There’s a New Star in the Night Sky

The large crowd filled the funeral home, spilling into the overflow room which was opened to the right of the casket as many friends and family and friends of family and family of friends showed up to pay their final respects to the man who – was – my grandfather. At 8:30am the casket was open for those who wished to see my grandfather one last time, which was customary due to his Catholic upbringing. In fact, despite his wife and many members of our family being Jewish, the funeral itself was a Christian service led by a Priest.

This morning after a relatively good night’s rest following a bittersweet couple of hours attempting to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite a short speech for the funeral to represent his grandchildren, I rolled out of bed and threw on the black dress I ran to the store to pick up yesterday so I wouldn’t wear a brightly colored outfit, which seemed to be the only options I brought with me on this trip. While I considered walking up to the casket — which was later covered in an American flag to honor his Navy service as a teenager — being as this was the first funeral I attended ever and I also had the opportunity to see my grandfather alive yet in a state of near-death – I didn’t want my last memory of him to be a lifeless body. Later my father said I should have gone up, but I stand by my decision. Dad said he looked at peace. I know they buried him in a full Yankees getup, just as he would have liked.

It was so surreal to see my large family there – well, almost all of us – so somber yet glad to see each other on this unfortunate occasion. I sat in a corner for a few minutes cleaning up my speech some more and then worried I wouldn’t be able to make out my chicken scratch. I mostly just felt more comfortable staring at a piece of paper than interacting with the living. I’m much more in touch with my emotions than my sister (the daughters of a mother with no empathy, we’ve each turned out a bit emotionally disabled, and don’t know how to handle such situations) and as such I felt like a child when third cousins twice removed that hadn’t seen me since I was six or so hugged me as if we were the closest of family and said that they were sorry for my loss. I hugged them back and said thank you, of course, but after a few minutes of that I realized standing right by the entryway waiting for the service to spot was putting myself in the line of fire, so I moved further back and started to edit.

At the service a few family members brought framed pictures of my grandfather throughout his life and put them on the front table. Being as I’ve never been to a funeral before I didn’t realize this was customary. I managed to make out a few hellos to people who I knew and those who maybe I knew once a long time ago before the service started. I was glad when it did. My cousins – the ten of us who were able to attend the service – sat together in the front row of the overflow area where we had a good few of not only the casket, which held my deceased grandfather but also the majority of attendees. My grandmother attempted to hold herself together but it was clear that composure wouldn’t last for long. She sat between her youngest son and her oldest son (my father) who comforted her as much they could while trying to also comfort themselves.

When sitting there waiting for the service to start, the emotions hit me like a brick. I had been crying on and off for the past few days, angry at myself for not being sad enough, or being sad for the wrong reasons. In these moments it’s human to feel completely at a loss. Yet I live in a household where my mother – never malicious yet always juvenile and self absorbed – doesn’t know how to care about other people. She just doesn’t have it in her. My father, for all his faults, at least has feelings and understands some level of basic human decency in such situations. I just hoped – maybe even prayed – to god that she wouldn’t do anything too irksome to set my father off today.

As tears started to paint my cheeks, I thought back to something an old high school friend had said to me this week. My good friend from high school happened to be visiting the area and we picked up another more distant friend to go to yet another friend’s house to say hello. It was all quite surreal. The friend who we picked up, I’ll call him Mike, was always a bit out there in his personality, and I didn’t get to know him well in the past. Mike is this blonde hippie type with an Eastern European accent and a thousand pounds of passion in his heart.

What I didn’t know was that Mike had made a career as a massage therapist. He didn’t go into this profession just because he needed the money, he went into it because he loves to help and heal people through touch. He loves it so much that the other night he gave me and my friend both these amazing massages as we sat in the kitchen of our other old friend’s apartment and looked through a mid century issue of Life magazine. And they weren’t just any old massage – he had this sort of magical way of using his hands to find points of pain and knead away the stress.  I think he said it was Jin Shin Do massage, an ancient Chinese form of healing, but it clearly came out of him in such a love for healing, his hands soft yet firm at the same time, and while I felt uncomfortable accepting such touch from a friend I had not seen in years and had never been close to, I felt so content to have connected through this kind of touch.

“Mike” brought up that touch is what drives him and is how he expresses his care for other people, noting that there are five or so different types of things that can drive you as a person, and then posed the question what drove me the most. It was an interesting question to ponder given that I’ve never been a touchy-feely type, yet even just sharing a moment of non-sexual touch in the form of a back massage reminded me that I am actually a very touchy-feely person. I grew up in a household that never expressed through touch with the exception of the burning snap of my father’s belt finding its way onto my flesh again and again. Past the age I was certifiably cute I don’t recall hugs or kisses or any sort of warmth physically.

