We have all been there – but consequences differ, some curious and unpredictable.
Having previously traced threads of my meandering business and writing life, I now abandon more comfortable topics, and confront the grim reaper.
In raising my children, and observing my grandchildren, I note that questions of death begin to arrive at age five or six – a close relative or friend or neighbor passes away, and reality shouts or whispers. A granddaughter at five or six once turned suddenly toward me and confidentially said, “I know your wife died.” Such reminders bring me back to my early encounter, and the source of some seemingly unrelated zigging and zagging in response, only recently understood.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the second of my full-color death-related dreams – the business colleague being waked in a white wedding dress, signaling to me that my career was dead – followed by the loud voice: “But stick around,” which carried me through to pension time.
The first of the full-color dreams came when I was eight years old, after the first funeral I fully experienced.
PawPaw Lester, Louisiana man and Cajun ancestor, was waked in his own house, in his own bed. Our family stayed overnight on the other side of the house, crowded in with some cousins. At the burial, because of the high water table in Louisiana, all graves in the cemetery were above ground, many large and imposing, cold stone buildings.
That night I dreamed dozens of the larger spired structures rose slowly to the heavens, tilting and swaying gloriously into the dark blue starry sky. I was unsettled, but silent, the next day, and years.
MawMaw Bertha, one of the sturdiest woman who ever lived (when her doctor, suturing stitches she received when her lawn mower dragged her under a barbed-wire fence, told her she shouldn’t be mowing her large farmyard, she replied, “I’ve buried four doctors in this little town, you can’t tell me what to do!”), carried on for about thirty years.
On a trip to the farm soon after PawPaw’s funeral, we were puzzled to arrive in what looked like a ghost town. Only the gas station was open. The attendant told us the pastor had died. Dad headed right for the cemetery. We found MawMaw in the front row. She pulled me right in front of her. I didn’t want to be that close.
Consequence #1 – Altar Boy.
Slow forward, and I’m an altar boy. First two gigs – funerals. Is that what they do to rookies? Those were the days when caskets were lowered, mechanically, into the grave, much like the rope descents in old movies.
Next assignment – an evening Benediction service. I told the pastor I was supposed to sing in the choir. The other fifty-nine choir members didn’t need me, but I had had enough of the cassock and surplice.
Consequence #2 – Elementary School – Music and me?
Among the sixty third- to seventh-graders, I’m front row with the smaller kids. The choir is singing most gloriously, a best ever performance, I’m exuberantly invested, and at its peak crescendo, Sister Bernadette taps me on the hand. My singing career is over. I interpret her gentle tap to mean: “Never sing again!”
I was probably self-conscious already, but this made it permanent. In later years, attempting to join in jovial gatherings, whenever someone said someone was off key, I knew I was someone. At family gatherings, my musical brother would accompany my future-opera-singer niece and whoever else was willing to join in, and I abstained. I might sing meekly in church, where monotones receive sanctuary, unless no one else is singing. Sometimes I even received compliments, and blessed the poor hearing of the complimentor.
About fifty years later, I realized that I had personally crescendo’d and tried to lead the choir even higher – probably a “Little Rascals” Alfalfa moment – and Sister Bernadette had probably meant calm down, don’t try to lead – not “Never sing again!”
Consequence #3 – High School –The Kuder Preference Test.
Answering the career-directing questions as a teenager, anytime I saw any reference to music, anything else was preferable. I scored either zero, or as close to it as possible, in musical interest. Maybe grave digger ranked lower.
Then, as pre-blogged, at a high school assembly, the girls’ drum and bugle corps presented a medley of South Pacific songs, my first encounter with Rodgers and Hammerstein, my major lyrical influencers. Then came Camelot just before graduation, then my lonely adaptation to faraway college, alleviated by weekend trips to acquire original cast albums for $2.49, and memorizing favorite lyrics; then writing my own musical Sunspots on the Moon junior year, and joining the junior show as producer of Guys and Dolls.
Consequence #4 – College – Kuder Preference Test Redux.
This time, my top score was – Music! – somewhere between 98 and 100%! The Guidance Counselor who had steered me from freshman Chemistry Major to sophomore English Major interpreted this attempt at career-defining as invalid. He said there were trap questions that I had answered inconsistently – I guess I wanted A over B early on, then B over A later, or something like that. Career meandering commenced soon afterwards, until my mid-career planning seminar helped me define life priorities #1 family, #2 creative activities, and #3 problem solving.
