Jilly D.

Funeral Arrangements

In Immediate impacts on November 1, 2010 at 1:30 am

How did I get to the funeral home? I looked around the table in the parlor of this old remodeled home. I had no idea what I was really doing here. His mom and dad, his sister Judy, and his daughter Tricia sat with me around an antique dining room table in the Ness Sibley Funeral Home to make final arrangements for the love of my life, Sam Warren.
Joe Sibley meekly introduced himself and extended his limp hand for a shake. He then took his chair at the head of the table. Joe took a deep breath and then held his hands before his chest with the tips of his fingers touching, pressing together, releasing and touching again.
Slowly this soft-spoken man started in on the heavy sell. Opening catalog books filled with hundreds of caskets, Joe started with the super deluxe models made from mahogany wood with satin lining. I sat there mute from the pain and shock. He showed us the mid-range caskets and suggested we consider at least a plain pine box.
Mother Warren stopped him and said we would not need a casket because we planned on cremation. Joe Sibley explained there were caskets for ashes and perhaps we would look at these catalog pictures. Mother Warren said again, no, we would not need a casket.
“Perhaps you would be interested in one of our urns to hold your loved ones’ ashes,” he turned to the next section of the heavy oversized catalog. Again starting at the high end of the price scale, he showed each of us the pictures and passed the catalog around before turning to the next page. No, no urn.
“Do you plan to spread his ashes?” he gently probed.
“Yes,” the whisper left my lips. I knew in that moment we would spread his ashes in the pond at the end of the dock near the pavilion. He belonged there.
“Well you might be interested in this then. You can spray the ashes with this beautiful wand. Or perhaps you would like some ashes put in a little decanter to put on a necklace,” he smiled and passed the book to me. How could he do this to me in slow motion? The room started to spin.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Where is the ladies room?”
The mortician stood and showed me to the bathroom right outside the door of the parlor. I walked in and looked at myself in the mirror. I saw a stranger whose skin looked green staring back at me. I leaned over and vomited in the toilet. The mix of apple cider and orange juice someone handed me earlier that morning turned my stomach twice.
Finally, the gagging stopped. I cried. I cried trying to be quiet. I blew my nose on tissue and flushed.
I washed my face and returned to the parlor. No one had moved or said anything since I left. Mr. Sibley smiled weakly and put his hand on my shoulder. Everyone else looked terrified.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“A little,” I lied.
Mother Warren didn’t hurry Mr. Sibley. She didn’t budge either on her plan for the least expensive arrangements. No visiting hours. No service at the funeral home. She intended a service at the Cayutaville Methodist Church and all she needed Joe Sibley to do was show up with his ashes for the service.
“Couldn’t I interested you in these prayer cards?” he asked Mother Warren. His hand offered her a laminated card the same size as one from a deck of playing cards. On one side there is beautiful sunlight coming through dense woods and on the other side appears a printed name, dates of birth and death, and a short prayer. Mother Warren ordered 100 of the memory cards for family and church friends.
I asked about an obituary and the funeral director began to ask lots of questions and take notes. He couldn’t write fast enough as we began to provide him with the details of Sam’s extraordinary life. I agreed to write a first draft and the funeral home would take care of the rest.
I don’t remember how I got home from the funeral parlor either. Did Judy and Wayne give me a ride? What time of day was that? That day, the day after Sam died, remains mostly a blur.
The Warrens called a meeting at sister Judy’s house to plan the funeral service. After Sunday church service, Pastor Steve DeWalt drove to Judy’s house. Judy and her husband Wayne hosted the family and pastor at the kitchen table. Sam’s parents, his daughter Tricia (and her partner Kip), his niece Marti-Jo (and her partner Randy) and his nephew Jamie gathered around. The pastor asked us to begin with a prayer.
Amen. When eyes opened, all the men in the family except Sam’s dad and Pastor Steve, excused themselves; left the kitchen table and drifted outside. They stood in the driveway and wandered through Wayne’s garage; standing around doing nothing came naturally to them in these extraordinary circumstances.
