Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Month: July, 2013

Fun at Funerals

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Most of the funerals that I have attended have been sad even when death seemed like a relief for the deceased and his or her family. However, as I wrote in my last post “I Miss Sherry,” sometimes funerals are far from sad. They may even have funny elements that overcome tears. I have attended another funeral that included humorous moments and my mom recently attended one that crossed the line into territory that was ironic, if not funny.

About ten years ago I attended the funeral of the husband of a woman who had taken care of an ailing relative until that relative’s death. I was grateful for her kindness to my relative and remained in contact with her for many years after my relative’s death.

We had nothing in common except for the shared experience of caring for a lovable person until her death. I do not want to be disrespectful of the woman who gave so much loving care to my family member so I will call her Jane for purposes of telling this odd funereal story.

Jane grew up in a home fraught with anger and tension. When her family was ambivalent toward her, it felt like a relief. She spent some time in foster homes where she was unpaid help around the house. I have the impression that she never felt at peace in any of the places she lived.

This made Jane determined to own a home of her own. She lacked the education to do many jobs that might have brought her goal within easy reach. Caregiving seemed a good fit to her sunny and patient temperament. I hired her to care for my relative five days a week for several hours a day. She handled the evening meal and put my relative to bed at night. Jane made sure my relative was clean and comfortable.

Jane did so much more than that. She brought so much humor to every activity that I sometimes stopped in while she was there to share in the laughter. In her day, my relative was irreverent and often laughing, but the aging process was taking its toll. She was more often unintentionally funny than intentionally so. At times she was quite depressed and claimed she was ready to die. Jane did her best to cheer up her new charge. I still laugh when I recall walking into the room at an inopportune moment and hearing Jane say with no expression in her usually animated voice, “And now it’s time to wash the beaver.” My relative’s ankle was held high in the air–the way a cat might extend its leg while grooming its hindquarters and Jane was about to apply soap and water. My relative’s embarrassed grimace melted into giggles at the sight of my open mouth.

Jane was good company. She talked about herself without airs or humility, as if everyone’s life was as hard as hers. After my relative died, she called me up and said she would not be at the funeral, not because she was moving on easily but because she lived to serve the living and it was someone else’s job to shepherd the dead to their resting places.

She called to invite me to her home, and I felt I could not say no after all of the kindness she had shown someone I loved dearly.

Jane had married a man at least twenty-five years older than she was. In his prime, he was a handsome man with a modest income and boundless patience for a woman with little education and few skills. Their home was partly self-built, partly constructed. The entire front yard was a habitat for artificial creatures made of painted Styrofoam, plastic, wood, and plaster. There were deer and reindeer, castles and birdhouses, welcome signs and whirligigs. The dining room walls were covered with shelves of knickknacks. By knickknacks, I mean to include everything from gifts you collect if you buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal to china figurines. There were plaques with funny sayings. There were LP records, cassette tapes, CDs, and VHS videotapes. Jane and her husband Ed had dogs. I am an attorney and I dress in black nearly all of the time. It only took a moment for me to attract enough fur to the cuffs of my pants to form my own pet. As I took an offered seat I knew that it would take a dry cleaner to rid me of the fur that transferred to the seat of my pants.

The living room was in the part of the house that Jane and Ed had built themselves. If you dropped a pen, it might roll across the floor because one end of the house dipped while the other seemed to have buckled. There was an upright piano that Jane played while the dogs howled in a cacophonous chorus that called for everyone else to clap because a sing-along was not possible in the din.

It was not Christmas time, but the room was filled with expensive moving dolls in winter garb. While we snacked on cheese and crackers, Jane turned on the dolls. Some of them, like the little drummer, played Christmas tunes. Some of them kissed Santa.

Jane smiled at me when I complimented her on the staging. “After the childhood I had, every day is Christmas and I never want to forget that,” she said.

Ed turned out to be an ailing man himself. All day long he waited for Jane to come home and take care of him. He was a big man and it was plain that Jane put her back into getting him up and getting him down and waiting on him with love and consideration.

She insisted that I have a tour of the rest of the house. My heart just about broke when she showed me the tiny tub in which she bathed her husband. There were three beds in their tiny bedroom. There was a double bed for Ed, a cot for Jane, and a twin bed for the dogs.

Everything was broken and she was proud of the fact that these were things she found scavenging others’ curbs on the night before the garbage men would come. She even had a word processor. It was not really a computer. Maybe it was an advanced electric typewriter. Ed was teaching her to write. She was writing her story because she had no children to be retelling it for her and felt the need to leave some record of her life.

