Death begins the way it always does, so many times, with a phone call out of the blue. My wife and I were on an errand and our daughter relayed a call to say that a matriarch had died. It happened on the weekend; the visitation was yesterday and the funeral tomorrow, according to our cousin. We were so grateful that he called and to be given the chance to look death in the eye and celebrate her life. It grew silent for a moment in the car. Our eyes watered and then, when the first shockwave passed, she called her brother.
For the remainder of the day we remembered her. Memories came in waves and we bobbed on them at intervals. We clutched on for dear life, to the flotsam and jetsam of our sorrow. We saw her almost two years ago to celebrate her 100th birthday. She was one-month shy of turning a 102 and we remarked on the passage of time. This great, great aunt, we called her Zia, but to be honest, it was hard to trace her royal lineage back to my wife’s father’s grandfather’s brother’s spouse. All our ancients have died and they took our history when they left. Self-memory is a poor consultant.
In the summer of fun, our clothes did not fit and like the old joke, we shoe-horned into them the next morning. Sagely, I remembered to bring a handkerchief. The road took us south to the mausoleum, where her parents rest quietly in what they wryly called: the apartmentos. Sweet aunt and uncle who sponsored them in 1957, share the exact view of electric candles, love notes, trinkets, plastic bouquets and rosary upon rosary draped in repose. For all the world they remind me of shoulders shrugging, or an entity of silence standing vigil. Down the hall, around the corner, right at the bottom are the apartmentos of a different aunt and uncle. Outside, in the elements, where life is not sealed off, a couple of cousins, and a few paisani rest in the wind and in the sunlight.
I parked the car and an elderly couple walked before us. He was in pain, limping: She waited patiently but with that worried look around her eyes. I could tell she was eager to get in, to be on time, to sit and remember. He did his best, our car lock beeped stupidly and we respectfully joined in procession. I saw that he was hers and she was his and this now, to eternity. I held the door for them.
We came inside and the funeral attendants greeted us and were kind. I so appreciated the genuine compassion as opposed to the we-do-this-for-a-living solicitude of the professional. I have seen the difference, countless times for she is mine, and I am hers and this too, for 33 years, last week. Wedding upon wedding, feast upon feast, ashes upon ashes, dust upon dust.
A beatific man waddled by and with some embarrassment of judgement, I later realized he was the priest. We were ushered to the right and I could see her lying in state at the front. A little cherub wept. I saw the faces of eight or ten souls I knew outright and I remembered so many others by our annual or semi-annual association of gathering. My wife, she and I rehearsed names on the journey down, the who-belongs-to-who lineage and when I entered the room, I panicked, grew shy, forgot everyone, but I loved them all nonetheless. Our sister-in-law is brilliant that way. She remembered everyone by name and saved my Canadese bacon countless times. It was a high honour to name and be remembered before the cheek kisses. I work on getting better at that but I would rather do it at weddings and feasts to be honest.
She looked beautiful in the coffin. We touched her, bowed and said a prayer. Her eyes were closed and her skin so smooth and paper-y. In the times I knew her, her face in repose peered sternly. She peered in a way that I imagined was a frustration at life that taunted her living. I often watched her from afar, fascinated. And I saw too, the beauty of ancient women who just know together and feel together, with an empathy only they possess. Home. Family. Dinner. Peace. When I was lucky, I witnessed her smile and sometimes, something would be so funny in the secret zest of women, I saw her cackle and I felt myself laugh from afar in a resonance of wonder.
In time, the priest began his service. His face was gentle, smile-filled and he was perfect for his part. He spoke directly to the great-great little cherubim girl. Lo, she stopped crying, answered him and later wept when the pressure was off and her little lost brother was gathered in next, by the shepherd’s crook. The priest spoke directly to the next grand-layer of children, now adults, two of whom were pall bearers. He made us chuckle, called them by name and told us the inner meaning of their spirits. By then I felt the creep of sorrow, yet no tears would come and I longed not to feel distant in the holiness of death. The little cherubim girl helped me then, when she was offered the chance to sprinkle holy water upon her great-great-nonna. When she wept again, for a second I lost control, felt the surging within and wiped my eyes on my handkerchief. My heart was clear, so much so that my sight opened up to meaning. I heard the Ave Maria from within and I was fully present. I saw one uncle wrap his arm over her shoulder, crouch, and gesture a tender comfort. In a nano-second, I was given a true sighting of love through the moisture of my being. It was only then, that I celebrated life.
