Me (in the middle), my sister, cousin and Frances, 1979, image courtesy of the Grahams
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2016
Today would prove to be the true test. This was the height of the emotional roller coaster barreling around the last few days. The morning was fairly quiet and swift as we started to prepare for the long day ahead. It was not a day for a big breakfast. We all ate slightly enough to settle our stomachs. The wake was to start at 11:00 am, with the funeral starting at 11:30 am. With my closet doors opened, I stood still while I visually rummaged for a shirt to match my leather pants. In the end I selected a black sheer shirt, with blousy sleeves. By the time I was completely dressed, I didn’t feel like Joan Jett as I expected. Instead, I felt like Ursa from the Superman movies, decked in all black, billowy sleeved, stoic face and oddly dressed for the occasion at hand (but without two similarly dressed men at my side). No, I wasn’t exactly going to try to take over the world, or battle Superman, although either seemed like an easier task than dealing with my current emotions. To finish the ensemble, I had decided to wear a brooch my grandmother had given me years ago that had become one of my favorite pieces. I had also taken out other jewelry my grandmother had given me, in case my sister wanted to wear something of hers too. Looking back, I thought about that time years ago, when my grandmother had started to let us make personal selections from her jewelry. At first, I thought it was a bit macabre that she was so insistent on passing off her possessions. People cast off their material belongings when they no longer have any use for them, and considering the circumstances, I found it unsettling. Now, I understand. Much like she had told us to give her flowers while she was alive, not when she is gone, she wanted to be present to enjoy it; she wanted to have the opportunity to witness our pleasure in having items that were once hers.
Before we left, we decided that it would make sense to drive two cars to the Graham’s. This would give us more flexibility to leave when we wanted, whoever that might be, or whatever the combination. My sister and I rode in her car and my parents rode in my father’s car. At the time the funeral arrangements were being made, my mother decided that our immediate family of 4 would drive our own car to the service and to the burial, not in the limousine with the rest of the family. I assumed it would have meant another limousine anyway, since it would have been quite a large group if we were included. When we arrived at the Graham’s, my aunt was there with her family from Georgia, her husband and 2 of her 3 sons. New semesters of college had just started for them all, and I think the obligations of the oldest didn’t allow him to come, or it may have been his choice not to come. I didn’t see the point in probing about it. I didn’t feel slighted, either way, I understood. Standing tall, dressed sharply in suits, it was bittersweet to see my cousins. They have all turned into such smart, handsome, young men, and I know that my grandmother would have been over the moon to see them. We were all there now, including my other aunt. Her son and his family were the only other family not present. I wasn’t even sure if he was going to come to funeral. This has been hard for the grandchildren, and I know that this would be harder for him. He spent more time with our grandparents than my sister and I had, and this could have been too much. I didn’t feel slighted by this either. Just t yesterday, I was going to walk right out the back exit at the funeral home and not take one foot in the chapel for the viewing. All the while, my grandfather was patiently waiting, and talking with the driver, looking calm and collected.
While we waited for the prompt by the limousine driver, we talked and caught up, making it feel like any other gathering at the Graham’s, but with a looming feeling of something being off. I realized that this was the first time ever in my life that I was at my grandparent’s home and my grandmother was not there, never to return. It was a sobering thought amongst the lighthearted banter. About 30 minutes had passed and the driver said it was time. We gathered and made our way to the door, leaving behind a friend of my aunt’s who was preparing food for the repast. The drive took only minutes. In that brief period of time, I had slipped back into a surreal world, not fully comprehending what was happening. My eyes were open but what was I seeing? I could hear, but it all sounded like white noise, one voice or sound not necessarily raised over another.