Before the minister could begin, I confronted him about my Lutheran background and my expectations for a church funeral service.
“Pastor Steve. I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job, but I’m not a Methodist and I don’t know your hymnal. Can we use the King James Version of the Bible instead? I’d like to hear the Psalm, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ And can we use the passage from Ecclesiastes about there is a time for everything?” I asked.
Pastor Steve smiled and sat up in his high back kitchen chair. He picked up his bible and tried to keep up with the chapters and verses I began to rattle off to him to include in the service.
Even though I hadn’t been a regular church member since I graduated from high school, somewhere from deep within my memory bank the most relevant biblical passages jettisoned to my lips. My claims to Midwestern Buddhism fell to the wayside. I inserted myself into planning Sam’s funeral. Janet took a passenger seat to me momentarily as I navigated this new journey. Pastor Steve seemed both stunned and amused at my Lutheran proclivities.
I sat at the table with my bible from confirmation, Sam’s leatherbound confirmation bible, and a copy of Scandinavian Humor & Other Myths. Before the Warren clan, in their family compound, with the family pastor smiling in my face, I confessed my own Scandinavian belief in Nordic Gods that offered a complex system of secret totems which shaped our lives and dictated our actions.
When I heard Janet suck in her breath, I picked up my book to avoid their judging looks of shock. Sam’s family, and mine, his friends, and mine, often wondered and sometimes asked what the two of us saw in each other; we seemed such an odd couple. I found the page in my joke book and I looked up to see stunned faces.
I then explained to this somber group, that I had worshiped Sam as an incarnation of the Nordic God of Fishing and read aloud the following passage:
“No sport is more popular among Scandinavian Americans than fishing and for good practical and theological reasons. Fishing, unlike almost all other sports, requires no talking, no running and no throwing things. Nirvana, the condition of being at complete oneness with one’s environment is achieved by Scandinavians only while fishing. Fishing is the perfect transcendental state: absolute silence, absolute motionless, and total intellectual and sensory deprivation broken only by the bite of a fish on the line. In the supernatural world of spirit animals, the blue heron is this god of fishing,” I read aloud. Then I paused and looked up from the book.
The look of horror on the Pastor’s face and shock on the faces of the Warren family members slowly turned to laughter. We all laughed so hard we cried in the celebration of Sam’s spirit.
Judy got up to get the coffee pot and filled cups for everyone at the table. In my Scandinavian childhood in Minnesota, this ritual of family communion around weak coffee at Judy’s table always made me feel like this was my home.
Mother Warren reassured Pastor Steve that Sam was quite a character. And he loved to fish. And he made the pond his home.
“Tell me more about Sam,” Pastor Steve said to Janet and then looked around the room.
Everyone talked about Sam and what kind of a man he was. What he had done in his lifetime and the way he lived his life when it ended too soon. These snippets were to be part of Pastor Steve’s sermon for this special ceremony.
“What other bible verses, hymns or material would you like to include in the service,” asked Pastor Steve when everyone had spoken and the first lull in the conversation occurred.
Janet and Judy offered ideas and asked questions. Who would play the music?
Sam played drums for many years. He couldn’t read music but he played in the ‘Sixth Sense’ rock band during his late teens; playing sock hops and house parties. His favorite solo was the 1960s classic, “Wipe Out!” He could still play along and drum with fingers on the table whenever he heard it on the radio.
Judy caught my eye and smiled. Was she going to say it or was I? The ludicrous Lutheran blurted it out before she beat me to it.
“Wipe Out!” I yelled.
“Yes, WIPE OUT!” Judy chimed in. With a little hemming and hawing, it was arranged that Sam’s niece would download a digital version of the classic rock hit onto a CD and it could be played at the start of the service with a moment of silence following. Nathalie Dougherty would be asked to play keyboards for the church service as an old friend and one of Sam’s other “moms.”
“I have one more special request. It’s not really a church song, but a folk song. It’s a song I’d sing to Sam. I want the congregation to sing it. ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Please.” With that last personal indulgence, I shut up and let everyone else plan the rest of the arrangements for the funeral.
