I’ve never been to a “good” funeral. At my Grandma Harness’ funeral, the whole family fell apart, and I haven’t talked to several aunts, uncles or cousins since. At my Great Grandpa’s funeral, there was a major clash with my mom’s parents after I was wrongly accused of something unimaginable. At my Great Grandma’s funeral, there were untrue, hurtful rumors being spread about my husband.
No, it’s been my experience that funerals are just big, hot messes.
And, my husband’s funeral in January was no exception.
Regardless of circumstances, it’s tragic when a 38 year old man dies, especially when he was also a husband and a father, a man with wild potential – if only he could fight his demons. Mike was an alcoholic, in complete denial of his condition. His drinking was the reason that we separated and that I filed for divorce. His drinking caused the lying, the hiding, the emotional and mental abuse, the neglect of the kids – and I simply had enough. He had been living with his parents for nearly six months when he passed away in his sleep on a Wednesday night.
His mom called me to tell me that he was dead. I was at my new job. I remember asking over and over again, getting louder each time: “Cindy, what happened?”
And I remember being accused of having a role in his death.
“He just couldn’t get over losing you.”
“The divorce was killing him.”
“He didn’t understand why you left him.”
“You left him alone…”
Yet, they insisted on being there for the arrangements. Since the divorce wasn’t final, arrangements (and payment of everything) were my responsibility. Awkward doesn’t even begin to cover how uncomfortable it was to make those decisions – from the music to the readings to the coffin to the decision to cremate. I suppose it wouldn’t have been any easier if everything was perfect, but it wasn’t perfect. Not even close. And now, the reason I left him, the reason that our marriage failed, was the cause of his death. Alcoholism. And somehow, I was being accused of causing him to die.
The in laws kind of, sort of, apologized while we were making arrangements. They acknowledged how difficult Mike was during the time he was with them. How hard it was to see him drinking (no, flat out drunk) while he was looking you in the eye, lying, saying he was sober. I thought the first phone call might be an anomaly, the result of a mother’s pain after losing her son.
I was wrong.
After the arrangements were made, I left the funeral home with my mom and my two young kids. Walked out of the funeral home, in a town I had only visited a few times, with a poorly drawn map on a napkin directing me to some local hotels. I didn’t see or hear from the in laws for the next three days, not until the viewing on Sunday.
You know, not hearing from them was okay, for me. But I was in an unfamiliar town, with two young kids, stuck in a hotel. For three days. In my mind, it would have been courtesy to reach out, maybe offer to take the kids to dinner one night or swim with them in a pool or bring over the Christmas presents they had for them (since we never got to have Christmas with them – or Mike). Nothing.
On Sunday, my mom, the kids and I drove to the funeral home. Lauren fell asleep in the car, so my mom stayed with her while Ethan and I went in. The in laws were already there and we exchanged pleasantries. The funeral director told me that I could go in when I was ready. I asked Ethan if he wanted to stay with his grandparents while I went in. Honestly, I wanted to see how “things” looked before he came in. What did the room look like? The flowers? Where was the coffin? How did Mike look? Was he too “made up”?
Instead, Ethan grabbed my hand and said he wanted to come with me. We walked in slowly.
The room had a hideous blue carpet. The pattern will be forever burned in my mind since we only made it half way to the coffin when Ethan stopped and fell to his knees. “I don’t want to do this,” he said in a whisper.
“I don’t either, baby,” I said, dropping to the ground and grabbing him and holding him close. He climbed into my lap and I held him tightly, shielding him from the sight of the coffin while I stared at the carpet. We cried.
I reached into my bag and pulled out a grey and blue wrapped package. A child’s writing on the tag read, “To Daddy From Ethan” – it was the Christmas present that Ethan picked out, but never had a chance to give to Mike. “I want to give this to him now,” Ethan said, standing up and starting to walk toward the coffin.
“That’s why I brought it.”
I will never forget the sight of Ethan, head bowed, praying at Mike’s coffin.
Mike looked bad. His skin looked thin and loose, like he was a balloon that had deflated. Ethan didn’t seem to notice. “Why can’t we touch him?” he asked.
“Do you want to?” I asked.
Ethan reached out and touched Mike’s wedding ring with his pointer finger. Then Ethan walked over to a chair and started crying. I scooped him up and we cried together. I barely noticed that the in laws had come into the room and were now standing at the coffin.
