September 14, 2007

funeral postmortem

I arrived about 15 minutes before the private family viewing time was over -- enough time, I thought, to view grandpa privately. I saw my cousins when I came in, eyes full of tears. There were hugs and hellos and then it was time. I made my way in and walked toward the casket. He looked terrible. Not every funeral home can work the magic I had come to expect on 'Six Feet Under.' He was pale and his lips were sucked in, as if he were trying to swallow them. The pic of him and my grandma was perched over his shoulder, a constant visual reminder of what he 'should' have looked like. I touched his hard hands but no thoughts or words came to me. Only the blank realization that this was not my grandpa -- not anymore.


At the wake, I managed to tell a few of my 'big city' cousins that I was gay. They were happy for me -- totally cool with it, asking about my gf. Later that night, our family had reserved a hospitality suite at the Holiday Inn. I figured after a few beers and/or glasses of wine, I'd find the courgage to tell some of the more conservative members of the family. There were suprises all around. When I clumsily told a few of my male cousins by edging into thier 'what women really want' conversation, they were literally speechless. I had actually managed to shock them and as they grimaced, I turned to my brother who swooped in to save me from the humiliation. I owe ya one, bro. I felt so marginalized after that incident, that I went outside to get some air, and called T. Feeling like the new family pariah, I slunk back into the room to collect my kiddos and shuffle back to my hotel room. I was done with the family togetherness for the night. Then I was suprised by a couple of my aunts. My rather conservative aunt from a decidedly red state saw me come in and read my sullen expression. I told her that I was struggling -- and she comforted me, reminding me that our family really was pretty conventional in it's thinking, and that it would take time. As I said goodnight to another of my aunts, she vented to me about how someone had lashed out at her. She too was feeling marginalized. She pointed out that a lot of us feel that way in our family -- convinced that we are the outcast. Though I had never heard our family dynamics described in this way, I knew she had hit on some indidious underlying thing that we do to each other. So much judgement. It's really inescapable in our family. Some are good at faking it to slide by, no flaws detected. I was never so lucky.


We made it the church in the morning with not a minute to spare. We quickly joined the others, cutting into the front of the line. I looked up at my cousins who served as pall bearers -- boys who were now men, attending the dead. The tears filled my eyes, but I choked them back. All the usual pomp of a Catholic funeral mass -- sprinkling the casket with holy water, lighting the Easter candle, the white burial cloth, the insense. Two of my aunts euologized their father and their stories of his life really set the tone. A man of science whose questioning of 'how things worked,' somehow led him down of path of faith and devotion. Stories of the Joliet prison riots, being active in civil rights, marching with Dr. King, and a lifetime of questioning. "Faith requires doubt," he told his children, "otherwise it'd be fact."


Why is our family so judgemental? Why do we criticize each other so harshly? Marginalized is exactly what I had always felt. There is always a gauntlet of criticism I must face when I'm in presence of my family. I'm too fat. I smoke. I work for the communists. My tattoos are sick and depraved. I'm not enlightened because I attend a Catholic church. I profess a faith I don't believe in. (You can't pick and choose, you know.) I'm not gonna make it to heaven. And oh, now I'm gay too. Well, at least they thought my children were delightful and my haircut was just perfect. My aunt said that she thought it was in our genes -- this thing we do to each other. And I think it's also in our genes to think that we're the only one that this is happening to. But I see it now -- we were all doing it to each other. Even the cousins -- the generation that I had thought was free from the type of behavior we'd all witnessed from our aunts throughout our lives. Was this to be our family legacy?


I'll miss you Grandpa Joe. After the funeral, we all insisted on going to the burial site; I guess they don't let people really do that anymore. The grave diggers were at work and I took a picture of them. You'd have been proud of us, learning something about the work, the process, of interning a body. But we all really needed to see you next to Grandma. Twenty-two years is a long time apart. I knew I couldn't leave the cemetary without seeing you lying next to her. We all needed that. I took pictures of the grave and surrounding markers, so that I could find my way back. We took a detour on our way home to the old house on 81st place. We told the Nigerian man that you sold the house to that you had died, and he remembered you fondly. The house never looked so great. I was flooded with memories standing there. Thanks, Grandpa, for always loving me, always teaching me, always guiding me. I trust that you will continue to do just that, from your new vantage point.


Jami said...

Beautiful and touching. Thank you for that.

zawelski said...

Oh, Val, I'm sorry for your loss. What an amazing process of reflection this post was! Congratulations for coming out to your family - very brave. Looking forward to seeing you at the picnic.

vegan.mama said...

Wow, what a wonderful blog. Brought up a lot of stuff I've been dealing with -- even now, seven and a half years after my grandmother died.