Thoughts of the Old Man VIII
It’s not true: I DO cry.
The 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.