And today as I sat watching my grandfather’s funeral, I felt my arms cross my chest, hugging myself, my hand on my knee, subconsciously squeezing it, longing to understand how to connect through touch. As my grandmother sitting there collapsed into tears, I wanted nothing more to reach out and comfort her, to hug her, to put my hands gently on her shoulders, or to give my dad, also caught up in his own tears, a hug that meant what other loving family’s hugs means. Instead, I hugged myself tighter and hoped no one would notice.

The priest began his sermon (is that what they call it at a funeral?) and discussed how my grandfather, while not being a very religious man all his life, had come back to the church in his final years. He read sections from both the old and new testament, and gave quite a moving infomercial about not waiting until the end of life to return to God despite that God is going to accept us even if we do end up waiting. As a marketer, I found his pitch needed some work.

After the priest finished his section, the grandchildren were called up to say a few words. I was told we were going to go after the direct children of grandpa, so I wasn’t quite ready to speak. I had just recovered from a fit of my own tears sparked my one of my grandmother’s, and I was worried I wouldn’t get through my short speech. Thanks to the review by quite a number of family members I changed my original talk entirely, shifting the focus to say the same thing but from another perspective. It actually worked out perfectly. My speech was an overview of what it means to be in our family and how this is largely due to my grandfather’s strong will, belief in standing up for what’s right and perseverance in the most difficult of times. I noted how he taught us that being in this family meant simultaneously ruling with an iron fist and a heart of gold. I think my father liked that bit. While I removed a few jokes that were maybe better suited for a roast then a funeral, I kept a good one in about how he taught us that family always came first. Well, maybe the Yankee game came first. Family a very close second.

That one got a laugh. Because it was true.

When I concluded my speech three of my cousins read their own. My youngest cousin on that side, now a senior in high school, read an essay she had just written about grandpa for her college applications. She talked about how grandpa was the Cribbage king – and while she always wanted to one day beat him she never could. Her brother then read a moving speech about how in the last few years he got to know grandpa quite well, living so close and being there to help out when help was needed. He shared how he got grandpa’s Indian chief necklace charm tattooed on his back. It was a great speech. Then another cousin got up without a prepared speech and shared a short story of a memory he had with grandpa – which was really representative of my memories the older cousins had with him – like getting yelled at for doing something like changing the channel during a Yankee game. I surely had my fair share of run ins with grandpa and learned to not get in his way.

It actually worked out nicely that the cousins gave their speeches first. Of my grandparent’s six children, three of them decided to talk — first the youngest brother, then one in the middle, and finally, my father. The first brother got up and struggled through his speech, with his wife standing firmly at his side to help him through it by holding his hand. He talked about how his father had three rules — do not disobey him, do not wake him up, and do not disobey his mother. He went through each of his siblings and a time they had gotten in trouble. While he didn’t go into much detail of the discipline, it has been said my grandfather was known to throw his kids through walls. Everyone knew he had quite the temper. When he went through the list and got to my father he said he couldn’t remember a time when he got in trouble, he must have been the perfect kid (later my father noted that he did get in trouble for things like being lazy and not cleaning up – sounds familiar – but not for anything too crazy like some of the things his brothers did. My dad was the quiet nerd, so it was the next born, a firecracker, who started all the trouble.)

But in this speech my dad’s youngest brother also shared something very significant about the character of my grandfather. One day he and his friend were walking around a movie theatre – think it was a drive in – not causing any trouble, but just being where they weren’t supposed to be. They got caught and the cops or security guard called up his parents and his friend’s parents. When his friend’s dad showed up the dad gave his friend a smack across the face. My uncle thought to himself oh no, I’m in so much trouble now. But when his grandfather showed up instead of beating the living daylights out of him, he instead asked the man who called him what his son had done wrong. When he found out that his son hadn’t disturbed anyone and instead was just walking around this place, his father told off the cop and said it was ridiculous that he had gotten in trouble in the first place. He definitely had a strong sense of right and wrong, albeit a black and white one, but if he didn’t think you were wrong he’d stand behind you and fight for you as hard as anyone would.

Next another brother gave a very moving speech with his wife clutching his arm, standing strongly by his side. His speech was generally about his time apprenticing with his father. My grandfather, I was reminded, had served in the Navy from age 16 to 19, returning at 19 to then meet my grandmother who was then 16 and to soon get married and take on a job as a toolmaker. My grandmother, it turns out, was kicked out of high school for getting married, because that’s the sort of thing they did back then. (Crazy.) And, being as my grandmother has been with my grandfather so long, I can see how she really can’t recall life without him. I’m sure that makes losing him all the more hard. My uncles story went on to talk about how his grandfather taught him  how to love making machinery and gave him the passion that lead to him becoming a mechanical engineer. My grandfather was a strict and hot-tempered man, but he was also a very hard worker. While the family did not have a lot growing up, he worked long hours to make their lives comfortable.