After the initial shock of seeing my grandmother at the viewing, I couldn’t say it was any easier to see her again. I did my best not to look if I could stop myself. Yet at moments, I caught myself staring right at her, not able to take my eyes off of her. I sat down with the family and people poured into the chapel room one after the other. Seated to the left of me were my cousins from Georgia and to the right was my sister. In front of me sat my grandfather, my mother, father and my aunt and uncle. There wasn’t much I could do but sit there and do my best to appear present and greet the people that came to pay their last respects to my grandmother. I was pleasantly surprised to see my friend from work as he walked down the aisle. I jumped up and smiled and just as quickly became overwhelmed. I had not given him any information about the service, but I assumed our other friend/lady boss told him. I excused myself from the row and joined him and thanked him for coming. He had been there for me through this entire process and just seeing his smile made me feel a little at ease. As difficult as the last few months have been for me, it has been a true affirmation that I am very fortunate to have many people in my life who have lent an ear and their heart, willingly, because they care.
I was in and out of my seat a few more times to greet people, apologizing to my cousins as I narrowly squeezed past their long legs. Towards the end of the wake, my cousin and his family arrived and came down the aisle. Up until this time today, I don’t believe I shed a stream of tears, but that all stopped once I got up and greeted them all. When I got to him, it started as an embrace and turned into an unrelenting release of tears and emotion for us both. Immediately, my sister joined our hug, and all was lost. We are the original 3 and spent a lot of our childhood together, all under the loving eyes and roof of our grandparents. Our younger cousins are very special to us, but our bond has a 20-year advantage over them. It was hard not to melt into a puddle of our tears. Somehow we managed to stop ourselves from doing exactly that and it ended in smiles and laughs. Soon after, he and his family left.
I had not one clue what the plans were for the service. To me, it did not matter what they were. I was just there. The service began and I was pleasantly surprised to see that my aunt (the middle sister) was presiding over the program. During most of the service, I felt that she was talking directly to me and there was not another soul in the room but our family. She wove appropriate religious references and personal stories of the Grahams with the profound, philosophical realities of life and death. The overall message was that my grandmother’s heaven was indeed here on Earth; she lived a life fuller than most and also, to keep in mind that my grandfather is the one who will suffer the greatest loss. While we all have our lives to go back to, my grandfather’s life revolved around my grandmother for the last 70 years. It was beyond brilliant. I have always held my aunt in high esteem for her wisdom and wit and she knocked this out of the park. I know my grandmother would be proud; we definitely were. My mother recited prose that she had written and shared with her mother years ago about what she meant to her as a woman and as a mother. I was proud of my mother for her ability to share her personal and endearing words aloud after spending several days a week for years at my grandmother’s side, watching first hand how her life was slowly being taken away. A friend of my grandparent’s shared an analogy comparing the making of lemonade to the bittersweet ending of life that was very insightful and wonderful storytelling. A neighbor stood up and gave testimony to the love that my grandparents have for each other. Intertwined, were performances by a singer whose voice set the hair on my arms at full attention. She truly had the voice of an angel and I couldn’t do anything else but cry for each note that she graced us with.
If you could say that a funeral service was “good,” this one was good. That sounds strange to say, but my frame of reference is also skewed. Compared to the second traumatic part of my paternal grandmother's service (the first being the poor job of preparing her body by the funeral home), the two services were extreme opposites. For my father’s mother, church politics didn’t allow the pastor that my grandmother had known for decades to officiate the service. Instead, the current pastor who hardly knew her would not let her ego get out of her own way and she did not accept the request. The result was an embarrassing disaster. No exaggeration. It was such a monstrosity that my sister, cousins and I were uncomfortable and even laughed and questioned how this was possible during the service itself. From behind, it was clear that my father and his siblings felt the same by the way they were shifting in their seats. We honestly expected one of them to get up and say something or to somehow stop this woman from uttering another word. She was all over the place, making analogies that were nonsensical and nothing she said was personal to my grandmother or to us. One longtime friend of the family actually walked out of the service, later telling us that he couldn’t stay any longer listening to the pastor. My grandmother did not deserve to have someone that careless have the last word on her life.
