Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Kickin' the Bucket

“My father died.”

My best friend’s voice was flat. Clutching the receiver, I sighed. Although it’s presumptuous to say I know how she felt, I did know how she felt. Fourteen years ago my own father dropped dead while driving his car. The shock of losing a parent I had just talked to a day earlier kept me numb for weeks.

“Uh huh.”

Now, I know the weather is nice and everyone’s out inline skating or catching festivals or calling in sick to work, but, in fact, death does not take a holiday. Death can happen at the most inopportune times, like when you’re stuck in traffic or when you’re walking to the store for a litre of milk or when you’re having sex. Every now and then I’ll be on the subway, perusing that Metro rag, trying not to look at people, when I’ll gaze over the heads of passengers and think, "I am going to die. And I don’t know when".

“Gotta find a flight back.”

“Try American.”

No hysterics, no sobbing and weeping. This was a time for logistics, of organizing a far flung family and hastily putting together a service and an interment. To complicate matters, my friend’s father married three times.

She caught a milk run from Louisiana, while her brother drove up from Virginia and her two other siblings drove in from Montreal. As per her father’s wishes, the body was cremated immediately. Sitting in the beige pews of a middling funeral home in Kitchener on a Wednesday afternoon, my friend and I stared at a photo of her father propped up against the urn.

“My brother’s going to speak.”

“Ah, yes.”

Her brother is an evangelical Christian preacher and, most decidedly, the black sheep of the family.

“He better not…start.”

“There there.”

Several of my friends have lost family members in the last month. I went to my first Shiva last week. I found the evening poignant. Members of my friend’s synagogue led the prayers. And I thought French was hard to understand. I think I was the only goy there. I felt privileged to be invited, to witness this communal sharing of grief. Ritual, whether you believe in what is being said or not, connects us to each other and to history. My own father was barely mentioned at his own funeral. Now that’s old school. No one person is bigger than the resurrection in the R.C tradition. Eulogies are for cry babies.

As we listened to a cheesy rendition of Amazing Grace on the organ, I thought about how my friend must have felt looking at the urn that housed the ashes of her six foot, seven inch father. Five months ago they were fishing in Algonquin Park.

The eldest brother blubbered through a rambling tribute than ran well over 30 minutes. Then the preacher brother spoke. My friend rolled her eyes at her sister, who also rolled her eyes. I admire my friend’s militant secularism, but felt I had to pay attention to her brother, seeing how I would be one of the only people in the small chapel to do so. Her brother (at one time the preacher to the Montreal Expos) launched into a passionate sermon. He knew his scripture, the boy did. He also made everyone squirm. At one point my friend grabbed my arm and loudly whispered “when will this end?” I patted her arm and stifled a yawn.

The service concluded and my friend bolted toward the door for a smoke. This is modern dying, the secular and the sacred jockeying for position, families and friends struggling with their beliefs or lack of belief, or indifference. Meanwhile the deceased is off somewhere, or nowhere, or like City TV, everywhere. Fin.

I call my friend often to see how she’s doing. To my surprise, she never mentions her father. Her grief will come eventually, through a soft summer breeze or a smile from her daughter. It will hit her hard, this transient mystery. Maybe then she’ll develop a gentle tolerance for her brother.