Thursday night, 10-27-11:
This has been quite a week. My Pop died a week ago today. I was supposed to arrive in New York today, but I’ve been here for four days. Four days? Really? How in the world has it only been four days? My mom and I were browsing in a shop last night, and all of a sudden I felt like I was going to keel over. I was checking out a sweater that looked like it would need an instruction manual to get into, and my mom commented that she couldn’t even remember what anyone wore yesterday. I had to stop and think when I heard the word “yesterday.” I couldn’t remember it right away, but then I did: we buried my grandfather yesterday. We promptly left to eat dinner and get in bed early.
My family does a wake the old fashioned way, and it’s a process. Some of the older relatives were talking about when wakes used to be twice as long—five full days—which seems unfathomable. Pop’s wake started Sunday night and went from 7-9:30. There was another viewing Monday from 2-5, a break for dinner, and then another one from 7-9:30. At this point you pretty much feel like throwing a wake for yourself, but no, this is not an option. We were back at the funeral home at 9:00am for a final ceremony, then we said our last goodbyes (agony, any which way you look at it) and we were off to the church. Then to the cemetery. Then to a luncheon.
We’re not Jewish, but oy vey.
It is absolutely incredible who showed up to pay their respects to Joe. There were people my grandfather had gone to grammar school with. His tenants were there. There was a guy there named Joe Potatoes (not his real name), a guy named Slickman from my grandparents’ old neighborhood, and another guy named Slicky from the V.F.W. A lot of the guests were shuffle stepping around. One guy wet his pants. A few women wore too much perfume. Most spoke in very loud voices. Everyone was awesome.
My mother’s friends from Connecticut came up—several groups—and Kate (bless her heart) drove down two days in a row so she could be at both the wake and the funeral mass. This is not a woman who likes to drive or who knows how to drive in the City, but it is incredible what you’ll do for the people you love, and Kate loves my mother and me. If you’ve ever driven on the famous BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) without knowing where you’re going then you know what a feat this was and how much it means. The lanes are narrow, the potholes are deep, and the drivers are ruthless. For Kate from Darien, CT it was basically like going to a foreign country.
Several of my mother’s childhood friends were there. An uncle came from Florida and a cousin from Baltimore. Some people didn’t tell my mom they were coming because they didn’t want her to tell them not to. There were a lot of surprises that led to tears of gratitude.
About a dozen nurses and aides from the nursing home showed up, and not a single one had dry eyes. These were the people who knew him best in his final months, and they shared their stories with me. They told me about how much sharp he was, how handsome, how funny. Also, how naughty. One girl told me that he never wanted to go to bed when he was supposed to, and one night she said, “Ok, Joe. Time for bed.” and he said, “is that an invitation?” He got away with saying things like that to the girls because he was so sweet. I found out about a female resident on his floor who had a big crush on my pop and liked to hold his hand. Left unattended she got out of her wheelchair and was found hovering over his bed; this woman can’t take a step by herself, but she got herself into a standing position to be closer to my pop.
I heard some sad things too. When an infection was raging through his body he hallucinated and said disrespectful things to some of the Asians living and working in the facility, thinking they were Japanese and he was back in W.W. II. He thought that a bomb had been planted in his prosthetic leg, he thought a plastic spoon might explode and kill them all, he was worried about my mother getting off the ship alive. He was clearly not living in reality at that time and was forgiven his indiscretion. It’s sad, but I heard it happens all the time with some of the older Veterans.
A dozen or so Veterans came from the V.F.W. post that my Pop was active in, and performed a sweet ceremony at the wake on Monday afternoon. They spoke about courage, determination, and loyalty. Every single one kissed and hugged my grandmother on his way out the door.
At the cemetery Pop’s beautiful Mahogany casket was covered with an American Flag, and two Naval officers stood at attention at either end while the deacon said the final prayers. The officers were not only women, but they were also black. My Pop was not sexist or racist, but he was from “that generation.” It’s safe to say that he would have preferred the officers be white and male, and all I could think of was the expression “over my dead body,” and how those women literally were.
Those women were amazing; we all saw it and knew he could too. They were so proud and stoic. They stood like statues, gorgeous and unflinching in their dress uniforms. It was a brisk, windy afternoon and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Our group huddled together, but those girls stood alone, facing each other at attention until it was time to fold the flag.
They wore white gloves and took the flag folding seriously. Taps played in the distance. Every speck of dirt was wiped off and every crease smoothed before each of the twelve symbolic folds. My family stood mesmerized. I was next to my grandmother with my arm around her, and knew they’d be coming to present her with the flag. The officer presenting it stopped in front of me. She looked me in the eye and spoke in a voice clearer than anything I’d ever heard said, “On behalf of the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your Grandfather’s service to this Country and a grateful Navy.”
When she was done I said “Thank You,” and she said, “No, thank you.” And then she was gone.
I held the flag for a few moments in my outstretched hands then I brought it to my chest and hugged it. I was completely overwhelmed by the honor of the presentation, and was shocked that the flag had been given to me. I asked my grandmother if she wanted it, but she told me she already had one and he would want me to have it. My cousin Robert is brilliantly hilarious and always knows when to make a joke. He’s in his mid-40s, married with four children, and has a solid career, but he said, “It makes me want to join the military just so I can have an awesome funeral.”
My pop had an awesome funeral that concluded a tremendous life. He was in pain for a few months and his quality of life had deteriorated, but luckily he didn’t have to live that way for long. Unfortunately, we have to worry about my grandmother now.
She can’t seem to remember much in the short term. She keeps forgetting that Pop died, and confuses his funeral with his father’s funeral or her brother’s funeral, though he’s alive. Five minutes after leaving the funeral home after the first night of the wake she asked me what I wanted to do the next day. She knelt or stood by his open casket several times during each of the viewings, and it looked like she was seeing him, but she never shed a tear. She nearly giggled during a few of the serious ceremonies. She sang “dooby-dooby-do” in the limousine on the way to the cemetery.
My grandmother will most likely be the subject of my next post, which I’ll try to get up in a day or two. If you’d like to read the eulogy I read at the funeral mass click on the tab above marked “POP.”