Sam had never wanted a church funeral. I knew what he wanted but he wasn’t going to get what he wanted. He didn’t have any say in the matter now. His mother would want him to have a church service. And I did too. I needed a house of God where he’d been baptized, confirmed and corrupted by Methodist Youth Fellowship; the Father’s home to a prodigal son. Sam was deeply spiritual, but not in a church way.
“I want you to bury me in the root cellar. Leave my bones there until I’ve rotted and there’s nothing left. I want to be buried with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other,” Sam said once, if not a thousand times. We always laughed about it. Now we would cry; not to curse or call out in this place of worship.
With the plans for the service finalized and the coffee pot empty, I left Judy’s house and walked down to the pond and cabin. Within minutes, Sam’s nephew and great niece arrived. Miss Jadyn took my hand and said we should walk around the pond.
I looked out onto the pond. I saw a dark form floating about ten feet from shore. I wasn’t sure what it was, but my diaphragm sank. I pulled Jadyn away from the pond and we walked in the opposite direction. I called Jamie over and asked him to check that floating object and bury it; I thought for sure it was a rabbit I had tried to save from drowning three days earlier. Sure enough, Jamie found a drowned baby rabbit floating there. I shielded Jadyn from another close encounter with death; at age 8 she was still reeling from losing her great Uncle Sam.
Between the funeral home and the funeral I witnessed Sam’s spirit roaming the farm in a variety of animal spirits. The drowning bunny was but one ghastly memory.
Dawn after Sam killed himself I got myself out of bed, dressed and walked the dogs. As we came round the pond back towards the cabin, I noticed something swimming in circles in the pond. Never a good sign.
I put the dogs in the house and came back out to investigate further. Sure enough. A tiny baby rabbit was swimming in the pond about ten feet from shore. Rabbits don’t swim.
Was it rabid? Was it dangerous? I asked myself as I observed this mysterious creature. I noticed the water was beginning to get soaked into its deepest layers of fur and the bunny’s body was submerged with only its face, nose and ears still in the air. I walked into the water fully dressed in heavy Carharts and boots and approached the rabbit rapidly losing its ability to stay afloat and grabbed it. I lifted it out of the water and plopped him on shore a good ten feet on land.
The bunny shook itself. It stood still. Then it started shivering. It shook itself even more vigorously. It’s nose searched the air for clues. The rabbit’s head turned from one side to another. It shook ears and head, then shook it’s body and one leg wiggled backwards. Then it turned and ran into the hedgerow and disappeared. Had I saved this little creature? Why had it been swimming in circles? It could have drowned.
It did. Nothing I could have done different. As I grappled with this drowning bunny a sensibility transcended upon my spirit and through this animal experience I felt his presence and a message.
“That rabbit was destined to die. And so was I. You gave me your best. Let me go,” Sam’s transcending soul shapeshifted but I didn’t want to hear it.
The geese spoke to me, too, and their love stories broke my heart. Every year there are a thousand or more geese who land on the pond and prepare for their journey south. One gander was so noisy and offered such a lament every evening I thought he was serenading me in my grief. But it was his goose that was dying. She laid in the pond for days, barely alive, and floating to keep herself away from prey. Then one day she laid there without moving; her head tucked elegantly against her floating body. The stillness of a fresh death. Rigor mortis just setting in and no visible sign of injury. The pond is cleared of all other waterfowl except her gander. He floats silently nearby. As dusk approaches he takes flight and passes into the western sunset alone.
“Death is sleep you don’t wake up from,” Sam told me hundreds of times. He thought death offered eternal rest, peace and nothingness. But he also reported visits from two ghosts; a recently departed friend and his great uncle. He wasn’t sure there wasn’t an afterlife; he talked about heaven being the memories you make on Earth. I wasn’t sure either, but I wanted to talk to this God.
I wanted to beg God’s mercy to give Sam his wings, on the one hand. And I wanted to curse this God who allowed Sam to die. And I wanted God to take me up in his arms and I also wanted him to bring Sam back to me.
I wasn’t sure there was a God anymore. I wasn’t sure of anything. The only thing I seemed sure of was who I am.
