Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Six Months and Counting: Edward Gabriel Romero, 1971-2007
A Girl’s Guide to Funerals
Consider yourself robbed. While you were sleeping, a hooded stranger crawled through your bedroom window and pistol-whipped your lovely, peaceful life. You awoke startled, your happiness more fragile than you could have possibly imagined. That phone call hurled you, headlong, into a B movie that is too bright, too loud, and weirdly written by a comic who can no longer book Broadway…at best, the Cleveland Howard Johnsons.
Until my brother died on his 36th birthday, I really had no idea how to navigate funerals, even though I’d attended many and cried at all of them. But this time, as a family member, the sister who walks behind the coffin, writes the eulogy, reviews the autopsy with the medical examiner, and cancels the doctors appointments and magazine subscriptions…well, I gained a whole new respect for grieving. Unfortunately, there is no guidebook, no ten steps on how to do the work of it all, so whether you’re in the orchestra, or the audience, here’s what I think went right and what I think went terribly, terribly wrong.
After you drop the phone and crawl to your computer to purchase an airline ticket, eat a healthy meal with lots of vegetables and fiber. It will be the last good food you’ll enjoy for awhile. And if someone hands you a joint, take it. It will be your last escape. Ask your much-younger boyfriend to pack your suitcase because when you get to wherever you’re going, you’ll open it up to find an assortment of sexy panties and tight-fitting rock concert t-shirts that will be so incredibly inappropriate but will make you smile nonetheless because they will remind you of the life you once had, the life you will have again someday.
If you don’t already own them, purchase an expensive and glamorous pair of shades. Mine are Miu Miu. Chanel is good too, but nothing with rhinestones or leopard. Too showy. Wear them on the plane. Wear them to the florist, the mass, while grocery shopping for the widow. They will soon become your best friend when the house fills with family, friends and strangers and they become your only place to hide after somebody else locks themselves in the bathroom.
Be shameless about borrowing clothes; nobody will refuse you. You have a free pass now, remember? Plus, you have the excuse that your suitcase is filled with lingerie and stoner t-shirts. For the very Catholic rosary, I wore a tomato red Indian kurta, yoga pants and purple Jimmy Choos when I delivered the eulogy. Everybody commented on that outfit. Think Anne Bancroft for the New Age. Didn’t intend to create controversy, but apparently red and purple in combination are still not widely accepted.
For the funeral, I wore a seafoam green velvet cocktail dress even though it was 95 degrees in the shade. I told everyone that green was my brother’s favorite color, which is true, but really this dress makes my boobs look enormous and has just the right swish in the skirt. I wanted to look pretty because that’s all I had to hold on to and honestly, I haven’t seen most of these relatives in years, since my uh…wedding (aka: failure). Sadly, I forgot to change out my handbag and was stuck with an Oregon-dyke-Gortex-lime-colored-stain-proof number that is about as glamorous as a hairy armpit. But the much-younger boyfriend was kind enough to strap it across his chest so my outfit didn’t suffer.
Create scandal. It will make you feel alive when everybody else is talking about death. My scandal was to bring the much-younger boyfriend who’s not only muscular and hot in his broad shoulders, goatee and round ass, but compassionate and comforting to everyone he touches. Nobody knows what to make of a much-younger boyfriend. Especially your ex-husband, who looks gray and haggard and, of course, full of regret. But expect some folks to be totally off-base: “Goodness, your son is so sweet and respectful. You must be very proud.” Throw a curve ball: “And he’s great in the sack, too.” Or pull a Carrie Bradshaw: “He’s my luvaaa. Isn’t he fabulous.” In Hispanic, luvaaa means “sex with the lights on,” and oh, what a picture that will generate. When word gets out (and that’s what tias are for) that you’re banging a man 10 years younger than your youngest brother who’s now dead and likely scandalized himself, but in an amused “that’s my sister” sort of way, well, there’s no greater comfort.
Don’t stop having sex. Seriously. Get laid, even on the day of the funeral (just not at the funeral). It keeps you grounded, helps you sleep, makes your hair shiny. Plus, in the mornings, when your heart stops with recognition, your lover’s breath will fill your lungs whether you want it to or not. And for Godsakes, don’t feel guilty about getting laid. That’s a symptom of misplaced morality…at least that’s what my shrink says. And she applauds my sex life. That’s why we love her.
Speaking of…remember that cell number your shrink gave you to use 24/7, but only in an emergency. Use it now. This counts. Yeah, you’re tough, but you need the kind of help friends and family can’t give. Someone who will ask you questions you don’t want to hear and utter truths that may piss you off, but make sense weeks afterwards.