She was not entirely selfless. Shortly after I arrived we were joined by a neighbor who let me know that Ed helped keep a roof over Jane’s head and helped her with decision-making. Bob took care of her physical needs.

I will confess that I was a little surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. Jane’s earthy humor came from some place. I came to understand that Bob kept her young even if he was only a little younger than Ed.

Ed seemed oblivious to their neighbor’s intimate relationship with Jane.  I say that because, after a dinner that good manners compelled me to compliment, Ed tried to do a little heavy-handed matchmaking. I beat a hasty retreat when he suggested that the four of us watch Debbie Does Dallas.

Yikes!

Yikes!

I sent Jane Christmas gifts for several years. I once took her to lunch at a dive in the neighborhood. I went to the mass at which she and Ed renewed their wedding vows and met the patchwork community of blood and foster relatives she called family. Bob was there in what I am prepared to swear was the same combination of baseball cap, t-shirt, jeans, and windbreaker as he wore when I first met him. Everyone else present was someone Jane had cared for or a family member of such a person. There were people in wheelchairs and children with braces on their legs. I fit right in because I, too, had experienced this simple woman’s kindness and cared about her.

She was the wealthiest person most of them knew, and you didn’t have to work at it to overhear several try to borrow money from her. Ed handled this with a gallantry I would not have expected. He would struggle to his feet and get an arm around Jane’s shoulders and say very gravely, “I’m sure Jane would love to help you out. My wife has a tender heart for everyone who has helped make so much happiness in her life. Blame me for her not lending you money today. I don’t have long now that the lung cancer has got me. Jane’s going to need the money to bury me.”

He died shortly after they renewed their vows. I took my mom along to the funeral for company and because she had never met Ed, but had certainly learned a lot about Jane.

We had a long drive to the funeral home. The priest who officiated at their renewal of vows came to say a few words over the casket. Ed wore a handsome suit that Jane had bought in a thrift shop in anticipation of the event. She led us to the casket and pet his hand with hers like he could tell she was still at his side. “I took good care of him and he did the same for me,” she said before turning to greet other guests. I cried for her and for him and a little bit for myself, because I have had many gifts in my life but have never been loved like she was. I have never been so conscious of the fact that what matters most in life doesn’t have a price tag.

When it was time to leave for the cemetery, the pallbearers were assembled. Ed was there in his usual windbreaker and baseball cap. He was the only person who dressed for the occasion. The rest of the pallbearers were boys in t-shirts, jeans, and gym shoes. Most needed a bath and a comb.

They escorted Ed’s body in its simple wooden casket out to the hearse. Mom and I walked out to my car where we expected the funeral director to line up cars so we could proceed to the cemetery. It was the same cemetery where my family has plots, but we were quite a distance from it.

Most of the rest of the group, including Jane, were still inside the funeral home when Mom said, “Isn’t that the hearse leaving?”

It was. The hearse took off at about 40 miles per hour without waiting for the mourners to assemble. It left a trail of dust and a couple of skid marks on the pavement as the driver tried to control a crazy turn. We took off after it and did a pretty good job of following until the driver powered through a red light and swung up onto the highway. My brakes squealed as I struggled to stop before a truck could take us out. Some of the pallbearers had managed to follow us. They had no idea where the cemetery was. I led the small caravan of pick-up trucks and RVs to the cemetery. It was about a forty minute drive that required us to make various twists and turns. Several times we had to pull over and wait for someone to catch up.

In the privacy of my car there was plenty of time for Mom and me to discuss the fact that we had never been to a funeral like this one. Usually there are a couple of cars driven by representatives from the funeral home. Everyone has a sticker or two on their cars to warn other drivers that this is a funeral cortege. People turn on their headlights for the same reason. Someone blocks busy intersections to ensure the entire party gets through if a light changes. Ed was about to be buried with much less pomp and ceremony.

When we got to the cemetery there was no sign of the hearse or any other hearse. I drove to the sexton’s office and Mom got out to ask for directions. She was just coming out when one of the pallbearers yelled, “There he is. Don’t let that varmint get away a second time.”

Sure enough, the hearse hurtled past us toward the old section of the cemetery, crossed a busy street without regard to oncoming traffic, and came to a shuddering stop by an open grave.

It was a hot day, but a little breezy. The pallbearers decided to cart Ed’s casket over to the grave so all would be in readiness when the widow showed up. Bob opened his trunk and revealed a cooler of beer. He offered us a bottle. My mom whispered to me, “What time is it? Ten in the morning?”

It was nearly eleven. I also declined his offer.

My mom egged me on to “give the hearse driver a piece of your mind.” I declined because I doubted he would listen. He reclined on the ground beneath a tree and read a newspaper.

