February 14, 2008
(I posted this a few years back when I had a myspace blog, it seemed to have affected many. so, here it is. This was an intense day, perhaps those feelings came through)
I went to a funeral today.
I have been to several funerals in my life. No matter how sad it was, or how many people I saw crying, I could never bring myself to cry. I would rationalize it somehow, and suck out the emotion by trying to make sense of it. Today’s funeral was for the mother of a man I care for. His mother was 84 years old. He is mentally retarded, and has several other diagnoses.
He is a quiet man. He says very little, and to those he does not trust, he says absolutely nothing, and mostly answers questions in mono-syllabic fashion. His family requested I escort him, because he does trust me, and he likes me, and as they said, I know how to make him laugh. The truth is, he makes me laugh more than I ever could make him. Most people don’t know that he has a wickedly sharp sense of humor, because he rarely uses his strangely soft, high-pitched voice.
I could tell he was nervous on the ride out to the funeral home. He coughs and gags when he gets nervous, I know this from years of having to schedule and run medical appointments and procedures for him. We arrived in northport at the height of todays monsoon, I use that term because it is the only way to accurately convey just how much rain and wind was whipping about. Luckily it was a short walk to the entrance, and in no time, we were seated with his family, staring at the white-haired corpse of his mother. He sat quietly as his family told stories and laughed, and then it came time to read prayers. I have seen him laughing, serious, angry (but not very), and sad. I had never seen him cry, until that moment. His large bright blue eyes welled up, and he let out a muffled sob, and even though all the others were crying too, I stared at him, surprised and somewhat devastated.
I knew he felt it, I knew he understood perfectly what was going on, but a part of me hoped he maybe just didn’t grasp the finality of it as well as the others. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he cried like a man, quietly, and with dignity. I put my arm around him and sat there, feeling my own eyes well up, and my throat close with grief. I had tried to console him on the ride over. I gave him the perspective of life, as best as I knew how. She had a long life, I said, we should all be so lucky as she was, to die quietly in old age, surrounded by a loving family. I then told him he was luckier still, because now he had an angel of his own to look out for him, all he had to do was pray to her, and talk to her, she would always listen, and she would always love him. He nodded several times, staring straight ahead as he usually does, and answered in his typical fashion, “yeah”. I knew he was grief-stricken, but his quiet sobs ambushed me, and I felt for him all the more.
I did not cry there, sitting next to him. But I felt his loss keenly, and my own day to day sadness was somehow magnified by his expression.
We went to mass at St. Francis of Assisi, not far down the road. It was a short service, that consisted mostly of a heavily lisping priest quoting biblical passages, mostly dealing with the lord preparing a place and such. The procession then headed slowly towards calverton national cemetary for the burial. It was a long, slow ride, and a thoroughly miserable day to take it, in every aspect. The cars lined up by the burial site, and we took turns waiting for a somber man to hand us umbrellas so that we would not get drenched in the short walk to the covered area where there would be two short prayers, and final goodbyes said.
After the prayers, all of us were given cut flowers. Each of us placed these flowers atop the coffin, and said whatever was left to say before walking back to the line of cars to leave. One by one, friends and family placed flowers, whispered whatever it was they needed to, and gathered by the edge of the covered area, just inside the rainstorm still raging around us. He and I were the last ones to go, and by the time he placed his flower, the others had already begun opening umbrellas and drifting out into the tempest. In every place we had ever gone, I would say, “cmon chicken, lets go” (we all call him chicken as a nickname. I think this stems from the fact that he has pale milky features that perhaps reminded some of his housemates of a plucked chicken, although I think he more strongly resembles a man drawn by norman rockwell), and he would follow me without hesitation.
He turned towards me, and suddenly, he turned around quickly back to the coffin. The others had already turned away and begun walking back, so none of them saw what I saw. I was scared for a moment, thinking that maybe the sadness and stress of the day would lead to a wild behavioral episode, and I would have to try to stop him from doing something completely terrible and inappropriate.
I quickly turned with him, and stood next to him as he placed his two fingers on the shiny wood. He gave one more great, heaving sob, and with tears streaming again, he quietly mouthed, “I love you, goodbye”. I was glad the others were already far off, because I as I held on to comfort him, I ended up partially collapsing, using my arm draped around his shoulders for support. We both stood there for a few moments, crying softly. It was the saddest, most beautiful thing I had ever seen a person do in my entire life, and it destroyed me. He comported himself with more dignity than anyone I had ever seen. And unlike so-called, “normal” people, he is just not capable of true falsehood, he means everything he does. So, his quiet classy grief drove into me, like no hysterics ever could.
I did not say much the rest of that day, nor did I try to comfort him further. It was not necessary. He expressed himself, then it was over, and that was the end of it. The simplicity of how he deals with events in his life is remarkable. Disabled he may be considered, but we should all hope to live in the moment as well as that man can.
Today, that beautiful, quiet, mentally retarded man taught me more than anyone could ever hope to teach me.
In some respects, my job pays wages in ways dollars never could.