Do things that will make you feel good. Massage. Driving through the mountains in a hail storm. Consuming an entire pound of bacon. Drinking wine on the back porch. Did I mention sex? These are not indulgences. These are the little sweetnesses that curb the bitterness of your new reality. Plus, they are good distractions which we all know from Psych 101 are the warm, flannel sheets of denial. Although we’re taught denial is bad, bad, bad, in fact, I think denial has it’s usefulness; it’s the numbing creme that allows us to function until we no longer need it. It’s why I can still smile while shaking a hundred hands and cook food everyday when the house fills with people, it’s how I can negotiate with the gas company and deliver all the church bouquets to neighbors. Without denial, us grievers would curl up in our rooms, under our blankets and cry for a good six years. And nothing gets done that way.
Even if you manage to take care of yourself, there will be times you need an escape. Faint. Keep in mind, however, this could also create scandal because there will be buzz that the much-younger boyfriend knocked you up. Wait till the end of the mass when crowds of mourners rush towards you and the rest of your family to offer their condolences. Suddenly, you will find yourself overwhelmed as if you’ve been hurtled into space, unable to hear what people are saying, just that their lips are moving and their hands are all over you and your sides are dripping sweat even though the air-conditioner is blasting. But wait, wait for the perfect catcher. Oh, there he is. The grouchy newspaper editor three people away. Lou Grant will never let you down. Bury your face in his neck, breathe in his yummy aftershave and then let your knees buckle. He will catch you around the waist, lift you up and away from all those open mouths and pawing hands and he will sweep you outside, kicking the sticky door open with this furious foot. Others will follow, but he will not let you go. And finally, finally, you’re safe for the first time since before that phone call buckled your knees the first time.
Be prepared to make some shocking discoveries about your loved ones because nothing exposes the messy underbelly of family life like a funeral. For example, turns out my family is Hispanic and Catholic. Who knew? We were not exactly church going folk, but when the nachos were down, my parents ordered it all up: a 3-day public viewing including the recitation of the rosary in English and Spanish some 10 or 20 times (led by a fierce cadre of little, old, Hispanic women who seemed to multiply with each repetition), a formal open casket service where my brother was hair-sprayed and ironed of any wrinkles, freckles or personality (and weirdly, his left nostril was glued shut) as a giant cross with a very sad, dying man hung above him looking equally dismayed.
Just like weddings, funerals are for the survivors. And my brother’s wish to be instantly cremated, sealed in Tupperware and hiked up the mountain where he would be unceremoniously dumped over a rock face, preferably a 5.10 or higher in climbing difficulty…well, he didn’t get any of that. I did win the cremation argument at the bottom of the 9th, but I have a sneaky suspicion my parents will never forgive me.
Each of us finds our own way through grief…or not. But when the big questions have no answers, we tend to cling to the rituals we know, even if we don’t believe. This is one of those moments you are better off turning your anger and disappointment away from your family and towards the outside world, toward the people who truly suck. Just like when you were in college.
People Who Truly Suck: the short list
1. Anyone and everyone who said, “Hang in there” or “Hang tough.” Fuck you. This is not a sporting event.
2. The guy who sprawled across my brother’s coffin and shrieked, “It should have been me! It should have been me!” Be grateful for the life you have, dumbass, and even though, yes, I think it should have been you, too, do you really want me to say that in front of all these people?
3. The lame-ass state bureaucracy that issues death certificates. Why does it take six months, I ask? Without a death certificate there’s no access to much needed life insurance, no way to cancel airline tickets, no transferring the title of the car or investments, no tax returns filed.
4. The woman who said, “You know this will kill your father. He won’t be able to survive this.” While that may be true, I can only focus on one funeral at a time, thank you.
5. The swaggering tuck-and-pull who hugged me a little too long and said, “Your brother was my closest and dearest friend.” Then why have I never heard of you? And why don’t you know the names of his children?
6. The strangers who asked, “Were you and your brother close?” So let me ask you, if we weren’t close, say if we only exchanged Christmas cards, would you be less sorry. Would you write a smaller check?
7. The cheap ass who brought buckets of KFC to the house. Thanks. Now the rest of us can die young.
8. The fool who told my niece that “daddy went to sleep.” Since then, she can’t sleep for fear of never waking up. And she won’t let anybody else sleep either. Nice job.
9. The deacon. “Now you know, young lady, you have to bury ashes, you can’t scatter them. That would be against the law.” Thanks for the ‘young lady’ part but I don’t give a rat’s ass what the law has to say about ashes. Arrest me. And what the hell is a Deacon anyways?
10. The person (OMI? Funeral Home?) who left Frankenstein-like stitches on the left side of my brother’s neck. His wife flipped out and his children screamed. Where have all the craftsmen gone? Are they only on HBO?
Of course, there are a lot of well-intentioned people who don’t suck at all; they just ask inappropriate questions.
Questions Not To Ask
1. “Oh my God, how could this happen? He was so young and healthy.” The first part is rhetorical, the second part, obvious. I have no answer for you.
2. “How are your parents doing?” Well, let’s see, they just buried their youngest child so use your imagination.
3. “Did your brother have a will?” If you’re in it, we’ll let you know, otherwise, none of your bees wax.
4. “Do your niece and nephew know what’s going on?” They’re children, not potted plants, so yes I think they understand that daddy’s probably not working late.
