Good on Them!

I did write to the funeral home and I guess I must have struck the balance between firmness and tact, for they fixed my father’s obit in a matter of hours. The director even called me and I raised the “Together Forever” thing, pointing out that I was more inquiring and making a suggestion for now rather than requesting a change. But by the end of the day, someone else called from the home: Where they deem the inscription to be a mistake under the circumstances (i.e., “You mean she doesn’t even speak English?!”), they are prepared to make the change …on the house!

In a few minutes I’ll be heading to Moncton for business and to spend some time with Mom. Given how well things turned out, I’ll be mentioning to her the Home’s decision and we’ll probably get the matter resolved Wednesday morning. I’m expecting to be back in Halifax by Wednesday evening in order to prepare for a meeting with another prospective client.

So I guess the saying is true: The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

En français, s’il-vous-plaît!

New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada, which has implications and ramifications made amply clear in the Charter of Rights that’s part of our Constitution. That said, I must say that as someone who has been so fortunate as to grow up immersed in this country’s both official languages, my attitude towards bilingualism is to be accommodating. Oh sure! I like being spoken to in French when I’m in a store in Moncton, but since I also speak English fluently, I don’t let my nose get out of joint if a salesperson speaks only English. My attitude is, “What language do we have in common and let’s use it to communicate.”

In a bilingual city like Moncton, being able to offer services in both languages has to be more than tokenism as it is here in Halifax, New Scotland. So why, I ask you, can a large funeral home company be so insensitive and set up shop in Moncton, and offer next to no service in French and have only one employee (to my family’s knowledge) who speaks French?

My parents each have had a will for many years, but only about 5 years ago did they consider a pitch by Fair Haven for prearranged funeral arrangements. I still remember the time my mom and dad took me for a “little drive” to show me what they had arranged, and one thing immediately struck me: Everything was in English only! We were shown around by what I assumed to be a fat, unilingual Baptist-minister-cum-funeral-director who had a picture of a wife and cute-as-buttons little girls on his desk but who, to me, would leave people picking HIM as the flaming queen if they had to pick between the two of us. But notwithstanding that, my heart sank to my knees when I saw that the trite, pulled-out-of-a-box wording on the glass of the vault my parents pre-purchased: “Together Forever.”

Okay, so my mother does know what that means, but she hardly speaks any English to this day despite years of taking courses. More unsettling, I could see all these French names on the glassed vaults, with these bloody English trite phrases. Fair Haven didn’t even make an effort to offer them in French, thus taking advantage of people of my parents’ generation not to make any waves and advocate for their rights.

I will go on the record for saying that in every other respect, the people at Fair Haven are professional and courteous. But I’m supremely pissed about their shoddy unilingual website on which they placed my father’s obituary 15 days after he died and made a total mess of it. Littered with mistakes! They can’t even TYPE in French properly!

Now as far as the “Together Forever” thing is concerned, I think this is a matter I’m not going to raise while my mother’s still with us, which I hope is for at least another 20 years. However, if my brothers and sister don’t agree with me yet don’t outright disapprove, I will have that changed to French one day.

For the short term, however, I have other thoughts. First, I will be writing to ask that my father’s obituary be corrected, as it is totally insulting the way it now stands. And second, …well, I better keep that one under my hat for now. Let’s just say I would like to raise awareness of their market and perhaps reap some benefits while doing so…

Thoughts of the Old Man VIII

It’s not true: I DO cry.

Christ-RoiThe house where I grew up is on the other side of this church. My family lived, as Father Maurice said during our useless meeting with him the day after Dad died, “in the shadow of the church.” So I walked there, as my father had done hundreds of time, to attend his funeral. Very aware that this was almost like a pilgrimage for me, I could feel that I was on the verge of “losing it.” And as I was walking, I was anticipating my nostrils being filled with the very specific though not entirely unpleasant odor inside that building. I’m being very literal here; I’m not implying anything spiritual.

And, indeed, other words failing me, I wasn’t disappointed: The odor was still there, this odor my father had encountered daily from 1962 to the mid ’90s. Gathered in the back of the church, not knowing exactly where to go next, my family stood as friends and family streamed in for the funeral. Feeling another wave suggesting I was about to “lose it,” I seized my spotting of Poupoune and the Bar Hopper to get away. For the sake of my mother, I didn’t want to fall apart at that moment. Then my sister-in-law called my name and summoned me to what would turn out to be the most unpleasant moment of my father’s death, courtesy of a conservative Catholic priest who’s overdue for retirement but can’t retire because there are too few priests left.

