January 8, 2011 in death
We try to sit in the back but a cousin, older than me and therefore with more rank and power, waves us forward to the third row, directly across the aisle from my mom and the Aunts. My sister Monk, Mr. Harriet, and I slowly move forward and obediently sit where we are told to sit. “Your mom has been looking for you,” my cousin nods in the direction of the matriarchs. I go over, say hello to the Aunts, and let mom know we have arrived. What she really wants to know is if my self-imposed semi-estranged sister has arrived yet. She has not. I return to my seat.
The new funeral director, not the old one who presided over many family funerals in the past, portentously walks to the front of the room. Monk looks at me. “He’s going to close the coffin in front of everyone.”
Jesus. I look away.
When I look back, I see a flag draped coffin where Uncle used to rest.
Uncle’s widow (my mom’s sister), his two adult daughters, and their children are ushered into the front row as everyone watches. Both daughters are divorced, not that it matters, but I did break an unspoken rule earlier in the morning by warmly hugging one of the daughter’s ex’s in front of everyone. I like him. He’s a nice guy. Their marriage didn’t work. Shit happens. Nevertheless, the Aunts have proclaimed him a leper, a scoundrel, a bastard, the villain of the marriage. Whatever.
Next, the six pallbearers, all in dark suits with the exception of Uncle’s youngest grandson who did not have the time or money to find a suit coat, but bought his white dress shirt at Wal-Mart the night before. They stand solemnly in a line, and then sit in unison directly in front of us.
A man walks to the podium at the front, to the left of the flag draped coffin. Who is this person? No clerical collar, yet after he thanks us all for coming, he has us bow our heads in prayer. He says some other stuff too, but it all sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher to me. He turns on a recording of a funeral-worthy song, heavy on the organ. I like organ music. I enjoy spirituals. Moreover, I love a good sing-a-long whether it is in a church, around a campfire, or in the car. However, this sucks. God, I hate funerals held in a funeral parlor. Finally, Mr. No-clerical-collar turns off the boom box.
“I’d like to read this poem, I guess you’d call it a poem,” he says. “Some of you may have heard it before, it’s called ‘The Dash.’”
(Internal groan) Oh, lord. REALLY? He’s going to read “The Dash”?
And, just in case we, the mourners at Uncle’s funeral, are too slow witted to understand such complexity in poetry, he gives us a synopsis first. Then he begins to read.
I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
from the beginning…to the end.
I look at my… program? Bulletin?… What do you call these things they hand out at funerals? Uncle’s dates: 1920-2011.
He noted that first came her date of birth
and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the “dash” between those years.
An image pops into my head, a photograph I looked at the night before. Uncle, my deceased father, and three other uncles in their prime, all of them laughing, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. You can see the mischief in their eyes. Way to go, Uncle, way to go.
For that dash represents all the time
that she spent alive on earth…
and now only those who loved her
know what that little line is worth.
Mr. Harriet leans over and whispers into my right ear, “I forgot to turn my phone off.”
He fumbles in his pocket.
For it matters not, how much we own;
the cars…the house…the cash,
what matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our “dash”.
I hear beep as Mr. H. opens his antique cell phone. I look to my left, at Monk, who looks at me. Beep, beep. Monk gives a little snort-giggle. Both of us begin silently shaking with repressed laughter. Beeep-beep-beep-SNAP. Finally, the antique cell phone closes.
Wait, did Mr. No-clerical-collar just rhyme cash and dash?
So think about this long and hard…
are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left,
that can still be rearranged.
I bite long and hard on the inside of my cheek and try to concentrate on the pain. Look straight ahead. Don’t look at me, Monk. We will bring disgrace upon our mother. Concentrate, dammit.
If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real,
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.
Ok, I’m listening. Yes, this is true. Try to understand. I get it.
I glance around the room, wondering if self-imposed semi-estranged sister ever arrived. Hard to see from the third-damn-row.
And be less quick to anger,
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before.
I hope she is here. And I hope she brings my nephew. It’s been a year since I’ve seen them. It’s been a year since she’s talked to me.
If we treat each other with respect,
and more often wear a smile…
remembering that this special “dash”
might only last a little while.
I look over at Uncle’s family. The oldest daughter puts her arm around my Aunt. There are some tears, I see.
But, he was ninety. They had thirty more years with Uncle than we had with Dad. Sigh. A loss is a loss.
So, when your eulogy’s being read
with your life’s actions to rehash…
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent your “dash”?
More boom-box organ music. The air is slowly being sucked out of the room.
I hope they serve fried chicken at the wake.