There is no need to say that having to see the casket close is one of the most painful parts of this entire process. The thought of never physically seeing a loved one in the flesh again is unfathomable. You may have managed to keep yourself somewhat composed up until that very moment but when it is time, the finality hits you like a bag of bricks and that it did. As I saw her face quickly disappearing, I could only stand there, with my legs in a locked, but wobbly state and hear the beat of my heart in my ears. The funeral home staff asked for volunteers for pallbearers and my cousins, uncle and father fell in line. This was hard to watch too, men who my grandmother loved dearly, now performing this last act of love and respect. I hate that I can’t get out of my mind like this. I can’t help it, especially with my cousins, the youngest of her grandchildren who she moved away to help care for, are now caring for her. By this time, I am going through the motions and had emotionally shut down. Our car was after the limousine for the processional to the burial. I got in the car and looked out the window and watched life pass by as we sat in quiet and my father put his attention towards driving.
The location of the cemetery was familiar to me. I had been up and down that same road when I was attending college - funny how places can mean different things at different times. The heat must have been non-existent for September. I can’t recall feeling warm, not even in my Ralph Lauren leather pants. As the men in my family stood as the pallbearers, the remaining family sat in chairs, while everyone else stood behind us. The staff from the funeral home said a few words and this all concluded in the final act. Originally, I don’t think the plan was to have the casket lowered, but it was a last minute request that I was not prepared for, but it was what it was. We all walked back to our cars and my family returned to the limousine. I slumped back into my seat and turned around. I kept looking back at the site as we drove off, until it was all out of view. In my throat was the biggest lump. No matter your philosophical or theological beliefs about death, the body is the physical home and we were leaving her there. It all felt like an out of body experience because I couldn’t believe it. This was not happening. I wasn’t really there.
Our drive back was as quiet as the drive up, with an occasional conversation and cry. The return trip home was not as long now that we were free to take the route we wanted. By the time we returned to the Graham’s for the repast, there were already people there. It ended up being a lot of people as the time ticked on. It was nice to see everyone, but I wanted to be by myself. I had been around people constantly for over a week. I think my sister was feeling the same and she came up with another “plan” to get us out of there momentarily and we stole away for half an hour at best. When we returned, I was ready to eat and it was too crowded upstairs and I was not interested in being forced by proximity to have a conversation. The basement was empty and the perfect place to escape. For only a brief time, I was able to get away with being alone. I don’t think that people understood that I purposely wanted to be alone, especially when they all practically said, “What are you doing down here all by yourself?” I know it would have been rude for me to reply with the truth, “I want to be alone!” Their concern was out of love and I appreciated it and the conversations I did end up having were great, inspiring and worthwhile. The only exception to the "be by myself" rule, of course, was my sister; she didn’t count. After some time she came down and it was the two of us but with other visitors. We went back upstairs at some point and mingled. During the time I was there, I looked in every room but the bedroom. I wasn’t ready.
It had been a long and emotionally draining day. My sister and I left my parents at the Graham’s and went home. We didn’t do too much when we got back; we changed our clothes and got comfortable. We reheated the pho from the night before and hung out in the kitchen, talked, had a few drinks and watched TV. Another hour or so crept by and we went our separate ways. I went down to my room but I wasn’t ready for bed. I waited up for my parents and came back up when I heard them walk in. Casually, I interrogated my mother about what we missed when we left, as we both dug into a bag of tiny, leftover chicken salad sandwiches she brought home from the repast. I was satisfied with her answers and the chicken salad sandwiches and retired for the evening, hoping that I could actually get some peaceful rest. While I trying to fall asleep, I realized that I did not see my grandfather break down. Honestly, I had been concerned about his reaction. I knew that this could very well leave him physically heartbroken, to the point of death. This phenomenon is not uncommon for husbands and wives that have been married for this long and that have been this devoted to each other. I felt bad for thinking that even though it was a possibility.