October 27, 1999
I just recently had the “pleasure” of attending the funeral for the man who was going to become my father-in-law next summer. It wasn’t an unexpected thing — he had been fighting a variety of leukemia-related symptoms (and treatments) for the past two years, and had spent the last two months of his life hooked up to varying degrees of life support machines and fluid drips. The funeral was really more of a closure to his excruciatingly slow death, and while everyone attending had hoped he would miraculously pull through and recover, no one was really surprised when he didn’t.
Selfishly and impossibly, I think I might have had the hardest time with the funeral. First of all, I had never been to one before, my own parents loathing ceremonies of any sort that don’t involve eating candy and exchanging gifts. They have good reason for that, as they both lost their mothers at fairly early ages (9 and 15), and still have vivid, tortured memories of hospital visits and funerals. As a result, they never took my sister or me to funerals, and the only time we ever even stepped inside a church was if there was a free dinner coming to us afterwards. Which leads to my second reason for discomfort: the ceremony itself. My fiancé’s mother is Catholic, and as a favor to her, his father let her arrange for him to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, even though he was an agnostic leaning heavily towards atheism. This included her preparing the wake, the church service, and the burial itself.
I have actually been inside many Catholic churches. Here in Minnesota, there are these incredible, aged-copper-and-marble basilicas that have stood for almost 200 years in perfect condition, and have been open for services for just as long. I love the architecture of churches, and the older the church, the more beautiful the details. Before this, though, the only time I’d ever seen anyone genuflect was in The Godfather series or the occasional guilt-stricken Mexican speed dealer in California. Suddenly, I was in a room full of people who gestured and kneeled simultaneously at undetected cues, that burst into syncopated speech for reasons completely unknown to me. In retrospect, I think my fiancée should have told me, or at least given me a hint, of what was expected of me or what I could expect from the service, but as it was, all I could manage to do was try to disappear into the corner of the family pew that I did not feel like I belonged in.
And that was the biggest problem of all, the whole not-belonging-there feeling. John had been sick pretty much the whole time I had been seeing his son, and I had actually only met him twice in person before his death. Once, when he had been released from the hospital to see if home care was possible, and the second time, in the hospital itself. When he died, all I could think was that maybe I should have made more of an effort to come by and see him, that maybe I should have taken time off from work, or something. But really, what grown man wants a strange woman to see him piss into a little sink by his bed, or have to have a nurse come to haul his shit away at regular intervals, or see him doped up out of his mind and hooked up to a ventilator? I figured that if the invitation came, at any time, I’d just go. But it didn’t. And at his funeral, all I could think about was how I wasn’t part of his family, that I didn’t belong standing there with his wife and children, and that me pretending to belong at all was doing him and everyone else there the biggest disservice in the world.