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Go To The Funeral

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The NPR piece is actually about eight years old.  A father offers his daughter some advice:  always go to the funeral.  Well, really, it's more than advice, since he makes her go to one, one for her teacher who has died.

In recent weeks, the piece has resurfaced, I think because the commentator's father has recently died and the whole topic has taken on new poignancy.

It is one of hardest things I have ever had to learn, and I try to unlearn it every chance I get.  My father didn't teach it to me; my wife did.

This one is for those friends of mine who are like me or worse.  Go to the funeral.  You have to go.  And the older you get, the more and more you will have to go.  People will expect to see you.  They will need you.  And they will wonder why you are not there, but that won't be an issue because you will be there because you will listen to her advice, and my wife's, and mine: go to the funeral.

Last week, I fought it.  My wife's uncle died inconveniently on a Wednesday.  I don't say that callously.  We all know that death is inconvenient because whenever it happens, we are too busy too confront it, even if we aren't.

Her uncle was a good man, straightforward and quick to be friendly, a trait I always appreciated when I was working my way into her family.  He was one of those WWII vets who saw frontline combat in the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere, saw and experienced horrors you can only barely understand if you've watched Band Of Brothers, and who came home and never said a word about it and started an automotive business and became a civic leader out of a gas station and auto parts store and who raised a family and continued on for 93 years, only the last handful of which began to slip away from him.

So I had reasons not to go. My job always makes me feel like I need to be there.  I didn't want to disrupt that.  Plus, the funeral was going to push into the weekend.  I had a band practice I wanted to attend, and an evening of trivia that I was looking forward to.  Selfish things, petty things, but, let's face it, real things.

My wife was leaving on Thursday afternoon and I said no.  Too much disruption.  But I was also feeling the pull.  I wanted to be with her, wanted to support her family, wanted to honor her uncle.  He was known as "Unc," was known by me to make a mean hamburger, to put on a great 4th of July and an equally great post-funeral gathering for his own mother.  And he had come to some things that mattered to me.

So I planned to go.  It was my boss who cemented it.  He is a family man, extended family, ailing father, family suffering family first kind of guy, and when I told him the circumstances, he said, "you need to go."  I had known that, but I had needed to hear it.

So I got my affairs in order, classes and meetings and obligations, did everything that I wanted to do, however selfishly, and set out for west Tennessee at 4am with a suit on and a dog in the passenger seat.

I didn't tell my wife or anyone else except my children that I was going.  It was a brutal drive, and I arrived at the funeral home early, walked my dog, and went inside hoping to see some family member I knew.  Without success.  I stood inside, watching people sign the guest book while playing with my phone and looking out the window.  Sometimes I would step outside to see if that would prompt someone's arrival.  My wife was in a motel some miles away, so I knew I would see her when I saw her.  And I waited, uncomfortably, as is my habit.

The first person I saw was my brother-in-law, who had flown in from California, who almost no one knew was coming.  Then I saw my wife's niece and nephew who had driven from the East like me, and I knew I was in the right place.  Eventually, I saw my wife from across the room, her look saying it all, that I had come when she thought I wasn't coming.  But it wasn't about that.

A funeral for a 93-year-old man is a different experience, I know.  Grief is not so much muted as understood.  You share his loss while looking at all the ways his life continues to play out behind him.  It becomes about family, about fractures that all families have that can heal over a family moment behind the curtain with the body or over a beer or a plate of food back at someone's house.  And all of that serves as nothing more than a reminder that I needed to be there, that I needed to be part of that healing experience.

It is a lesson that must be learned over and over.  Go to the funeral.  Don't do it for yourself.  Don't avoid it for yourself.  Do it for them.  And they will do it for you.

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