Last my father walked up to the podium, wobbling under his weight as he does with his thin cane. My mother, being the child she is, gave me a look as if asking my permission to go up with him. While the other couples were seated together my mother sat behind my father who was in the front. I wondered if my dad would have her come up with him since the other brothers had done the same with their wives, but figured he wouldn’t. He was caught up in his own world. Not that I blame him today – it was a tough day for him, losing his father – but he didn’t even think to ask her to come up there with him, which looked a little strange as she was right there behind him. Later he said he didn’t know where she was. He clearly didn’t look. His speech was hard to watch because it’s always a struggle to see my dad, always such a strong man, break down. But I’m glad he talked and in his own way asked for peace and forgiveness for not being able to say a proper goodbye. He noted that his dad was a very honest man, sometimes brutally so, highlighting how in the last week at the hospital, barely able to communicate with the outside world, he managed to get out “there’s a problem here that no one wants to talk about” before getting lost in himself again. My dad is broken up over not being there in the moments when his father was more aware in the final week, and I wanted to be able to comfort him but that wouldn’t be possible in my family – my dad can have feelings and strong ones but he doesn’t want to be comforted. My mother wouldn’t want to or know how to comfort a person so I guess on some level they work perfectly together.

After the service they carried the casket out to the hearse and we drove in a funeral procession about 30 minutes to the cemetery. We were reminded before leaving to obey all driving laws as just because we have our emergency lights flashing we still do not have right of way. I was just commenting how dangerous it was to drive in a funeral procession (especially given that when one’s emergency lights are on use of the blinker to signal turns or lane changes is moot — after my mother put on her blinker to move over when getting left behind at a stop light, thinking she was signalling to the car behind her that she was shifting lanes but instead actually just getting lucky she didn’t ram into him) when two cars in the procession that had made the light rammed into each other. It turned out to be my cousin’s car in front and my uncle in back. Luckily the car was ok but he had him them pretty hard – my cousin mentioned a little back pain later. I think someone needs to rethink this funeral procession situation because it’s just straight up dangerous. There’s enough death in the day to not accidentally conspire to any more.

In the car I asked my mother if I could perhaps have a piece of her granola bar since I failed to eat breakfast that morning and was feeling lightheaded. My mother who was driving and who had eaten breakfast told me that I could have half of it, though she did so in a way which made me feel bad for asking, so I just decided to hold out until lunch.

We arrived at the cemetery shortly after most of the group did since we had gotten a bit of a ways back and missed the turn off. A slightly smaller group than those at the funeral parlor service stood under a green tent that I could see in the distance when we pulled up with two sailors in their white uniforms standing and waiting for the burial service to begin. I didn’t realize that sailors were going to be there so I first noted that we were going to the wrong spot, but then was informed that they were giving him an official U.S. Navy send off. I thought that was nice. My mother took out the granola bar (because she doesn’t realize how rude it is to eat a granola bar at a funeral service) and when I wasn’t paying much attention handed me a small piece of it. I didn’t fully comprehend that she was handing me the granola bar there with everyone around waiting to start the service since we were already a bit late, and thought I waved it away to signal that I didn’t want it then and to keep it but instead she just dropped it on to the floor and scolded me for wasting it by saying my name with the tone which means just that.

I tried not to be bother by this and focus on the moment. My phone had been accidentally left at home which was good so I could for once just be present. It was the right thing to do. I looked around and saw that the beautiful wooden casket had been taken out of the hearse and rested over an open space in the ground waiting to be put in. In front of it sat flowers, a multi-photo picture frame with pictures of my grandfather as a young man, many of him in his Navy uniform, and a small sailor figurine. My grandmother – who seemed about to crack open in her fragility – sat in the front row and burst into tears every few minutes. The two sailors took the American Flag which was previously on top of the casket and very carefully and ceremoniously folded it from one end in these very neat, sharp triangle folds as another played the trumpet for the formal Military Funeral Honors.