My father told me I needed to remember that. I am a Swenson. That means whatever I do, I do it my Swen way. He also told me to get my butt back in the pew before the funeral service. It’s not just because he was raised Methodist that he encouraged me to attend the Sunday service before the funeral the next week.
My grandfather died at age 59 from a massive heart attack and left my grandma Swenson a widow. My dad was so angry with God about that he couldn’t go to church for almost two decades. He told me it was a mistake and he was sorry. He took my hand and squeezed it.
A flood of memories of losing my wonderful grampa when I was 5 years old still choked me up, but I had never considered its emotional toll on my father. And suddenly I realized how much it affected my parents, sister and me. My father assumed a role he never planned on: youngest son to his widowed mother. Dad assumed the responsibilities of Grampa’s furniture store and stopped for coffee with his mother every morning on the way to work. Every Sunday we were expected at her house for an incredible homecooked meal, a television program or listening to records, maybe a game of cards.
When I started attending Sunday School I remember it gave my father an excuse not to attend services. Mother would get my sister and me up, dressed, fed and ready for church early. She sang in the choir and we spent the hour downstairs from the sanctuary engaged in bible stories and craft projects. I remember finding a Chivas Regal velvet bag in my parents’ bedroom once and bringing it to Sunday School. The color and texture reminded me so much of the vestments in the church.
No one explained to me why it wasn’t appropriate to bring the booze bag to church. Only now do I understand that my father may have been drinking on Saturday nights and unable to get up for church. Since neither of my parents drink alcohol very often or very much, this new recollection of my youth through the lens of my father’s years of grief and mourning the loss of his father startles me. After Grampa died my dad didn’t go to church with us girls.
Mom would prod my sister and I to each try once or twice to see if Dad would get up and join us this Sunday morning in church. The alarm had gone off six or seven times already and he’d refuse to budge.
I’d go in their bedroom and try to wake him; poke him; tickle him. Nothing. Dad would be snoring. Or his head under the pillow, hiding. He’d grunt at best. He wasn’t going with us this week.
It wasn’t until his mother died that I realized he’d begun to make some peace with God and my mother. My parents had found a church where they were both active members. He cried at grandma’s funeral. And he resumed his faith slowly with a steady diet of church meals.
I did get to church in Cayutaville that Sunday morning; the week before the funeral. Took myself and sat my butt down on that pew again. Don’t remember much except being in the pew next to Sam’s parents and weeping throughout most of the service. I gathered the emotional flow from his church community and channeled their prayers for him through me. I opened myself up to the spiritual message of Christianity and found salvation and redemption in the simple Sunday service. An emotional release, but I could not take in just yet that I had opened a conversation with God and he did all the talking. I still had all my questions. And I still had to get through the funeral itself.
“Come back. Come back to me. Sam, please come back,” that was my prayer in its single refrain. I kept thinking it but couldn’t say it outloud: DON”T LET GO OF ME. PLEASE SAM DON”T LEAVE ME.
My parents came to me as soon as I called that night he died. They got in their car and drove across the country to be with me and stand by me in my darkest hour. It really kind of surprised me, but I needed them so desperately I just let them come. Living out of wedlock, giving up a teaching job with tenure, farming and living off the grid with a man of questionable character given his Methodist upbringing…these were not the things a good Lutheran daughter did to her parents. And these were just some of the reasons I lived at least a thousand miles away.
My parents stayed with me until my sister could fly back from Germany where she was on vacation with her husband and two children. I needed Barb at the funeral and my parents needed to be grandparents to her children while she was away in New York. So I sent them home.
The morning they left for Minnesota, I stood outside the cabin enjoying the beautiful September colors of nature and the view of the pond. My mom took a few photographs and they were ready to get home; it had been very stressful and hard on both of them with their respective health issues. From out of nowhere appeared a gander from the north that flew very low and close over our heads. He laughed outloud and flapped its wings just over my dad’s head. Then the gander landed on the pond in a splashless arrival on the still glass surface of water.
The signs Sam sent me cast me into a year of magical realism and spiritual expansion.


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