Thursday, July 11, 2013

Scenes From a Funeral


Fourth of July, six a.m., my cell phone rang. I couldn't get awake enough to answer before it stopped, but I saw who the call was from–my niece back in Louisiana–so I knew what it meant. The question was, which of my parents was it about?

I called back, got my brother-in-law:

Daddy had passed.

I knew the call was coming eventually, but it was still unexpected. He had late-stage Alzheimer's; his COPD was apt to be ultimately fatal, but neither of those are sudden, you usually see them coming, you have time to prepare. 

What happened? Daddy fell, cracked his hip. In the hospital and stable, they discovered he had a kidney infection, so they were working on that before surgery to fix the hip. Figured he would be good to go by Monday.

He seemed relatively fine. My sister and the family were on vacation at the Gulf coast, save for my brother-in-law, who was going to stay at the hospital. Go join your family, they told him, he's doing okay, come back Monday. They hadn't put out the word, were waiting for the surgery to be scheduled before they called distant family.

So my brother-in-law left. A couple hours later, the nurses gave Daddy his meds, his vitals were fine; thirty minutes past that, they checked and he was not breathing. 

Still warm by the time my mother and the live-in caregiver got to the hospital, but moved on.

Cause of death? Could have been a stroke, heart-attack, pulmonary embolus, those are the fast ones. His breathing was shallow and morphine slows the rate, maybe he just decided to go and quit breathing. At this point, it doesn't really matter. Post-surgery, in a wheelchair, unable to do rehab, mental state bad and growing worse by the day? It was unexpected, a jolt, but a blessing.

If you have been around a patient with advanced Alzheimer's, you understand why it is a blessing.

Sudden death throws a family into turmoil and overdrive. Planes to catch, services to arrange. I called my sister, but it went straight to the message box. There was a reason for that, I'll get back to it in a minute. So I called her husband, got updates. Sent notes to the west coast relatives. Got a call from my son, who wanted to go. 

Not the best time to pass away, a major holiday. Lot of people are off work. We got flights, packed, left early the next morning.

A nephew picked us up. We arrived to a house full of family, with neighbors bringing food, because that's what you do. Used to be casseroles, now it seems to be platters; and pound cakes, of course. Enough to feed a small army.

We couldn't locate my brother. He was supposedly living in Alabama. None of the phone numbers we had were good. My brother-in-law put in a call to the local police in my brother's town, they went to deliver the message, but apparently he didn't live there any more. 

My sister had a number for my brother's wife in her cell phone, but she had just lost the phone. Well, actually, she had been mowing my mother's lawn and her phone had fallen onto the ground and she ran over with with the riding lawnmower. And when I say that, I don't mean she rolled one of those fat little tires over it and cracked the case, she hit it with the blade and spewed a sleet of bits every which way. Sim card was recovered, but the numbers weren't stored on it.

This created some distress, not being able to find my brother. And some resentment: Your parents are in their late-eighties, not in the best of health, wouldn't you consider leaving a forwarding address or a number where you could be reached, just in case?

We went early to the memorial center. Family only, then the public viewing of the open casket. A good turnout, family, friends, old and young. 

I noticed that the memorial center had its own branded water bottles. 

Funeral home water, imagine.

My sister and her daughter and the great-grandchildren were the closest to Daddy, and they took it the hardest. Mama, still mostly in her wheelchair after her stroke, had a complicated relationship with Daddy, and I won't dwell on it; but when I pushed her to the casket and she stood, she said, "Oh, they combed his hair wrong." and she reached down to finger-comb it into place.

That undid me. 

My niece wrote the obituary, she found old photos and framed them, there was a slide show on a big monitor, lot of pictures from my son's archives he'd scanned in.

My middle sister, with whom there has been more than a little family discord, came to the funeral, but that wasn't a healing experience for anybody.

The Baptist minister at my mother's church, a pleasant man, conducted the service. He didn't really know Daddy all that well, but he did his best. Although he used a metaphor about stains that had my son and me wondering what he could have possibly been thinking.

My pre-teen grand-niece got up and read a letter she had written to Paw-Paw. She had to stand on a chair to top the podium. Those of us who could hear her, there wasn't a dry eye when she was done. I got up to speak. My relationship with my father was complex and often contentious, but I told one funny story to illustrate how hard-headed he was, and allowed that I was just as hard-headed. Not to place to air grievances, speaking at a funeral, and that was all done now, wasn't it?

Looking at somebody in the box puts things into perspective.

The pallbearers were grandsons and sons-in-law. There were a couple of Navy ratings who stood at attention at the family plot and folded the draped flag to give to my mother. It was hot, damp, and the threatening thundershowers held off.

We went home, we visited, told stories. One thing you need to understand if you aren't from the south is that almost everybody there can tell a good story.

People dropped round. More stories. Some about folks I knew, some about people who knew people I knew, or were distantly related. Some went on about how so-and-so, who was kin to so-and-so had died. 

My son and I stayed over for a few days. Went and visited my other in-laws, my wife's side. Had long conversations with Mama, and waited for the thunderstorms to come and wash away the heat. It did rain a little a few times, not enough to cool things down. The big boomers slipped by to the east and west and echoed but distantly. I would have preferred the lightning and thunder and pouring rain. The drama would have been appropriate.

And so home again. 

Whatever your relationship with your parents, once they die, that stops any further conversations. My father was well past any meaningful dialog, he hadn't known who I was for at least a couple of years, so I'd said my good-byes, knowing this would be the way of things. As a reminder of mortality, you know that once your parents go, you are next in line. 

My wife has a view I'll share. If you are at odds with somebody, imagine looking down on them in their casket. Consider how that might inform your actions.

How I got to be who I am was affected by many things, and certainly my father was a major figure in that, for good and bad. 

Bye, Daddy. Rest in peace. 


Jim said...

My condolences. Even with preparation and expectation, it's still a loss.

Anonymous said...

My condolences.

On the technical side, if you called the phone's service provider (or possibly logged onto their web site), you could get a list of numbers you'd called in the last X months/years, and possibly find the one you're looking for by excluding the ones you know ...

Brad said...

My condolences Steve, no matter how the relationship was, he's still your Dad and in the end, that always means something.

Sharon said...

Good Steve.... really good. I so enjoyed our visit with you. Just wish we'd had time to take you and Dal over to Darren's BBQ restaurant and see you chow down on some really great BBQ. And have you fill in a lot of blanks for me. Maybe one day. I love you and your family...take care my friend.

MDVillarreal said...

Sorry for your loss, Steve. :(

Steve Perry said...

Turned out my brother wasn't off the map, my mother had an old address and phone number, hadn't updated it when he moved. She hasn't been quite the same since her stroke a couple years back.

And so it goes ...