On the way back we stopped at the funeral parlor. There, guided by the mortician through the crowded cellar showroom, I chose, from among a startling array of options of varying price and quality, my father’s casket.
Back at the apartment, my two teenage nieces waited in silence for my mother’s next outburst of tears and self-recriminations. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, my brother was sleeping off last night’s long drive from New England and his hangover. My brother and I were continuing our life-long roles: one, the good boy, well-behaved, helpful; the other, a slackabout, letting others do whatever needed to be done.
And, even without my father being present, the family continued to act as it generally did, silently watching my mother display emotion for all of us.
The funeral party consisted of my mother, my brother and his wife, their two kids, my father’s corpse, and me. No relatives were invited; all contact with them had long since died away. My parents had no friends to call either. It was as if my father had gone and done something shameful by dying, or maybe even by living, and it was our duty to hide that disgraceful act from view as quickly and as quietly as possible. We did our job. The service was brief.
The coffin was lowered into a freshly dug hole beside a scrawny young tree. We were in a section of the cemetery now only beginning to be occupied. Years earlier, my mother had purchased four adjacent plots at the site. This was the first to be used.
As we drove away, I saw my father pointing weakly to a patch of gray stubble in the creases below his chin, a patch I always seemed to miss while shaving him. I smelled once more, beneath the superficial fragrances of after-shave and talcum, that sickly-sweet stink of age and illness and impending death that both touched and repulsed me.
I asked the driver to stop. I got out to walk back to the grave. I wanted to help the gravediggers bury my father. It was something a friend had done at his father’s funeral, something that had sounded melodramatic when I heard about it, but now felt exactly right. So sudden and inexplicable a reaction was unusual for me; I was the one family member who did not act impulsively. Then I heard the impatient cries of “Get back in the car” and “What are you doing?” and felt I was holding everybody up from doing something important. I got back in.
An hour after returning to my mother’s apartment, my brother drove off, taking his family with him. My mother, afraid to reveal a need that might not be met, supported his decision to get back to work.
She vehemently objected to my decision to take the week off and stay with her: I was going to leave her alone in a week anyway, so why not get on with it now? I didn’t really want to stay. I wanted to flee as much as my brother did, but I couldn’t. I could not bear the image of my being the one to leave her totally alone in that apartment.
Later she confessed how grateful she was for my refusal to leave. I was glad, too. I needed to be away from people. I needed time to face what now looked like the absurd pointlessness of my father’s life and my own.
That night I said yes to everything my mother wanted to cook for me. As we ate, she would suddenly break into tears and hit the table as if the whole thing could have been averted, as if the death had been her fault, as if this or that event had done it to him. Her shrieks penetrated to my bones. I felt helpless to comfort her and angry that I had to try.
“Ma,” I’d argue stupidly, as if the content of what I said were relevant, “he was 82. He didn’t just suddenly die. He was an old man, a very old man. He lived a long life. You’re supposed to die at that age. It’s nobody’s fault. He was lucky he lived as long as he did.”