Consequence #5 – Engagement, another close encounter, and a river of tears.
In working on the junior show, I met the classmate who would become my wife. We became engaged the Christmas after graduation, and scheduled our wedding the following summer. Her Father suffered a heart condition, from genetics or WWII experiences, and had told her he would not make it to the wedding. (If I had heard that, I would have postponed, hoping for a reprieve for him.) He died in March, at age forty-five. I joined the family on leave from my Army base in Virginia. My tears flowed, for hours upon hours, totally surprising and embarrassing me. Maybe I was crying because they were unable to, numbed by the funeral preparations. My would-have-been Father-in-Law had said if we want to get married, we should just get married, and we did, five months later.
Consequence #6 – Words and Lyrics
Forward to my onstage participation in parish musicals. I was first or second row, self-conscious about being heard, but locked on to the lyrics. Guys nearby asked me to come in early to cue the exact verse, especially in songs like “As Time Goes By,” where every verse seems to begin the same. So I sang to be heard only by the guys near me.
Consequence #7 – An even closer encounter…
Not really a consequence, just the closest encounter, when my wife Maureen died between performances of “Channel Surfin’, USA!” She had been the virtual Producer. She had us prepared for her “final landing,” and we had pre-grieved for a few years, riding the good-news/bad-news roller coaster. She had said she wasn’t afraid to die, and she would still be around. On Christmas Eve the month after she died, I was headed to my daughter’s house for a family celebration. My son Tim held back, said he wanted a moment with me, then sang a song he had written, “I’m Thankful for Angels.” It was a blessing to be able to cry again. He sang it again at the family gathering, then again at the extended family gathering on Christmas Day, with the same resulting tears. We were all blessed by her presence.
It took a great deal of time, but when I recount memories of Maureen and her suffering, the tears bring peace and gratitude for shared experiences.
Consequence #8 – Denial? Or Acceptance?
With the early experiences of PawPaw’s funeral, the dream, the altar boy debuts (I did return to duty), and the all-day crying at my Father-in-Law’s house, I developed a numbed acceptance of that reality, so that I am comfortable attending wakes and funerals, and hopefully supportive to the bereaved, although sometimes overly social and unaware of deep grieving nearby. When my Mother died at the age of ninety-three two years ago, her service was a celebration, her four surviving daughters wearing butterfly necklaces, and her eight sons butterfly pins, which she had provided for the occasion.
However, several of Mom’s younger ninety-three descendants were attending their first funerals. Hoping to create an uplifting (and diversionary) experience for them, at the wake we celebrated Mom and Dad’s most peaceful moments, dancing, by joining hands and dancing up and down the aisles and past Mom’s casket, singing the Resurrection hymn “Lord of the Dance”; and just after the graveside service, we released butterflies into the air. When the first butterfly rose and landed on a nearby statue of Mary, closely followed by the second butterfly, we adults realized the blessing was for the child in all of us.
Consequence #9 – Now I get it! And I get over it.
Recently, I began to understand what “breathe from the diaphragm” means, and I can sing loud enough to be heard (but not lead), as long as there is a strong male cover voice. When I was always the off key nominee, the vocal came from my mouth, and must have sounded like a bird chirping, Now I feel comfortable exhaling, letting the wind pipe find the notes to the melody. (Or maybe, as my brother commented when I sang Shenandoah’s “The Pickers Are Coming” to my daughter at her wedding reception. I still “have no shame.”)
After Words – The Unexpected; The Search for Blessings; “From the Mouth of Babes”
Blessings can be found when a beloved elderly relative tires of living, or even when a spouse at fifty-two is relieved of extended suffering. But no answers accompany unexpected deaths, as in the cases of my Father-in-Law at forty-five, my Friend’s spouse at forty-eight, or my nephew, Vincent, at seventeen.
No one could help my Brother Tom and his family find blessings after Vincent died, until his seven-year-old daughter brought hope to the family. Tom and Molly told their story in Molly’s Pollywogs (https://www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=978-1-61663-006-5), a consoling book for anyone who has lost a loved one. Tom’s second book, Annie’s Going Home, (https://www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=978-1-63185-965-6 ), written with Mom’s cooperation as she approached her final journey, also reflects hope accompanying death. Our Sister Patti read this book with her Granddaughter at Mom’s wake, again easing the pain for the young ones in the family, whatever our age.