There wouldn’t be another word exchanged between me and the in laws until I confronted Cindy at the end of the night.
The viewing was a whirlwind. So many family members (none of Mike’s family talked to me or the kids) and friends came from across the country. Two of my college friends regularly checked on the kids (who were playing in another room) and kept bottled water and tissues in my hands. I was overwhelmed by the people who made the trip – I will be forever grateful to those who made the drive or flight, who provided hugs and offered prayers, and who sent emails, letters, and Facebook messages. It was important for me to be able to share with Ethan how much his dad – and we – were loved.
There were moments of ridiculousness from the in laws. They weren’t talking to me, but there were times when I was close enough to overhear what they were saying to funeral guests. Things like, “Well, Mike just couldn’t go on without his family…” and “He’s in a better place now that he doesn’t have to worry about THAT divorce…” and “At least he died a married man, like he wanted to…”
I chose to ignore the in laws’ overtly rude comments.
At the end of the night, things were wrapping up. Friends went back to their homes or hotels. The kids were with my niece in our hotel room. And I was talking to the funeral director to wrap up a few last minute details and discussing the plans for the next day. She told me that the flowers and plants I wanted to take home would be available after the lunch following mass.
“There isn’t a lunch,” I said. “I told them I didn’t want one. Mike HATED those things, and too many people have to get on the road.”
“Um, there looks like there’s one after mass tomorrow,” she said, very uncomfortably. “I don’t know any more.”
“CINDY!!!” I yelled and ran from the room to the front door where Cindy was preparing to walk out. (She might have been purposely trying to leave before I caught up with her.)
I confronted her and she said we discussed it. “Yes, we talked about it,” I said. “And I said no. This is bullshit! You’re planning something HE would have HATED!” My rage from listening to Cindy and Darryl blaming me was finally boiling over.
“Well you can come if you want,” she said, obviously flustered.
“You planned this AFTER I told you that I didn’t want it? And I find out about it from the funeral director? No, we’re not coming. Not at all!”
The next morning was a traditional Catholic funeral mass at Mike’s childhood church. We arrived early so Ethan would have a chance to say goodbye to his dad, if he wanted. The in laws were there already. (Sidenote: the in laws are NEVER early, but for this whole event, they were two steps ahead of me – and I’m chronically early, always.)
We stood on one side of the church, they stood on the other. At one point, Darryl came over and touched my arm. “You know you’re invited to the lunch after this, right? It would be nice if you and the kids would come,” he said.
“Really?” I responded. “I found out from the funeral director last night. You KNEW I didn’t want this, but you planned it anyway, and you couldn’t CALL me to tell me? No, we’re not coming. Why would we? You’ve ignored us since we made arrangements on Thursday. Why would I bring my kids to a lunch at which they will be IGNORED by their GRANDPARENTS?”
He walked away.
Mass was a blur. I remember hearing a few of the hymns I chose – Amazing Grace, in particular. I remember Mike’s BFF from high school and college speaking. I remember communion. Otherwise, I held Ethan close. (Lauren and my mom stepped out since the baby was fussy.)
When mass ended and we walked out of the sanctuary, the funeral director pointed out where my bag was – it was filled with the registration book, cards that were dropped off, and thank you notes. The funeral director handed me Mike’s watch and wedding ring (a last minute request from Ethan before the casket was closed).
Then I noticed her.
Cindy was holding the crucifix from the casket. It was supposed to be in my bag. I walked across the room to the bag and noticed an empty box where the crucifix was supposed to be.
That bitch STOLE a crucifix. In a church. From a dead man. And his widow. And was now flaunting it. WTF?!
She was holding it at waist level, making no attempt to cover it up. She was taunting me, daring me to confront her, and I realized immediately what she was up to. Even in my cloudy anger, I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of what she wanted. I went up to the funeral director and told her to get the crucifix back.
I stood across the room by my bag, lest anything else go missing. The funeral director returned holding the crucifix and handed it to me. I put it in the box, grabbed the bag and walked back over to my family. We packed the car and were out of the church within minutes.
That was six weeks ago. I haven’t heard from the in laws since. I have no idea if anyone went to the lunch. I have no idea if the lunch was any good.