Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Day Four: Thursday, October 18, 2007

I finally got enough sleep. We didn't have to be at the funeral home until three, so I stayed in bed until noon. In spite of the much needed charging of my sleep cells, waking up was becoming something of a drag: from the moment my eyes opened there was a brief period of not remembering; then it would hit me, my first real thought of the day--Mom is dead.

Apparently, people had been coming by the house all morning, well-wishers, flower deliveries, casseroles and muffins. The parade continued into the afternoon. None of this was a surprise. I know the drill out here in the suburbs. What was surprising was the visit from the new pastor of my parents' Southern Baptist church.

I opened the door and there he was. Only a few years older than me, he looked like Bruce Jenner in khakis. He introduced himself, telling me he had come by to go over some last minute details for the service tomorrow. I told him my name and he winked at me. I invited him in.

My older brother came down and the three of us sat in the living room. The preacher asked how my father was holding up. Chris said Dad was managing. By now I can't remember anything else the man had to say. I only remember his manner and how it made me feel. In fact, I kind of tuned out a bit and just observed the proceedings as new pastor guy did his thing.

Until this moment, all the religion, all the Jesus talk, hadn't really bothered me. Even though I'm an agnostic, my family is deeply entrenched within the fundamentalist world view. OF COURSE they were heavily relying on their religion for comfort--after all, to a great extent, this is why religion exists in the first place, to make us feel better about our knowledge that life is chronologically limited, that we die. But all the Baptist rhetoric from my Dad was okay under these circumstances. And he wasn't using it to condemn sinners as Baptists love to do; he was using it to cope with his profound loss, assuring himself that he would see Mom again in Heaven.

And what do I know? Absolutely nothing. I'm an agnostic, not an atheist. Maybe Dad is right. Maybe Mom is in Heaven right now with her dog, and her father, and her niece Debbie who died tragically in a car crash back in the 80s, all happy and content, having all human mysteries explained once and for all. There were many moments during that first week after Mom died when I would allow my intellectual reservations about God to dissolve in order to emotionally relish the prayers and Christian spirituality that were all around me. It felt good if I didn't think too much about it.

But this new young, handsome pastor made me think. I'll cut him some slack because he was new to the community and didn't know any of us, but he was just so into his...I don't know...preacher man mode. I think I now understand how Bill Clinton drives the right wing into hysterics. Preacher-man was slick, verging on fake. I mean, he was clearly trying to be helpful, but I hated him. I didn't want to pray with him. I didn't want him comforting me with his bullshit. I just wanted to get the fuck out of the house, away from this TV-perfect snake oil salesman who so well represented to me the false "love" of fundamentalist Christianity.

I kept my mouth shut and tried to be nice. He would be gone soon enough. We had to go to the funeral home at three in order to be ready for the "viewing" from four to seven.

Mom with Romanian orphans on a Southern Baptist mission trip, late 90s

And soon enough, we were back in the room with my mother's body, me, Dad, my older brother Chris, my younger brother Steve, his fiance Lesley, and her two young daughters, Caitlyn and Abigail. I didn't really know what to expect; I had never gone to a "viewing" before. At first, during the first hour, only a few people came by, people I didn't know, but who knew Mom. Conversation was awkward and superficial.

"I'm the middle one, Ron. I live in New Orleans now, just got my master's in acting from LSU, taught high school for a while, but I ended up hating it."

"Oh yes, I know all about you, your mother always talked about you and your brothers. You know, she was so wonderful."

"Yes, yes."

That's how it went for awhile. After seven or eight encounters like this I noticed that the room had filled with people; it was almost like a party now, except for my mom's dead body stashed in the corner. Then I started talking to old friends, acquaintances and mentors. Mrs. Dearman, my first grade art teacher who I last saw some thirty years ago asked me how I was doing. The daughter of the preacher who baptized me, and who I had taught in vacation Bible school when she was a kid and I was in high school, made a self-deprecating remark about how I had a master's degree but she was only a housewife--"But that's something," I told her; Mom had been a housewife for many years. My tenth grade algebra teacher, Mrs. Smith, was there, too. I noticed a familiar gray haired man across the room who cockily swaggered over and put his arm around my shoulders.

"Do you remember who I am?" he asked.

"No, I'm sorry," I said.

"You'd better remember who I am," he lightly threatened.

"Coach Camps?" I realized.

"That's right!"

Coach Camps was one of my fondest memories from middle school football back in the early 80s. Turns out he was now an assistant principal at the school where my soon-to-be niece Caitlyn was in sixth grade.

Mom, Steve, and Dad after the 1987 homecoming game

Weirdest moment: hearing my Aunt Inez's voice, then turning around and seeing her. Inez, alone among my mother's five siblings, speaks and sounds almost exactly like my mother did. It used to confuse a bit when I was little. Today, it was just plain weird. I mean, I heard her voice and realized almost immediately who it was, but still...for a split second, it was really freaky. Inez also looks a lot like Mom.

Despite it all, it was good to see her. She and Mom had had something of a falling out over extended family politics, but none of that mattered now. She was there to show her respects.