The other pallbearers hauled folding chairs from their vehicles and set them up. Folks had picnic baskets and blankets. They started chomping on fried chicken, potato salad, and watermelon. We had quite a wait. Mom and I sat in the car and talked about the scene before us. Someone turned on a car’s radio and there was a festive atmosphere.

In the years since Ed’s death I have read a bit about how our attitudes toward death differ in different parts of American society. I would have had trouble eating in the presence of a dead body roasting in the hot sun, but no one but my mom shared my compunction. Death was a normal part of life and Ed’s closest friends were enjoying a little private time in his company before burying him.

Eventually we got in the right mood because we expressed no surprise when Jane and the priest and the rest of the mourners arrived and Jane scolded the men for beginning without them. They jockeyed for the remains of the picnic while the cemetery staff looked on in amusement. It took some time for us to get to the business of burying Ed. By then it was long past the time when people cried.

Bob smooched Jane’s cheek and wrapped an arm around her waist in casual contemplation of their future. The pallbearers tossed a ball to each other in the middle of the cemetery road. The priest headed home after hugging Jane and wishing her well. Jane thanked everyone for coming then asked a cousin to turn up the music because she had always liked the song that was playing.

I had planned to drop my mom off and proceed to the office, but that seemed out of keeping with the celebration of Ed’s life that his widow, family, and friends had planned. We decided to go out for lunch.

My mom’s other “fun” funeral was the funeral of one of my high school classmates. Rick (names changed in this story, too) died of a heart attack at the age of 50. His parents are my mom’s very good friends. Rick was a difficult man. When I met him in high school, he was a “stoner” who liked to dress in a leather jacket and hat and jeans and boots. He made fun of me for being a “brain.” He studied anthropology and worked “digs” in various parts of North and South America. He may have smoked some stuff that was good for what ailed him but a little mood altering. He taught classes. He bought a piece of rural land on a tree-covered lot and built an underground bunker where he reportedly lived with chickens. I am pretty sure some of this is lore rather than truth because, if it were entirely true, it would all be too strange.

He got a girlfriend pregnant and she had the baby (named Todd), so Rick was a father. But he never paid child support or sought to spend time with his son. The boy’s mother, Haley, was a free spirit in her own right. She tried hard to make things work, then took her boy and went in search of Rick’s “alter-ed ego.” She married an Air Force airman. His name is Joe. He is, by all accounts, a solid and dependable man. They had a baby named Tom.

This did not give Haley the settled and normal life you might imagine. She got involved in some church that decided to do its best to convert Russians to the Christian faith by trading conversion for U.S. citizenship. While her husband was deployed overseas near Iraq or Afghanistan, she arranged to bring three children to the U.S. All were young adults, close to the age of independence. They hoped to achieve U.S. citizenship and economic “independence” in relatively short order in exchange for accepting Jesus Christ as their savior. Haley also hoped they would adapt and move on swiftly.

One proved to have attachment problems. These were demonstrated through various incidents in which the child “acted out”–whatever that means. Haley sent that child to someone in Florida who claimed to be able to work miracles with children with attachment disorders. We never heard about her again. A second child learned English, finished high school, and moved out. Again, I cannot recall ever hearing of him again. The third was a “keeper.” He finished high school and managed to get scholarships and jobs to finance college. He seemed to embrace his new family as well as faith and friends in the U.S.

The adoptive/adopted kids were not the only ones growing up during this timeframe. Todd and his half-brother Tom grew up as well. Rick’s parents worked hard to stay in Todd’s life. They made trips to bases where Haley and Joe were based. They paid for Haley, Joe, Todd, and the rest of the family to visit them. They paid for other things, too. All this time Rick was a missing-in-action dad working out of his bunker in the woods.

On those few occasions when Rick came to town to visit his parents there were problems. He appropriated family heirlooms. He picked fights. When his parents changed the locks on their home, Rick strode around the house yelling for them to let him in like a scene from the story of the Three Little Pigs. He eventually showed up during a visit by Haley, Joe, and Todd. He met his son.

He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down.

He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down.

 

No one thought the meeting had made much of an impression on Rick or Todd, but children are unpredictable and so is blood. The boy may have romanticized his “real” father. An intelligent, socially maladapted eccentric sounds like a perfect antidote for a spit-and-shine airman of a stepdad looking for folded corners on a sheet and blankets tucked in so tightly that you could bounce a quarter off the bed during weekly inspections.

Father and son may not have ever met again. I cannot recall hearing of any other meetings. When Todd was about eighteen years old, Rick’s parents got a call from a county sheriff. Their son had not shown up in town for awhile. Someone thought that was odd. An officer drove out to the bunker to see if Rick was around. The officer discovered that Rick had died and been gone for some time.

