Wednesday, May 13, 2009


We gathered at the funeral parlor where my father lay in his coffin, its satin lining and ornate oak trim more luxurious than any he had ever slept in when alive. His face was pale, ashen, as though death had drained all color from his face as life fled his body. His wisps of gray hair stuck upward on the silken pillow and I could not help but remember the many times the familys' children had gathered around his chair, forming those same wisps of hair into devil's horns, giggling with glee as we clustered around him.

I wore a red coat. This had caused me some consternation. One just didn't wear a red coat to a funeral parlor, or so I believed. I fussed about it and worried about it, because it seemed important to me that I show respect for the surroundings and respect for my father as he lay before us after his death. I could not imagine a world without him and I desperately longed for a more sedate, more appropriate coat.

Since a red coat was all that I had and the Spring air could still be chilly, I wore the coat and decided that it personified a sort of defiance of death. My father...our beloved Pop...may have left this earth, but he never would leave our hearts. My red coat, I told myself, was a symbol of Pop's importance in our lives. His aura was not black or gray or even blue. It was red, like a glorious sunset after a hard day's labor in the fields. I felt a little better after that thought.

At these troubled times, people take comfort in each other. We gathered in the chairs sprinkled around the parlor and reminisced about our lives, going over the good times, the sad times, the hard times, the highlights of our lives with Pop. Then, as the hours stretched on, we wandered out to the porch that hugged the front of the parlor, enjoying the Spring landscape, looking up at the sky.

It occurred to all of us at the same time that, for some reason, it was still, very, very still, with a rather ominous silence that caused one to halt and look upward, trying to find some answers in the distant sky. We noticed, too, that the sky was filled with different colors. There was a purple haze, a reddish glow of sunset, yellow streaks amid darker, almost black stripes. It was as though a rainbow had disintegrated and fell into pieces across the evening sky or perhaps the behavior of an artist upset with his work and flinging the contents of his palette all over the canvas, where it spattered at first, then blended into a cascade of pastels.

For some reason, it was difficult to leave that porch, even though there was an hour left of visiting hours. The people coming to pay their respects had dwindled to a few and were hurriedly speaking to my mother and walking to look at my father in his coffin, then hurrying homeward, somehow uneasy because of the strangeness of the sky. My cousin, Melvin, who had traveled from Milwaukee, was very nervous. He had never seen a sky like this before, he commented, it was eerie.

He was right. Eerie it was, and it wasn't long before we all decided to leave the funeral parlor and go to Mom's little house, the house that had been bought for her and Pop to enjoy their old age together, to give them amenities they had never known before, comfortable amenities like an indoor bathroom, running water...both hot and cold. It was a miserably small home, a former vacation home that had been converted to withstand the winter cold, used as a stopover for families who came out from Detroit on the train to enjoy boating, fishing, and visiting the carnival that once was a permanent fixture in the town. Despite its lack of spaciousness, it was adequate for two people and Mom was proud of her little home.

Hilda had been the one who had discovered Pop, lying inert on the floor of the small living room. I asked her about it he had looked, how it had been to find him like that...but she refused to discuss it, wanting only to forget that terrible moment when she had discovered her father dead on the floor. It was, she said, a scene that flickered back into her mind at the most inopportune moments, a flashback, a revisitation of that terrible scene. "Let me forget it," she said. "Don't ask me about it!"

We gathered at Mom's house, which wasn't big enough to hold the number of people there, but we crowded together, unaware of the discomfort. It had begun to rain and, as we talked, the rain came down even harder. Finally, my husband and I decided to head for home, to skip the meal that Mom was putting out on the table, to go check on the wellbeing of our children.

As we drove homeward, the sky had lost its palette of color. It was dark now, with clouds so close they nearly touched the treetops. The clouds did not move, but lingered in place, stationary, looking like huge black blankets...or, as my mind settled into gloom...shrouds, hanging over the earth.

As we watched, my husband driving too fast down the country road, a huge black, whirling cloud swept down toward earth and, as I squealed with fear, worried about my children, shaken about by the washboard road, the cloud touched ground. It simply swooped, then lingered as though tasting the earth and grass, sampling its flavor. Later, we learned that it had torn up miles of countryside, destroying only one farmhouse, with no fatalities, but at the time, it looked like the end of our world and we had no way of knowing just where it had struck.

The rest of that night was truly a nightmare, those huge clouds hanging low, threatening the earth beneath, some of them sporting spinning appendages. Thunder, lightening, finally rain, howling rain, torrents of water pouring down and, when there would be a lull, more clouds, more shadows, more threatening lack of movement in the sky. Nineteen tornadoes hit our state that night, nineteen twisting, whirling arms of destruction reaching down from the sky.

Bud called. Hubert called. I tried to call Helma, but got some number in Tennessee. Even the phone lines had gone crazy. I finally got Cousin Melvin on the phone. They were spending the night in the neighbor's basement, he said. Others had gone home, to cower in basements there. He had only come up to fetch something to drink and had heard the phone ring.

We did not sleep at all and, when dawn came, it was still drizzling, the wet earth glistening with water. I was tired, but excited. In my mind, it was as though the sky was reflecting my own feelings at the loss of my father, periods of anger, intervals of calm, followed by overwhelming torrents of grief. It seemed to me as if the whole world was weeping, raging, mourning. I knew how it felt.

Two days later came my father's funeral. The church was filled to capacity, people crowded together in the back of the room. We had never seen the minister before. My mother had engaged him. He was a tall, portly fellow with greasy-looking black hair. His voice was a bellow, like the roar of an angry bull.

"Someday!" he shouted! "Someday...and that day will come sooner than you will be laying here! You will be laying here just as John is laying here today!" He lifted his arm and pointed at my father, his fleshy fingers pointing into the casket.

I sat beside Hubert. "If it weren't my own father," he whispered, "I'd walk out of here!"

"I'd be walking right behind you!" said Bud, from behind us.

Several times during that hour, the minister paused to remind us again, blaring like a man with a bullhorn, on the inevitability of our deaths. He implored us to change our ways, turn our backs on sin, repent! He said all of this in as many decibels as possible. The rafters of the church shook with his zeal. I thought of how my soft-spoken father would have disliked this man, this man of the cloth who took God's word and used it like a weapon, using the remains of a dead man to assail those still living, insensitive to their grief, blaring anger and violence when what was needed was compassion and benevolence.

There were perhaps a hundred or more cars weaving their way slowly to the cemetery where we laid Pop to rest. There I felt my spirit renewed. My gloom lifted and I felt restored. Pop's grave was near a pine tree on a slight rise of ground, a place where he could have looked out over the horizon, enjoying the odor of pine in the fresh air....a place of tranquility, of serenity, of peace.

Yes, the whole world wept the night he died, the rain mingling with our tears, the black clouds mirroring our sorrow, but the sun returned as it always does, children lose parents, weep and sink into nostalgic memories, but the pain fades just as those clouds moved across the sky, leaving sunshine in its path. The pain subsides, but the memories stay with you for your lifetime. This is life's circle of life, of death, of the years of joys and sorrows in between.