that only three people there were taller than my 6'1" and thanking so many of my cousins for making me feel like I was walking through Lilliput.

Feeling tears spill onto my shirt and blinking through wet blurry eyes with genuine relief at how demonstrable and sad a cousin was, because at the moment I was digging a Book of Common prayer into the side of my leg to distract me and keep me from bursting into a wordless overwhelming sob.

My astonishment that a few people stayed in the city, less than an hour north, and didn't come down for anything.

My astonishment at how many people had flown out at the last minute to say goodbye. The cousin who took two days off from his residency at Hopkins to get on a nighttime flight. The doctoral candidate from Austin who wound up spending the night on the floor of the Denver airport. The cousin-by-marriage who spends probably 20 days per month treating army PTSD cases 3,000 miles from his family yet got in a car at four in the morning to make a breakfast on the day of the funeral. My astonishment that I didn't for a second question getting on a plane on my own despite having horrible panic attacks about flying.

My great uncle, the man of the hour. I have no hope of truly impressing on any stranger what a totally good and wonderful person he was. Almost everyone says that about the dead, but I would struggle to think of a single negative thing to say about him. This was a man who was on call every third weekend of his life for five decades and never wavered in his dedication to helping children despite the fact that rushing to their bedside to sometimes have to watch them die meant being taken away from his own. This was a man who buried a son who drowned and helped lift his wife out of crushing alcoholism after the accident. This was a man who opened his home to foreign students and treated them with such generosity that when one was reached on the phone just days before the funeral and years after last seeing him — indeed, after assuming my uncle was already dead — he wept that he could not attend. This was a man who left his practice and family for months to travel to Central and South America on the S.S. Hope so he could inoculate children living in the direst poverty — who got on a 15-year-old decrepit cargo plane piloted by a kid, crashed in the jungle and broke his scapulae and dislocated his shoulders and crawled out of the wreckage and away from the bodies of his fellow doctors and then the next year got back right back on the damned boat with the same intensity of conviction that what he was doing was necessary and right and that, in spite of what he'd already given, he had yet more to give.

He was a whole human being and a good and decent one in the fullest sense of the words, without a trace of irony or winking acknowledgment of some tolerated shortcoming that describes a mitigating contrast to descriptions as dauntingly sincere and moving as those. I can point to many little funny things about him but nothing that minimizes him. For instance, I can point to how he kept sneaking his cigarettes even years after his wife died, how one time 20 family members and I gathered to peer out of the side of a window — the youngest and shortest on the bottom, older and taller people glancing out the top, all of us arranged like several parallel totem poles of the heads of family members — all staring at him with giant grins while he stood with his back to us, cupping his Marlboro and sneaking glances over the fence and into the front yard, worried that at any moment some of the kids might spill out the front door and catch him, totally unaware that all of the kids were already looking at him. I can think of things like that and laugh at them, and all of us did, but none of us would have dreamt of telling him and risking hurting his feelings.

I can think of these things and enjoy them for the effect they give of humanizing someone who in other respects might seem heroically and intimidatingly good. I think of them because otherwise it's impossible not to think about how pitiable it is that he's dead and also how much he himself would encourage me to resist dwelling on something so sad when I could relish how lucky I am to have so many intelligent and kind family members still alive. The fact that that lesson springs so instantly to mind even amid a deserved and profound sense of loss speaks to how resonant his love of family was and is, and is itself probably the first thing he'd say to everyone were he still here. Thus I suppose it's easier to forgive that a man outsized in his energy and his gifts to others could have been made small for so many years by the degradation of his mind and body — that, for just a few seconds before his burst of pleasure in hearing about his grandkids or something interesting you were doing, a fleeting note of frustration crept into his voice horribly and irrevocably.

Instead I choose all the funny and permanent things my life and conversation are forever peppered with for having known him. Like the way I let out a throaty "Aaaaaaack!" when bending down, a mimicry of him that started out as a joke years ago — before I knew that he made that noise when bending over not out of any theatricality but because his fused vertebrae and reconstructed shoulders made the effort of reaching for anything on the ground extremely painful — and slowly evolved into the sincere noise I make when my wrecked knee screams in protest. Or the way I'll make "Hell!" into a two-syllable word on the tennis court, or cheekily declare something obviously in as "wide," the way he would, to unnerve his opponent. Or like the time he responded to being told that the heater in our car and house was out on a cold winter night with an, "Oh, you poor bastard!" so sudden that his swearing surprised even himself and thus sounded so sublimely funny that now everyone in the family says it all the time.

Thus I suppose too that in this way I make my little compromise with his death, cherishing these oddments as remainders and continuations of him, that existentialist's canard of grasping at immortality via memory. It doesn't work, and it won't work. But I'm certain it would disappoint him if I didn't at least make the effort. And I'm certain too that it would do him a disservice if I didn't stop to think how lucky I am that I have this much.