Living in the Wake of Death

13 Apr

My dad had this running joke that no one would ever attend his funeral. It was mostly sarcasm, but within every sarcastic comment is a small morsel of truth. The truth in this situation is the unspoken reality that he had been coming up short his entire life and, therefore, making life difficult for those who loved him.

As luck would have it, something was stirring high in the atmosphere, setting in motion a snowstorm of events beyond our control. It would be a near showstopper, holding the Wisconsin highways hostage and making sure that my father’s joke came true.

After a couple days of funeral planning, we were no closer to knowing how dad would have wanted it. We guessed. We reached deep into our memories to recall some of his (and our) favorites. We did our best to remember the happy in the sad. And so, on a whim, we selected the music and assembled the after-church meal and put the finishing touches on everything else that makes a funeral feel more like hosting a party than the slap in the face it is.

Then the sun dawned on the big day: a combined wake and funeral. If only I could’ve remained under the covers on that February morning. I would’ve basked in the warmth, solitude, and safety of my bed, much like a child hiding from the monsters lurking in the closet. Sure, I had been to wakes and funerals before, but never one like that about to begin. No wake, no quantity of wakes, can prepare you for the moment of seeing a parent, someone so close to you, lying still in a wooden box.

People always say at wakes, “He looks so peaceful.” I have never understood that. If you know someone for a lifetime, if you have seen them smile and looking as radiant as the sun, then viewing your loved one in a casket is a shock to the system. Death looks cold and, yes, lifeless.

My mom, sister, and I were ushered to the front of that small, quaint church, all dark and vigil-like due to it being evening. We were given a few minutes alone. And I again lost control. My father bore the resemble of plastic, like something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, only I couldn’t help but think, “This is the last time I will ever see my father again.” I tried etching everything into memory: his face, his hands folded so properly over his chest, the curvature of his cheeks, his hair parted to the side. When I reached out to touch him, I almost believed he’d snap to life, scare us as he had often done, and laugh at his own joke. But he didn’t reciprocate — a scene with which I had grown accustomed.

As all that was taking place inside, a snowstorm was creating havoc on the outside. And it, along with my father’s ability to burn bridges, kept that church mostly empty that night. In fact, I recently revisited the guestbook that visitors sign, and my father’s isn’t even one-fourth full.

Sitting at the front of the church, I at last needed a break from all the handshaking and introductions; I needed reprieve. I went to the lobby and gazed at the snow descending in sheets of white. And I let out a wry smile, for it was the icing on the cake of my father’s believe-it-or-not life.

Like a Hallmark movie, I received the best surprise of all that night. Driving the 90 miles from college in Milwaukee was a van full of friends altogether determined to fight Mother Nature’s fury: slippery roads, blowing, drifting, and cold gusts of winter air. They had never met my father, yet wanted to support me in my darkest hour. Their collective gesture that night defined friendship, and I will never forget it.

The morning after a snowstorm is always a day of cleanup. You look outside and survey the sprawling landscape: snowplows on the roads, shovels on the walkways, all doing their part to dig out and move the town forward. It was my first realization that, while we were mourning in our small corner of the world, the rest of the world was going about life as usual. Earth keeps spinning, time keeps passing, nothing stands still. And so, once again, I forced my weary body out of the safe confines of my bed to bury my father.

I didn’t want to be there to begin with, but the cemetery greeted us with some of the harshest winter air I can remember, although I’m sure the previous days’ activities helped intensify an already bitter situation. Together with a handful of people, I watched as my father was lowered into the ground. Just like that, he was out of sight forever, safe for eternity from the monsters that continually haunted him.

The funeral and burial don’t have much relevance in the overall tale of my father’s addictions and abuses, but, to me, those two days were symbolic of a life. In the words of The Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke”: “Till I finally died, which started the whole world living. Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.”

I’m so thankful to everyone for their support that night and over the years. Cards and words of encouragement continued to pour in days and weeks after the funeral. But a church filled to capacity would’ve been out of place; it wouldn’t have fit with my father’s life story.

In that sense, the snowstorm was the perfect ending. It was comical if you knew my father; if he had been there, he would’ve sarcastically commented on how “it just figures” or “it’d only happen to him.” Despite all his baggage, my father still managed to infuse humor into everything; I think those who knew him will always recall his wit and sarcasm.

But, in the end, the final joke was on him.

And with his passing, those left in the wake had to begin living.

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Posted by on April 13, 2013 in Family


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