Mom, in the middle, with her mother (on Mom's left) and five siblings, late 70s--Inez is second from left.

All of this was quite remarkable, like important characters who briefly appear at the beginning of a play and reappear only during the denouement for symbolic significance. But nothing was as emotionally moving to me as the unexpected arrival of close friends from more recent years. Bob and Anne, the god and goddess of my beloved theater home in Houston, dos chicas, read the notice in the paper and made the commute up to Kingwood to show their respects. My pal Stephen, who played Ken Lay in Enron the Musical last year, came too, right on the heels of Anne and Bob.

I had kept a brave face throughout the entire event, chatting with all these people, one after another. But the unexpected, unrequested show of support by these three friends finally made me cry.


Saturday, December 01, 2007


Day Three: Wednesday, October 17, 2007

MONTAGUE: Alas, my liege, my wife is dead to-night
-From Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
I had to get up early Wednesday morning. That was harsh because I didn't even really try to get enough sleep the night before. We had to meet with the funeral director at nine, so I did what I had been doing since I got the news that mom had died: I just kept moving. Coffee came soon enough.

The funeral home we used is actually a pretty nice place. It's fairly modern, built within the last ten years or so, well lit, more like a pleasant office space than a house of the dead. I was particularly fond of the fact that the place seems to employ none of the traditional, creepy, morose types that have populated most funeral homes in my experience. These were just normal people here to help us out in our moment of sadness.

It's also the same place that planned and facilitated the funeral for my old pal Lex's mom Effie a few years back. For some strange reason, I found that fact comforting. I guess it was maybe because close friends had gone down this road before. Familiar territory.

Attending the meeting were my father, my older brother Chris, my younger brother Steve, his fiancee, the funeral director, and, of course, myself. We talked about the casket. We talked about the funeral, which was to be held at the church where I was baptized when I was twelve. We talked about the preacher, the man who baptized me, who was coming out of his recent retirement to perform the service. We talked about "the viewing" or what Catholics would call a wake. We talked about how much it was all going to cost. We talked about the memorial web page.

Even though I listened intently, I found that I really had no contribution that I could make to the discussions. Nothing to say. I didn't really care.

I understand the importance of the social grieving ritual. I know that such ceremony has evolved in Western civilization over the centuries and plays a very necessary role for both loved ones and the community in general. I know that it all taps deeply into the Western psyche, the human consciousness, and is not to be trivialized. There are good reasons that we have funerals.

But when I found myself sitting there going over all the details, I realized that the Star Trek Klingon view on dead bodies is much more appealing to me than the traditional Eurocentric view: "It is only an empty shell now. Please treat it as such."

It's not my mother anymore. Yes, it housed for sixty seven years the spark that was my mother, but not anymore. Mom's gone. What remains is just a shadow, an image. But not her.

After the meeting, I took my filthy suit to the cleaners to be ready for the funeral on Friday. They asked me for my phone number, so I gave them Dad's. They told me it would be ready on Thursday and they gave me a receipt. On it was my mother's name; apparently, the phone number was listed on the computer as her account. I asked them to change the name to Dad's.

I went back to my parents' house and took a nap. I needed rest for what was going to happen later. We were going back to the funeral home to see the body that evening.

My father and brothers had already seen her dead, as I mentioned in my last post. Now it was my turn. We stood outside the door of the viewing room for a few minutes, and then my father turned to me. "This may be shocking," he said. He put his arm tightly around my shoulder and walked me in, Chris, Steve, and Lesley closely behind us. I took a deep breath.

And there she was.

She looked asleep. Everytime I'd ever seen a corpse in a casket, I'd always thought that it never looks like the person when he or she was alive. Not this time. She looked the same as when I saw her last in late July. I started crying.

We all started crying.

My dad finally spoke, and marveled at what good work the funeral people had done. We all agreed that she looked great. We told stories about her. We talked about how wonderful she was. We wandered around the room looking at the pictures of her on display that Chris had picked out. We cried some more. We told more stories.

At one point, standing next to the casket, while talking about what a good person she was, about how much she had done with her life, my dad sobbed and blurted out that he didn't deserve her.

I said, "Dad, you mustn't say such things."

It is a strange and powerful thing seeing my father weep. Strange because I so rarely see it. Indeed, I can only remember one time, years ago, at his mother's grave, when I saw him cry. Now, I was seeing it continually. Powerful because his grief utterly humanizes him; the authority figure for whom I still have some small sense of fear melts into pure humanity. In our sadness, we are exactly alike, two men devastated by profound loss. I've never felt closer to my father than the night I first saw my mother's body with him.

Many hours later, back at home, after Chris and Dad had gone to bed, I walked out into the back yard and sat on a bench next to the grave where they had buried my mother's dog Madonna, who died almost exactly a year before Mom. She really, really loved that dog, and so did I. Now they're both gone.

I looked up into the cold star-studded sky and located the only constellation I know, Orion. It was a beautiful night.

Mom and Dad in the mid 1960s