Just My Luck – Chapter 4 Part 2
I really suffered death for the first time when my father died. His wake and his funeral were the first I ever attended, and they were terrible experiences. Laid out for all to see in his open casket, though his face looked like wax and his lips were unnaturally red, he was there. He wasn’t gone yet, I could see him big as life, but dead. His was the very first dead body I ever saw. I wanted it to be anybody else.
Knowing that when the lid on that casket was closed I would never see him again, I tried with all my not-too-formidable might to will him back to life. I prayed as never before that his eyes would open, the mourners would cheer, and he’d sit up in the coffin, smile his great smile and be as good as new. He couldn’t really be gone, could he?
Finally accepting that he was became my first living nightmare.
Being so young, he was among the first of his friends and peers to die, so flowers and visitors to his casket were plentiful. As people arrived for the wake from the cold January night, they greeted one another with smiles and occasionally some casual laughter came from their conversations in the foyer of the funeral home.
Hearing that, I was as furious as a suffering 13-year-old could be. How dare anyone laugh at anything here while my father was lying dead in the next room? I was angry at the implicit disrespect they obviously had for my great and wonderful father (his pedestal was well built in my mind). I knew I had to swallow my fury rather than disturb the solemnity of my father’s last couple of days on the surface of the earth. I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself. But if any of the revelers (my exaggeration) were to look me in the eyes, my loathing would be unmistakable. None of them did.
But in the back of my mind I knew I was jealous at the same time. I knew when these visitors left the building they would all go home to resume their lives as usual. At that moment in the funeral home I had no idea of what my future held. The only thing I knew was that nothing could ever be the same
A jigger of grief and a dash of fear – a potent cocktail for a 13-year old boy.
In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t gone to the open-casket wake. For many years thereafter when I called my father to my mind, the first image I’d have was of him in the casket. I had to get past that sad gateway before I could get on with a good memory of his playing catch with me, or taking me to a railroad station to watch for long freight trains and count the cars as they sped by. Eventually, the casket image faded in my mind, but I think I would have been better off if the casket was closed.
I didn’t know that one of the early stages of grief is anger; I just knew my stomach was burning.
But of all my memories of those few days, I will never forget the pure distain I had for the unforgivable funeral performance by the Rector of our church. He was the head of the church where my grandfather sang in the choir for more than seven decades and where I too sang as a chorister, where my mother and father were married (by him), and where my sister and I were baptized and confirmed. He was God’s paid representative and leader of the rituals honoring the departed. This “man of God” wore a scowl indicating he had no patience for our grieving and obviously wanted to be someplace else throughout my father’s funeral. Ultimately, I wished he had been somewhere else too.
Likewise, the cemetery was under a thick layer of snow and the air was crisp and cold, so this priest flew through the words of the burial service with absolutely no inflection or emotion. Just a meaningless fast-paced babble of words and an I’m cold, let’s get out of here demeanor. My father was ten times the good man this priest was, and he deserved much better than that as he was lowered into his final resting place. For the first time in my life I was truly enraged, and of all people, the target was our priest.
I have since come to know a great many superb men and women of the clergy who each re-confirm my respect for those who hear their callings. But my respect and regard for the Reverend SFH died forever for his unforgivably cold and demeaning performance on my father’s last cold day above ground.
My memories of people and events that transpired over a half-century ago remain vivid in my mind still. Such was the enormity of my loss.
My father’s premature death changed me fundamentally. Up to then, my childhood had been idyllic. I was secure in my world, had a strong middle class support system that kept me fed, warm and sheltered, and was personally untouched by the woes if the larger world.
I had a fine life. I may not have fully appreciated all I had, but I knew I was happy.
Then the lightning bolt obliterated my tidy existence and left me vulnerable for the first time in my life. When I re-surfaced from the rituals of departure, it was to an uncomfortably unfamiliar world. We were in the same house, on the same street, with the same neighbors and friends and relatives. We ate the same food cooked on the same stove on the same dishes that were washed in the same sink in the same kitchen. But now we were three. The “head of our household” was gone and we were weepy and downtrodden. I’d never had a dull, throbbing pain before. What happened to us simply wasn’t fair.
Most disturbingly, I fully understood as never before that the good portions of my life would inevitably be unfairly interrupted, mostly with little or no warning, by terrible times. I could never be complacently comfortable riding a wave of security now that I knew that at any moment disaster might strike. While any kind of tragedies might happen, I knew with certainty that people I love would die in my lifetime. The recurrence of dull, throbbing pain would be unavoidable.
That dark revelation made me face the workings of the larger world.
Eventually I realized there are two ways of living with life’s ups and downs. I have been fortunate to experience my life as mostly good and secure times that are occasionally interrupted by painful challenges. Unfortunately, many others have lived mostly in hard times interrupted by too few good times.
It’s an important distinction that I think we need to take into account when we deal with one another.
The circumstances of sudden death (from an accident, random violence, wartime, stroke, heart attack etc.,) often inspire “if onlys” after the fact:
If only Beth had left for work just five minutes later…
If only the peace talks had ended the war sooner…
If only that fool hadn’t run the red light….
If only I could have convinced him to ride with a helmet…
If only Mary hadn’t taken the doctor’s advice seriously…
If only my father’s nitro pills had worked…
These “if onlys” expose the wrinkles in the events of our lives that are simply products of the randomness of our environment that neither favors nor disfavors anyone. Good folks and evil do not necessarily get what they deserve. As time progresses it becomes increasingly clear that life and death are not designed to be fair. When you bust that bubble, a lot of what didn’t make sense comes into sharper focus.
Face it. Luck, good or bad, can visit anyone, good or bad, at any time, good or bad. Live accordingly.
I am writing this on Friday, February 5, 2016. Today, during an early morning snowstorm a huge construction crane in the Tribeca section of Lower Manhattan was being moved to a safer position due to the high winds that accompanied the storm. Before making it to safety the crane was blown over by the high winds and its massive tower came crashing to the ground. Two people were seriously injured and one man was killed.
The dead man never knew what hit him. God didn’t do it, nor did God stop it.
It wasn’t this man’s “time.” A random, improbable, coinciding series of events conspired to topple the crane onto the victim who, through no fault of his own, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Likewise, the injured were the innocent victims of misfortune/ bad luck. It could just as well have been me…or you. No one is immune from the outcomes of random occurrences. We can’t count on always having more time.
It’s a hard truth.
©2016 James Ash