At this time, I heard this “crunch, crunch, crunch” behind me and I was upset that my mother was chewing this granola bar during this very serious moment in the service. I gave her one of those looks that a mother is supposed to give her children, not the other way around. That was a bad idea. She whispered – loudly – to me “you can hear me?” and I couldn’t help myself but turn to her and say “shhhhhhhh!” I tried to return my focus to the sailors who were nearly done folding the flag. My mother bit into another piece of the granola bar to finish it off. “Crunch, crunch, crunch.” I tried to ignore it. My boyfriend has given me quite the complex for chewing noises since he is so sensitive to them and in this situation eating at all was just not appropriate. I took a deep breath and returned my focus to the ceremony. The older sailor took the perfectly folded triangle of blue with white stars and presented it to my grandmother, thanking her for my grandfather’s service to the country. I’m pretty sure I lost it at that point, completely forgetting that I was upset with my mom seconds before, just bursting into tears. I wasn’t the only one sobbing. With no one to hug I just found myself wrapping my arm around the tent pole, feeling its cold steel against my flesh, comforting me in its stability but by no means its warmth.

Once my grandfather was presented the flag the very short cemetery service was over. It was very short. The cemetery workers came over to lower the casket in the ground. I found out that they are burying him vertically and will one day put my grandmother in the spot next to him. They lowered him for quite some time. I stood and stared at the open hole in the ground, not sure how to feel or what to feel. I walked up and looked closer at the pictures of him as a young man, with all that life in him, long before I was even born. A family friend suggested that we wind up the figurine to play music for him, and we did. It was a beautiful moment, the soft ringing of Anchors Away which only those of us closest to the grave site and decorative display could hear, most of the notes lost just a few feet away in the wind.

They said those of us who wanted to could help put in the first dirt — apparently a tradition to symbolize that it is not stranger’s burying you but loved ones (even if strangers ultimately finish the job, it takes professionals to cover a hole that deep and do so safely.) While I didn’t put dirt in (I couldn’t bring myself to do that) I took two of the white flowers from the bouquet in front, kissed them, and threw them down into the hole where he would stay. I happened to be standing by my grandmother who, as the casket was lowered into the ground, broke down in the biggest fit of tears yet, and she said goodbye and I’ll be there soon with you. Luckily another person said what I was thinking to her “not too soon.” I briefly thought about how my father’s funeral will be – what my mother will say – how she will not cry, because she doesn’t cry,  and how she’d never have the desire to jump into the ground after her husband even after all these years. I won’t put that all on her – he’s been quite awful to her through the years – but it hurts to know my parents aren’t capable of that kind of selfless love. I’m not sure if my grandfather was, but my grandmother sure had the conviction.

I told her later that while I can’t at all know what she is going through right now I can understand how painful it must be after all these years to lose your one true love. I admit I thought of how in many, many years, hopefully after a long, healthy and fruitful life I would be forced to experience the same with the man I love, or he with me if I happen to go first, and I know the harder you love the harder it is to lose, but even with that I renewed my commitment to making the choice to love and love as hard as I possibly can for as long as I possibly can.

After the service we drove to a lunch at this delicious Italian restaurant and sat around comforting each other and talking about our lives as we would at any other family occasion. I ate too much food and drank too much wine though paced myself because I didn’t want to be the funeral drunk. I had just enough to deal but not enough to drown.

Following the lunch we went back to my aunt’s house for more bonding time and dessert (which I shouldn’t have eaten but I cannot resist apple pie.) I spent some time with my grandmother never knowing what to say, trying to see how I could put my hand  on her shoulder in an organic way to express how I feel without words because words just weren’t cutting it. I am so sad for her, and for what she faces now. Her entire life has been lived as a caretaker – first for six kids and then for her husband – and now while she has a large extended family she finally has the time to take for herself. This can be a good thing, but for a woman who is an expert at caring for others, this is also a terrifying opportunity. In many ways it’s good for her – not to be alone – but to be free of these painful years of trying to take care of a man with dementia, trapping her in her own house day after day. I hope she can find it in her to live life for the moment and not dwell on the past, but I know it will take a lot of time. It’s wonderful that of her six children many of them live close and others visit often, so she will rarely be alone unless she wants to be. It made me think of how so many people in this world do end up in old age alone – whether they didn’t have kids or the aren’t on speaking terms with their children or they lost them due to some horrible tragedy. But it also made me, in a weird way, look forward to the next chunk of my life – which hopefully includes getting married, having a small handful of children (two can be a handful and three would be nice if I can manage it) and so grateful for having found at the very least the man I want to marry and have those children with. And it made me want to be closer to my family, not right away, but when I do raise those children… because my family, despite its crazies, is one pretty remarkable, loyal, and tight-knit bunch.

 

 

 

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One comment

  1. rubin pham says:

    joy:
    thanks for writing such moving essay. i always enjoy reading your blogs and in the past few weeks, you have put out some very exceptional blog posts.
    thanks again for writing this blog.
    rubin.

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