A Perfect Funeral

Dear CF,

Until today, I thought a good funeral was a contradiction in terms. I’ve been to sad funerals, anonymous funerals, bodiless services, wakes. And they were all good-hearted (and often godly) approximations at comfort, noble attempts to fold the ruptures death imposes into a bigger, more meaningful story. 

Today I went to a perfect funeral. It was the Platonic ideal of funerals. It held more beauty and humor and honesty than I thought an event could hold. I didn’t know religion, or people, or music, or communities could do this. Honestly? I’m shaken in my faith.

It helped that the deceased was queen of the dames. I caught her just as she was retiring. She offered to be on my dissertation committee if I worked on a specific text. I kept that text in just so I could hold her to her promise when the time came, which it didn’t. I wish you, by the way, that you could have seen her house and her long white hair.

She was the grande dame of my department—a brilliant scholar, an active committee member and a gently, nonsensically dedicated teacher. We were pretty sure we were her life. (She’d stay in her office for eight-hour stretches talking to undergraduates about their thoughts, their feelings, their love lives… whatever they wanted her to hear.) She loved the work and the people, and it seemed pretty clear, from her time commitments, that the department was her world.

Well, we weren’t. It turns out she helped shape a Jewish community 25 years ago and was the first of their “statesmen” to die. The rabbi said he had been a rabbi under her guidance for some years. When everyone laughed (there was a lot of laughter at this funeral), he said, surprised, that  it hadn’t occurred to him to use that as comedy.

I wish I could tell you everything everyone said, because it was long, but every single eulogy was, well, perfect. Her husband spoke last. He is in his late 80s. I expected a wreck, but he was small and good humored. He said he went to ask her what he should wear to a funeral before remembering. And that the cedar waxwings were back, and how much they liked looking at their shiny feathers, and that we should look them up, and that he went to tell her that as well before remembering. He said when she died, the rabbi, who was there, said that a great light had gone out. He felt this too, he said, but he felt something just a little different—the way he did the day the music died. “Things go on in the world just the same,” he said, “but the music is gone.” The woman who spoke just before him was a former student named Nora. He ended by saying, “anyway…. Nora didn’t mention that she used to babysit quite a bit for us too.” And stepped down.

That’s it, really: I’m wrung out from both the sadness and the rightness of it and startled out of my sighing tolerance towards religious practices (mine, and others’) to learn that living and dying and mourning can be done right.



Hallways and Eggs

Dearest CF,

There is nothing like being told by the Brentmeister General that I’m better than all the rest to comfort and console. Thank you, dear one. And before leaving our beloved BBC, I second your love of the non sequiturs between episodes of Peep Show. I’m so pleased by the incredible realism achieved by merely leaving things unexplained. It’s so remote from our own painstakingly worked out American emotional stages, which, in trying to be realistic in their televisual representations, end up imposing a totally fictional logic on emotional events.

My grandmother died on Saturday. The usual emotions apply. But, having accepted that this year has snatched the reins away from my life, I’m trying to at least enjoy the view.

My grandmother called four people over and over the night before she died: her older sister, my mother, my uncle, and me. When I first heard this, it registered as bad news I would soon have to deliver. That she was calling me, and that I wasn’t there. The world is going to gray for awhile, I thought, once I really hear that.

Either I still haven’t heard it, or that dreaded feeling never came. Terrible grief—body-shaking, no-sleeping, trying to write a eulogy and instead writing acrostics of her name all night—all this, yes. But not this particular brand of regret. I said goodbye when I left. She was lying in her little bed in my parents’ bedroom, gathering energy and will for the drag-out fight when they came to take her out of bed and into the living room. She was a little distracted, preparing for battle, peeking out from my Ernie and Bert sheets. I made her promise she’d get up. She finally promised she would. It was a pleasant way to leave her. Had it consisted of eggs, our farewell would have been lightly scrambled. I’ve cried every other time I left her. I didn’t cry then.

Awhile ago when I wrote you, I had ropes on the brain. Now it’s eggs. She used to make me soft-boiled eggs at night before bed. I tried making them the other night. I can’t remember how you get the egg out of the shell without everything spilling out into the bowl. I’ll give it another shot tomorrow. I seem to remember buying a friend little egg-cups from Williams Sonoma, which I think might have been designed for this very reason. I can’t remember what she served mine in.

It warms me to know I was there long enough that she remembered me sleeping in the next room, and that she called me thinking I was there. She slept at night in that house alone. For awhile I was across the hall, just a shout away. I’d eat scrambled eggs on toasted marraqueta in her room in the mornings. I’m glad she knew that. You never know at the time—at that stage so much gets muddled. While I was there, she sometimes mixed me up with her niece. Other times she knew exactly who I was and kept me up into the wee hours, chatting about her triumphs and thoughts. Even Rear Window, which I watched with her three times.

On her last night, the confusion was providential: she confused my mother with me. Something deep rests knowing she needed me, specifically, as an ingredient for that transition, and that she was comforted to find in my mother (on whom she always relied, and whom she needed elementally) an amalgam of the people she wanted there.  Every time I think of this, I swell with relief. I’m glad there was something for me to give her, even just a head poking in to say “Here I am.” I hope that in her imagination, at least, I gave it.

I never called her again. Pretended it was because I didn’t want to talk to my uncle. The truth is I feared an alteration. I didn’t want the last time to be by phone, confused and bleary and a sacrifice. (She hated talking on the phone; waved it away sometimes when I was there.)

She died in the morning with both of her kids, each holding one of her hands. My mother dressed her, combed her hair, put on her earrings, put on her favorite color lipstick.

When I heard, I drove a couple of hours to spend the night with her sister, who is 92. She wanted me to come because she worried about my being so far from my mother at a time like this. I wanted to be there, since it would be her first night without her little sister. She was fine. Affected, but a rock. Entertained everyone who came to the house, legs neatly crossed. Made smalltalk. Made chicken soup. Flipped through pictures of my grandmother, trying to decide which ones to enlarge. When I arrived she’d finally had an hour or so along, and her eyelids were red. Neither one of us slept well, but at times like these it’s good to have someone you can yell for down the hall.

Thinking of my own mother alone in that house now, sleeping in my grandmother’s bed, thinking of her mother’s face the moment before she died (her eyes flew open before she went pale), it’s desperate-making not to be across the hall for her. Hard to watch your mother go through the hardest thing she’ll ever have to do, and watch her go it alone. This is the emotional illogic–the stuff that takes you by surprise and never makes it into organized American TV realism. When the world goes gray, and it does, it’s this that I think about: not my grandmother but my mother, small and shaking, watching her mother’s casket sink down after the church service.

My outlook is much improved, however, and I will write sprightlier things tomorrow.



(For more on mothers and death see “Mother’s Day” here.)