5. “How will his wife manage with two small children and no job?” Sucks, doesn’t it? Any suggestions?
And if death is not bitch slapping you personally, but someone you love, step up and do something. The run up to the funeral is hard work. Don’t be one of the yappers that says, “If there’s anything, anything at all I can do, please don’t hesitate to call.” Because the reality of it is when you’re grieving, you can’t really come up with a to-do list or instructions or suggestions. You can’t even find your shoes. So look for something that needs to be done and do it. Sweep the floor. Take out the trash. Fix a meal. Water the garden. Make some phone calls. Play with the children. Hit the grocery store. Man the grill or dish up some food for strangers. And don’t forget to wash the dishes. You’ll feel better, too.
Some Don’ts to Consider:
1. When hugging, do it gently and then let go. Don’t grapple, grab, paw, pet, manhandle or leave an arm, hand, foot or head on any part of the body. Nothing makes a person squirm more than friends, family and strangers all taking their turn “comforting” you. It’s like Tail Hook without the booze.
2. Don’t tell me my brother wouldn’t want me to be so sad, that he’d want me to go on with my life. True. But he also wouldn’t want to be dead.
3. When asked “how are you?” just answer “fine” even if you’ve been canned from your job, diagnosed with cancer or your husband just got busted for banging his secretary. And I really don’t want to hear that your custom-made Italian leather shoes hurt, even if I was once married to you. Because at that moment, when we’re sitting next to an open coffin, me, my parents, my sister-in-law, we don’t really care how you are. We were just being polite.
4. Don’t stuff things into the dead man’s pocket without asking. Not rosaries, photographs, letters, lucky nickels or a lock of your hair. It’s just bad manners. And God will strike you dead.
5. Which reminds me…don’t talk about God. Yours or mine. Period.
6. Don’t hand over a plate of shitty food. I may be grieving, but I still have taste buds. And anything that comes in a box with a 1-800 number stamped on it is technically not edible.
7. Do not offer to purchase the dead man’s possessions, even if you’ve always wanted a beat up pick-up truck for those weekend hunting trips in the mountains. There’s a time and place…and this ain’t it.
8. Of course you have your own grief. You are a friend, co-worker, neighbor, uncle, cousin…but please, sob privately, especially if it involves head in hands, fist pounding or animal noises. It scares the children and makes us wince.
9. Don’t tell me to take care of my parents. I know that. Tell me something I don’t know, like when can I go home without feeling like a shit.
10. Don’t ask us for the medical examiner’s findings. Sure, I’ll tell anybody anything about myself and I’ll describe it too, like that single errant nipple hair that so embarrasses me. But my brother…he was extremely private. And that doesn’t change just because he’s dead.
11. Don’t put in your two cents about where we should spread the ashes. I think we have a pretty good idea.
12. Don’t disappear. The weeks after the funeral are the hardest because the house empties of people, the casseroles stop coming, the flowers die and it’s now more apparent than ever that someone is missing. Drop by, call, or just quietly hand over tissues. This is when the real crying begins.
Truth is, a lot of people did a lot of things right. Most people gave what they could and it was always the small things that made the difference.
The Ten Best Gifts
1. A 1988 Chateau LaGrange – Lord Jesus, I almost died
2. Homemade peach pie and a drive in the country.
3. Car keys and a full tank of gas. Free at last, free at last!
4. Twin five-year-old boys with freckles and smiles.
5. Cold sesame noodles.
6. Compassion when drunk dialing
7. A puppy to wake up to because mornings are the worst.
8. A hug from a stranger at the grocery store when she noticed me crying in the produce section.
9. A tray of manicotti and a salad of bitter greens. For dessert…cupcakes.
10. Watching my ex-husband suck up to my parents. Priceless.
To sum up…if you really want to help a grieving friend: a home-cooked meal, well-behaved and adorable children, squeezable dogs. That’s the recipe. That’s all they need, all they can handle. Oh, and a rare and delicious wine always helps, too.
For me, the best gift came from a college friend who lost his older brother more than 20 years ago in a public and tragic suicide. We’re talking front page of the local paper. We never spoke about it then and we didn’t now. But when he hugged me, he didn’t mutter, “It will get better soon. Time heals everything. You’re strong, you can do this.” Nope, none of that claptrap. Instead, he conceded:
“You will never get over this. Never. So don’t even bother trying. Just write. That’s all you can do. Write.”
And in that moment, I was free. I could breath. Free from expectation and disappointment. Free from a culture inundating me with self-help advice and tranquilizers of every shape. Because no amount of yoga or prayer or meditation or ritual, bear hugs, condolence cards, lucky stones, crystals, talismans, grief counseling or 32 ounce IPAs will ever change the fact that my brother, my friend, the one who promised to rescue me no matter what crazy scheme I dreamed up, he’s dead. And I will never get over it.
Finally, a truth I can live with.
For all the brothers and sisters, including Wendy, Bruce, Kyle, Ralph , Todd, Michael, Jim