In due course, the funeral attendant spoke. We would follow the procession outside and to the right, through the front doors, across the road to a monolith of stone, sharp angle, flowers and resolute ending. Row after row, in formation we followed and I gathered my wife’s hand, took my time to look at her and saw that she was alright. The air was fresh, the sun so bright, and gently we drifted into a marble passage. Near the end, at the bottom tier, a hole gaped in the wall. I looked for and saw the grave-attendants, always in twos with their calking guns and extra cartridges at parade rest. Indifferent to the procession, but not disrespectful, they were men in their own concentration and the more I looked at them, the more they became invisible so that all that appeared were two efficient pairs of hands working in a harmony of use. Coffins are so heavy, even for six and I made ready, after the priest’s last words, to help. I once had to do that when an older man faltered at the breach and made a note, never to take a bottom slot in any wall. I saw that our little cherubim girl wept again, so loved and protected by her mother and two uncles.
Mausoleum caulking is so creamy and spreads beautifully. It was marvelous how the hands aligned the marble face-plate, got it perfect and screwed the corners down. There was a moment’s silence, but the silence was interrupted by the sound of bird and motorcycle in the air. They were casual reminders that life begins again; that life both mundane and magnificent is normal, and death, only an event. Reverie was taken too soon by the attendant’s quiet voice of instruction. We will gather to the left and form a processional to pay our last respects to the family, and then proceed directly back to the chapel, to go downstairs where we are invited to join in community to share a small lunch in the celebration of life.
It surprised me that my wife and I didn’t linger outside by the marble wall. We followed the ancient man and women we saw coming in and I held the door open again. Soon, we entered the downstairs room, in dribs and drabs, unsure and unused to the intimacy that leaving brings. It was like a pool at Bethsaida. We sought healing together in a third space in this tableau of meaning: Prayer, entombment, food. There were tables, urns of coffee, an espresso machine and a long offering of sandwiches; prosciutto and mortadella, chewy buns, celery, broccoli, peppers, cauliflower and dip, bordered on the end by pastries.
There was some milling about and then a line formed to gather the manna, step by step and the odd thing was that we didn’t all sit as one. We sat in our clans. I love that I could name each clan. I felt staunchly proud I was not of the blood but might as well be. Irish-loyal, some might say. I represented my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, as the husband of their Italian daughter and I am here for them, like breathing.
When it is time, the log-jam broke and the awkwardness of death parted. Gianni came to my table and asked how my retirement is going. I knew him from a great talk we had at his nephew’s wedding last year. Murmur gave way to laughter and brightness and soon we were all up chatting and mixing lineage. My wife, she is content and I left her to go to another clan. The male grandchildren were together and they welcomed me. I felt so happy I could sit with them. Someone smuggled a small toast in and I felt the micro-gesture of inclusion burn sweetly upon my lips. I knew one man in the clan who was a teenager when I married. He was the only soul at the time with a van and, without blinking, he generously carted wedding gifts to our home. My God, I was in love, swooning, some might say, and in a gesture of complete gratefulness I hoisted a gallon of wine upon the boy. With Cheshire grace he accepted; we all hugged and he left to drive south. Only then, did my wife think to wonder how old he actually was. We laughed together at our table and an older man sat back and declared the story: “good”; yet the ritual of inclusion was truly made complete when I was chastised thirty-three years later for not bringing fresh wine to this celebration of life. I turned to the old teenager with mock indignation and aimed my father’s joke. “I taught you everything I know and still you know nothing.” When it was time, Clan upon clan, we stood, hugged and parted.
People were saying goodbye. The elderly left first and something desperate was taken from me when each of them exited. My wife, she sighed, the way her mother did and we were a couple again. Standing, we began the intentional dither of making our rounds. Who knows when we will see each other again? By chance, I stood before the little cherubim girl. I didn’t want to intrude upon her holiness but I somehow wanted to thank her for her gift of tears. I crouched down, and I know I must have looked like a complete stranger. Her eyes opened in wonder and I was made stronger by her innocence. I spoke softly to her and smiled. In a moment, she opened her arms and we hugged like there was no tomorrow.
Glenn Carley is a regular contributor to Accenti. His forthcoming books in 2021 are the libretto Il Vagabondo, An Urban Opera (Guernica); Jimmy Crack Corn, A novel in C minor (Rock’s Mills); and two children’s books coauthored with and illustrated by his son Nick Carley, The Long Story of Mount Pester and sequel, The Long Story of Mount Pootzah (Rock’s Mills). He resides in Bolton, Ontario, with his family (Gcarley@rogers.com).