About five minutes later, I found myself sitting in the front pew, close to the end opposite the centre aisle, since I was one of those who would have to do a reading (of sorts). The sun was streaming in through the yellow and blue windows, the excellent organist was playing Pachelbel’s Canon, the single bell began tolling outside, and I simply had to look away from the urn and the picture of my father. Knowing my mother was sitting on the other side of my brother, again, for her sake, I tried to fight back the swell rising from deep within me …but couldn’t any longer. My sister-in-law handed me a hankerchief; later she confided that, at that moment, she thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the eulogy. But my brother, who didn’t know what I had written, put his hand on my knee and said, “Puise de sa force…” (“Draw from his strength…”). And that reminded me of the passage in my eulogy where I speculated on why I thought Dad had remained among us as long as he did in spite of all his suffering. So then I was able to turn my head and look at his picture, with that bright smile on his face. My tears dried, and I smiled back at him.

My memory of the eulogy, I admit, is a bit of a blur. Even in such a difficult moment, I sensed my former “university prof” persona taking over. I would look for familiar faces as I read, moving away quickly from those with too many tears. I looked at my mother straight in the eyes when I thanked her for giving Dad the strength to realize his last wishes. And I felt like I was walking on air when I returned to my seat.

I felt conflicted throughout the ceremony. This Church and all it represents: It doesn’t speak to me. I knew what to say, when to say it, how to say it, when to get up, when to sit down, when to get on my knees. Anyone brought up Catholic or Anglican would know these things even if they didn’t understand the language in which the ceremony was conducted. But all these orderly rituals which mean nothing to me meant so much to my father, hence the conflicted feelings. How he wanted them to have meaning for me, too!

Somehow, though, I think he knew that the essence, the lessons behind all those rituals, he did succeed in imparting on me. When I wrote in the eulogy that his kindness rendered him unable to understand why there is so much evil in this world, I was specifically remembering a comment he made to me under his breath a year or two ago about “how we don’t have the priests we used to,” referring of course to the scandals in which his beloved Church has been mired in recent years. Even if he turned to those rituals by rote, he had a deep understanding of what they stand for …and that’s what he so dearly wanted me to believe in, for my own good.

The ritual of the family following (in this case) the urn to the back of the church at the end of the ceremony is where I lost it for the second time, realizing that this simple act of leaving this physical space was his last time after literally thousands. The first face I saw at the back of the church was my sister, whose eyes filled with tears when she saw me. She did this little gesture with her shoulders, as if to say, “That’s it, he’s really gone now,” and that’s when I was finally able to throw my head to her bosom and really let go as I hadn’t been able to minutes before the ceremony began.

Regaining composure, I looked up and around me and witnessed the most touching mark of respect: Since we more or less blocked the exit, everyone stood back and waited for us to lead the march to the reception hall across the street. “Oh my! We’re holding everyone back,” I said in guise of a little joke, so the five remaining family members walked. A few were already outside the door of the hall, but they, too, waited for us to enter first.

For many years now, my mother has been the treasurer and one of the “ladies” who organizes these post-funeral receptions. So now that this reception was for one of their own, they really went all out. I’m not merely referring to the extra food they served or the fact they insisted our family was not to pay for the reception; rather, I’m thinking of how they took us under their wings and took care of us from start to finish. As my sister and I told my mother the next day, it’s comforting for us to know how well loved she is in her community and how her extreme competence and extra touches have not gone unnoticed. Many are those who told us that they saw my mother as the one who greets everyone “with her lovely smile,” a smile she never lost even when Dad wasn’t well.

Also many were those whom we met who told us they had worked with my father for more than 30 years, or those who knew him from his walks all over town. Never the extravert, he’d chat people up and find out what they were up to, and then they would, of course, ask about him. “Ah, so you’re the son who lives in Halifax,” some would say to me. “Your name again is…? Ah, yes! He often spoke of you …of all of you.” If indeed it is true that our children give us each strand of our white hair, then Dad sported his white hair with a pride unparalled by none.

After the reception, the family went for a private ceremony to bring Dad to his final earthly resting place. Even the word “ceremony” is a bit of an overstatement. We merely gathered and spoke our last spontenous farewells before placing his urn in the vault. The finality of that moment made me lose it for the final time that day.

