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Monday, April 19, 1999
By Paul Ford
Death in the family (again)
Three weeks ago my uncle died from the big C; I took two days off work, bought a new suit, and took Metro-North to New Haven, where I met my father. I didn't know my uncle for more than a few hours in 24 years, but I know my father, and he needed company: my brother, his ex-wife my mother, and myself.
My brother and father met me at the New Haven train station, and we drove back to the hotel to change; I showered, tore the tags off the suit, then watched my father brace himself. I walked across the pike to a gas station and bought $7 worth of sodas and crackers to share.
My uncle's first daughter, who died of a brain tumor five years ago, once had a boyfriend who beat her. Learning this, my uncle and his thickest, strongest son went to the boyfriend's apartment and threw him off a 5th story balcony, keeping a loose grip on one ankle.
"Are you feeling like punching my daughter now, son?"
When they reeled him many minutes later the cops were there, and my uncle, a detective on the East Haven police force, had to go before the judge with humility. He knew the judge, so something was worked out. His daughter wasn't struck again.
From the hotel, my father, brother, and I drove then to Keenan's funeral home. We were early, the parlor hollow save for my uncle's 4 sons and 1 surviving daughter, and the body at the front.
My father gave distant hugs to his nephews then went forward to the coffin, his step hesitant. He knelt. Over his face arrived an old warmth, something I never saw before, his child's face pouring out through the creased skin. His thick, small body rested by the coffin.
The farewell coming out in silence. I watched him for a few seconds, seeing him become 16 again, not 67, before Korea, before college and graduate school could take my father from this urban Irish world.
I thought about my father dying. I couldn't help it. It was only a few seconds, and he shifted then to a place on line with his nephews, saying hello to second cousins, greeting strangers.
I went forward. My uncle, once fat, was gaunt, his weight devoured by bad cells. He was dressed for decomposition in a black suit and bright red tie.
"He looks very peaceful," said the funeral home director. I signed the book for myself and my father, and took the card. A Celtic cross on the front, and the Irish Blessing on the back. May the road rise up to meet you....
It shocked me to see these strangers and realize that we shared blood, a common set of souls and cells, and to hear their voices like my father's, all the jokes he'd told and accents he'd taken on come to flesh and walking around with the body in the corner. And to see how Irish I am, how up here it is in practice, bars named Duffy's, shots of whiskey drunk neat. I grew up American, but my cousins could be off the boat from County Kilkairn.
And we are also huge, all of us, bones as thick as the ends of baseball bats. My cousins are all my size, some all muscle, some part fat, and the pinkness of us is overwhelming. The second-oldest of them confided to my brother and I, "I had them paint dad's nose so the veins wouldn't show." One shook my hand, he works construction, and his palm felt like sirloin wrapped in sandpaper. One had a 29-inch neck, a body that could lift a car. They are all badass; one has been stabbed, all seem to have met the cops on bad terms, a long history of brawling and boozing. The geneticists say that fat families are those that survived famine generations back, and we must have been Irish sodbusting oxen, hoeing and starving in our peat huts, to look at us now.
"I wonder how much this funeral weighs," said my sister-in-law.
One of the grandchildren had a tattoo of a sun rising on the back of her neck. My brother and sister-in-law whispered about it. It surprised me, but it was a very beautiful tattoo, nice colors, and she was a beautiful young woman, so it was good to see.
The rest of it went on sadly, slowly, ending up at the Howard Johnson hotel four hours later. We watched a little TV and teased my niece that we had the All-Disney-Cartoon-Network on our cable TV, and they were showing the special preview of Mulan II for us. She figured out we were lying and pretended to be shocked, 6 years old, then admonished us.
My father slept hard, snoring, in the motel bed next to mine, and in the morning we went back to the funeral home. For a while, standing in the parking lot, waiting for things to happen, I held my brother's toddler daughter in my arms, and watched over my niece and nephew. There was a police escort at the edge of the lot, two Harley-Davidsons, so we went over and talked to the cops, one named Tom and the other named Marjorie. Marjorie was attractive, but obviously took no shit, so I felt a little timid to ask her if we could take a look at the motorcycles.
She lit the spinning lights and explained the different functions on the bikes, and my niece and nephew showed awe. My brother came up behind me and took his daughter from my arms, and I went in to pay final respects.
I said goodbye to a man I didn't know at all, out of respect to his family and to my father, kneeling, saying a secular prayer and crossing myself. Only the children and his wife were to be there when the casket closed, so I walked out the side door and got into the car. The motorcycles geared up, and the limousines began to move on the way to the church.
It was a small church, built in the drab 1940's, in the boring period between gothic and abstract. The altar boys smiled at each other, and the priest was from India and couldn't speak much English. He didn't know my uncle, so he did his best. It was lonely, and the church was not very full. The organist sang like a pop star, hanging up in the balcony, doing Ave Maria like a fight song. I stood back when they took communion, and so did my father.
Then we went to the cemetery, the coffin rested on the platform above the open grave, and the finalities took place. Roses were rested, embraces, snatched reminisces and quiet imprecations.
"God bless," I said, shaking my cousin's hand. "I'm so sorry," I said to another.
We walked back to the cars, surveying the wide scene. It was beautiful, the smoothed green of the graveyard drifting in a wind, the clouds moving fast. One of my cousins would not leave the grave, the oldest at 43, and finally his brothers went to him and led him away, back to the limousine, to drive to his father's favorite bar for a final drink.