Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A catholic fate (small 'C')

This was originally an entry started on New Year's Eve/Day. It began with comments about how I could hear fireworks being set off early and other zeitgeist of the moment of yearly changeover. I ultimately spent too much time on that end of the entry and not enough on the more somber nature of the original intention. To reflect that, the entirety of what was originally written has been condensed into a single opening paragraph which contains no particular humor, unless you count the light situation-based meta-humor of summarizing unpublished fragments.

My friend's mother mother died the morning after Christmas. I don't know all of the details, but it seems that she died at some point in the night, without incident. It was seemingly a peaceful death, which I would certainly prefer. I must admit that it does seem odd to call anything a "good" death, but maybe it's just one of the assorted ways we humans deal with death. Describing any positive aspects of death seems inappropriate or at least out of touch, rather like admitting that the knife-wielding maniac was going to chop off an arm, but at least he took the left one (I'm right handed).

While I was watching a movie with family, another friend left a message about the death. After the film, when I listened to my messages back, I had to do something that everyone talks about when hearing bad news: I had to listen to it a second time. The first time, I was half-listening, waiting for key phrases like "hang out", "in town tomorrow", and "sexy stewardess, wants to meet you", while simultaneously fixing myself a plate of the various holiday foodstuffs that take up an entire counter during the seasons: buckeyes, coconut drops, holiday bell cookies, Enstrom's Toffee... Hang on, did he say "died in her sleep"?

The second time through confirmed my initial perception: found dead that morning [December 26th]. One more time to get the other details: wake Monday, funeral Tuesday. So much for seeing my friend and catching up over holiday break! Nobody's going to be in the mood to talk about jobs and family at the Houlihan's bar this year.

I got in touch with my friend's husband (also a good friend) the next day. We hammered out the details of where and when the remembrance services would be. My uncle and aunt were visiting, so they had some comments of their own. My aunt kept referring to the wake or visitation as "the calling", which is a term I'd never heard before. Every time she said it, I kept thinking it was an appropriate title for some sort of hour-long drama on CBS. Someone like Jennifer Love Hewitt works as a customer service person for the phone company help desk, and has to solve mysteries while wearing inappropriately revealing clothing. Also, there's ghosts. Or super-smart animals or something. Coming this Fall! "Pissed-off People. She can hear them now."

After a brief trip to Kohl's find some funeral-appropriate pants, I set out for the visitation. It was held at a funeral home in St. Louis that I probably know better than any other, though not from ever having been there. It's located right next door to the animal hospital we've been taking the family pets to for as long as I've been alive. Plus, it has a funny name: Bopp. For the longest time, I thought it was an onemotapaedic sound for hitting someone on the head with a slipper, but I guess it actually rhymes with "dope". It's a good pronunciation choice, really: one shouldn't associate a funeral home with the 1960's Batman series.

Bopp Chapel added on since I've lived in St. Louis and I couldn't get the word "necropolis" out of my head. It's not nearly large enough to be a "city of the dead", though. Just a rather large and unassuming one-floor cream-colored building. With some columms, because nothing says "funeral home" like some decorative columns. Stepping inside, everything feels large and spacious. The hallways are very wide and there is little furniture. It feels sceptic and utilitarian, but with touches towards the somber, like a great carpeted hospital.

There are greeters at the door to direct newcomers to the appropriate rooms. I say, "I'm looking for Mrs. So-and-so," and the stupid-meter in my head sounds an alarm and thinks it sounds like a line from an old western. Walking in the room (Parlor C?), it's like being at someone else's family reunion. The room is filled with people talking loud enough to keep over the din of other people talking. First glance shows no one I know, and my anxiety rises a little: will I have to make small talk with people I don't know about a person I didn't really know well?

Second glance uncovers Matt and his family. Matt and I went to high school with my friend and her husband. There are other high school acqauintences dotted throughout the room, I later notice. It gives the proceedings the feeling of a very stuffy reunion. People I haven't seen in years, dressed in their finest, making uncomfortable small talk. Matt and Amy brought their two children, who are very excited to see me. Finally, a face they recognize!

It's a relief for me, too. A way to escape the somber hand-holding and furrowed nodding of the rest of the room. It's life-affirming, too. These two kids are energized, making for a nice contrast of a few days of obsessive rumination over the death of parents.

Gradually, I become aware that there's a coffin at the end of the room. It's open. I snap my glance away, like someone who's been caught looking at someone else on the subway. I should probably be more mature about it, but it's just out of my experience to be in the same room with a body. I begin my struggle of whether or not I want view the body up close.

On one hand, I'm curious. It seems a slightly shameful thing to admit in a room filled with grief, but there is something morbidly fascinating about funerals. On the other hand, there's also something morbidly disquieting about being near the dead, for me at least. I'll struggle with the decision throughout my visit.

In lieu of deciding, I move towards my friend. She's been continuously surrounded by a continual throng since I arrived and probably has been all day. She's not someone I've seen in months, though we've kept in contact. She's cut her hair since last I saw her, into a style I don't think I remember seeing on her from our high school days. That's the last time I saw her with any freqency, so those memories of appearance tend to stick.

I've got plenty of time to examine her, because the "line" doesn't seem to be moving. She's dressed very nicely, which is to her credit considering I'm sure she didn't bring any clothes from out of town suitable for funerals. She's wearing a necklace of small Christmas lights shaped like Mickey Mouse heads. I'll find out later that it was a favorite necklace type of her mother's. She's picking absently at one of those ridiculous wax-paper cone cups one sees next to office water fountains. Don't they have glassware or something nice for the family?

We eventually talk. She's apologizing for not being able to spend much time talking to all of us "friends", what with there being so many other people to speak to. I'm trying very hard not to use any sort of funeral cliche. Do people want to hear cliches at funerals? Am I trying TOO hard to not say, "I'm really sorry about your mom"? Am I overthinking this?

She talks a little bit about having to choose the funeral outfit and pick out a coffin, and I just want to grab her and hug her because she's being so brave and admirable. But if I did that, I'd cry. Then she'd probably cry. And there isn't a "crying" vibe in the room at this point. So I stand there with my hands politely folded. And I just *think* really hard about hugging her. Which is enough to get a few tears out of me, even now as I write this.

I've got more things to say about this, but the entry is starting to feel long. So, we'll end with me crying, which is probably a good pivot point to several other thoughts about that week.

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