**************

I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m ashamed to have cried. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Being like my father, who for years held everything in, I was afraid that I wouldn’t. And by that I don’t mean I was worried about not being seen as “grieving enough,” either. I just mean I knew it had to happen eventually, but I just didn’t know when it would happen.

Truth is, Dad’s on my mind even more now that he’s gone, and that’s saying quite a lot. I miss him. I can’t get used to how he’ll never again be in that rocking chair in the kitchen at home. I can’t help thinking about how, in the last years, he’d often tell us, “Don’t ever grow old!” I can’t help wonder — and he would never have admitted it — if he felt that his God had let him down even though he abstained from all excesses and did everything he was supposed to do. Or, if he didn’t fear death, did he fear that the suffering could get any worse?

Those were the deeply hidden parts of Dad that no one could ever get at. But at the same time, minus those blind spots, I don’t feel like I didn’t know my father. He was — and I mean this in the most loving way — a very simple man. The path towards what is right was always very clear to him.

There were two pictures in his wallet: one of one of his granddaughters, and a 25-year-old black-and-white photo of my sister. As for us boys, my nephew put it best: Especially when we were young, we were “des moyens as de pique!” (“quite the wildcards!”). And there was about $30, his driver’s license, and credit cards he likely never used.

Thoughts of the Old Man VII

In many ways, my brothers, sister and I are more like my mother: We tend to be the leaders and the doers, and seldom are we ever bored. However, I realize now that stoic composure and thinking 100 times before saying something, we inherited from my father.

About a week before my father died, I started thinking about how I would need a new suit for the funeral. Unfortunately, I’ve gained enough weight in the last 18 months to warrant such a purchase. However, I hate shopping generally, and I especially hate shopping for clothes for myself, so it occurred to me that I should ask BeeGoddessM to accompany me, if she could stand the thought. I set that thought aside until the conversation I had with my sister on the Tuesday before Dad died: after that talk, I told Indiana Jones that I’d be asking for the BeeGoddess’s help shortly. The weather sucked on Thursday night and she was bagged because of her hectic work schedule, so we agreed to go on our expedition on the Friday night. Ostensibly we were still ahead of the game …but then Dad died some 12 hours after we spoke and it became an urgency.

The day my father died, all that is material seemed hyper: I was keenly aware of the shape of objects, of my own body, of the air I was breathing. I spent the afternoon contacting my clients to tell them I was closing down shop for an indefinite period of time, likely all the following week. I kept having to remind myself that, once I’d get to Moncton the next day, I would not be going to the hospital, as those days were over now. We all thought this last stretch would be longer, but at the same time I felt some relief in that I was glad his suffering was over.

But coming back to the shopping… Aware that I was still absorbing the news of my father’s death, what I didn’t want to do is walk into stores with my heart on my sleeve and blurt out, “My father died today; I need a suit.” I might mention it at the end of my request when a clerk would approach me, so that he or she would know that I needed something demure, not flashy. But I didn’t want store clerks falling all over themselves with the pitiful looks and “I’m sorry” when they didn’t even know me, let alone my late father.

After an unsuccessful visit at Tip Top, BeeGoddessM and I decided to head to Moore’s. But since Sears was on the way, we might as well see what was there. Big mistake! And to all of you I say, if ever you need to buy a suit, DON’T EVER GO TO SEARS!

Initially nothing jumped out. But then I wandered around and stumbled upon a jacket that caught my eye. It’s only when I took a jacket my size off the hanger that I realized it came with a pair of pants …yet the jacket and pants together were the same price as the jacket alone at Tip Top’s. What’s more, the jacket looked wonderful on me, so I decided to try everything on, rationalizing that if I don’t have time to have the pants hemmed, I’d still have a spare pair of dress pants later.

Only once inside the fitting room did I notice the pants were WAY too big for me. I would have needed a low-hanging jelly belly or the monster dong from hell to fill them out properly. So the BeeGoddess went hunting for a pair of pants more likely to fit. The third pair was the charm: I needed a 36 waist to go with my 44R jacket. Then we found nice silk ties for 2 for $35, which was again better than the single $55 tie we found at Tip Top that would marginally do. So happy with what we’d found, we headed to the cash.

Through my entire fitting ritual, the young woman at the cash paid NO attention to us. None! Zip! Nada! And when we got to the counter, even though closing time was much more than one hour away, she announced that she had closed her cash and we had to cross the floor to the other counter. Oookay….

The young man at this other counter was filling an order by phone when we got there. No problem; I can deal with not being the first in the queue. But then when he started ringing in my purchases, he looked befuddled and finally said, “This isn’t a set…”

— No,” I replied. “The pants that were hanging with the jacket didn’t fit.”
— I can’t sell you this,” he then said, “it has to be a set.”

And that’s when I lost my stoic composure for the first time that day. “You are so going to sell me that because I need this fucking suit for my father’s fucking funeral!” To which he wisely replied, “Let me call the manager…”

Unfortunately, at Sears, “manager” is a title that’s used very loosely, a bit like Wal-Mart calls all its minimum wage clerks “sales associates” (as if they had the power a true associate would have). Although we explained that we needed the suit for a funeral and so on, all this “manager” seemed concerned about was that we had acted like bulls in a china shop and ruined their comfortable, little bureaucratic order by separating “sets.” Even when I attempted to ask if there would be a way of getting only a very similar jacket, all she could think of is getting her “sets back together.” And in what strikes me now as a totally surreal moment, not only did I cross back the floor with her as she attempted to do her reassembling, but I also HELPED her reassemble the three “sets” we’d apparently destroyed!

— Here,” the manager said, handing me over the reassembled set with the jacket I wanted to buy.
— But those pants don’t fit!” I clipped back.
— Sorry, but I can only sell you this.”
— Now let me get this straight,” I said after taking a deep breath. “You’re telling me that in order to get that jacket that fits me, I have to buy those pants that don’t fit me.”
— Yes.” She didn’t even flinch at the absurdity.
— Oh, never mind…” I heard BeeGoddessM say.

That’s all I needed to hear. I was still holding the two ties we had picked and I was still staring down this cow of a manager when the next thing I know I see myself tossing the ties at her and saying, “Fuck you!” And I turned around and walked away.

Minutes later, we entered Moore’s and I decided I couldn’t handle to be grossed out any more than I’d already been, so I immediately told the clerk who greeted us, “I just had the worst shopping experience in my life at Sears.” I then proceeded to show him the shirt and pants I wanted matched with a jacket and tie, and told him, “My father died today and this is for his funeral, so please do better than what I’ve just gone through across the street.”

They did. Mind you, it wouldn’t have required much, but they went above and beyond.

Back at the abode of the BeeGoddess and the Bar Hopper, I said to them, “Actually now I’m feeling bad about my little scene at Sears. They’re probably paid shit and don’t need some histrionic asshole like me tossing neckties in their face. Plus they’ve probably already forgotten the whole thing by now.”

“I’m not so sure,” the Bar Hopper replied. “I would hope that after you walked away like you did, they asked themselves, ‘He did say funeral, didn’t he?’ and felt a little bit bad.”

For her part, the Queen of Sheba, when I told her this story a week later, said I should have just entered the stores and immediately started with “My father died today and…” Except that’s not how I do things normally. Nor would it have been how my father would have done things.

Thoughts of the Old Man VI

Dad’s first (and we’re led to believe only) heart attack occurred in 1985, a mere week or two before he was to go on vacation, then retire. He’d given up smoking the pipe for Lent some 10 years earlier but continued his long evening walks (not to mention that he walked back and forth for work twice daily); however, his was a sedentary office job otherwise. Moreover, stress is what likely contributed most to his heart problems: I think all dictionaries in the world should have a picture of my father next to the definition for “worry wart.”

He worried, but in silence — kept it all in …except on very rare occasions. One such occasion was in the months leading to his retirement. His employer decided to take advantage of his departure to consolidate two positions, and forced him to learn the other position so that he could train his replacement. That’s when he’s reported to have told a supervisor, “You’re bent on disgusting people right to the end, aren’t you!”

Similarly, my father didn’t swear. You know how most people have at least one favorite curse word; I think the nastiest curse word that ever passed his lips was “maudit” (damned). That’s except the night the stucco in the vestibule at home came crashing from the ceiling to the floor…

My mother had gone visit her sister in Drummondville, and my father and I were watching TV in the den that early Saturday evening. Suddenly, a long crashing sound reverberated throughout the house, and we were convinced a truck was being driven into the house. Still stiff from sitting on the couch, my father bounced up and began walking quickly towards the source of the sound, and that’s the only time I actually recall him saying, “Jeeeezzzus Christ!”

In English.