It was a time for regrets and lots of tears. No matter how difficult the relationship was for them, Rick’s parents grieved over death. Rick’s parents had him cremated and arranged to have his remains buried in a local cemetery where they will one day be laid to rest. The land and bunker where Rick lived had liens against it for unpaid taxes. Rick had not left much. Even the missing heirlooms were gone. I don’t recall hearing he had any chickens left at the time of his death.

Rick’s parents paid for Todd to attend his father’s memorial service. Joe planned a trip that would bring him into town a couple of days later. He would pay his respects and collect Todd. Haley chose not to attend.

Everyone gathered at the cemetery at the appointed time, including my mom. I was not there, so may have the facts a little out of focus. A friendly minister was on hand to lead a small group of about ten people in prayer for Rick. A female relative brought an iPod and some speakers and played some appropriate music. Two cemetery employees stood by to cover the urn with dirt at the conclusion of the brief ceremony.

Rick’s parents said a few words about the son they would miss–had long missed. When the minister concluded the brief ceremony and Rick’s mom was weeping softly for her troubled son, Todd made his move. Snatching the urn from the ground, Todd tucked it beneath his arm like a football and took off with it.

The assembled senior citizens lacked the reflexes necessary to stop it. Todd’s grandparents yelled after him to stop. He yelled over his shoulder that his dad would never want to be buried in anyplace as dumb as a cemetery. Todd didn’t have a car. Everyone scurried to their cars and pursued him. All to no avail.

They have not heard from Todd since the memorial service. They called Haley, but she declined to comment on the matter. Joe, who was scheduled to visit a couple of days later, has not been in touch.

Rick’s parents have talked about what happened. There has been speculation that Todd rented a car and drove to Wisconsin to spread his dad’s ashes in the woods where he lived and died. However, Todd never saw the lot or the bunker and did not grow up in the Midwest. He knows Air Force bases here and overseas. How could he have made it to his father’s last home without help?

Did Haley and Joe assist in the “theft”? We do not know. They are adamantly silent.

Perhaps Todd still has his father’s cremains. If so, his grandparents would be happy if he returned even a portion of them so that they could bury Rick beneath the headstone they had ordered that now marks his death but not his final resting place.

There was talk of filing a complaint with authorities, but that would have been done to find the cremains. No one wanted to create a legal record of Todd’s actions that might mar his future. Who owns the cremains of a person survived by parents and a newly adult child that inherited nothing else from his father? Do the parents have the priority claim because they claimed their son’s body and paid for the cremation? Does the son, as heir, deserve to make the decision?

Rick’s parents feel like they have been deprived of “closure.” Closure is everything in modern times. It is the nearest thing to commercial failure for ending a once successful movie franchise. It is burial that usually gives closure when a child has been lost and the family has waited in vain for his return. We can mourn lost loved ones any place, but a grave offers expressions of grief a locus that the four winds or a box beneath another “lost” relative’s bed cannot.

The memorial service has meant the loss of another family member. Rick’s parents have invested many years in sustaining a relationship with a grandson who has finally forced them to admit that their son is lost to them and will likely never be found. Now he appears to be gone, too.

Rick’s mom has gone for some counseling, but she has given up on understanding what happened.

The two funerals are connected in my mind. We choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. Jane had very few comforts in childhood but manages to revere people who were charged with caring for her and let her down. Todd was surrounded by love but chose the one person who kept him at arm’s length when he felt his loyalty torn in two directions. Sometimes death means a quick transition to a new life for a loved one. Sometimes death fails to put a period to the sentence of a difficult life. Both funerals serve as reminders to me that whatever comes my way, I’ll handle it better if I keep my sense of humor.

I Miss Sherry

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It was 1992 or 1993, and I was living in Chicago because my dad had passed away, leaving my mom and brother to run a family electrical contracting firm. Danny had passed the contractor’s exam (a feat for one so young), but he still had to complete his electrical union apprenticeship, and I thought I could help run the company until he completed his studies and could devote his full attention to managing the business. I also intended to live with my mom for awhile and help cover some of her living expenses until we could figure out how my dad’s pensions would work.

I left D.C. after eighteen years of living there. My sister Kathy stayed behind. I left many dear friends and a good job. It was a crazy time in my life, a time when things all the time seemed upside down and inside out and I longed for peace. It was a time like what I’m going through now.

One of the people I left behind was a new friend named Sherry. She was as outrageous a person as I have ever met. The first time we met she was my “floater secretary” during my regular secretary’s absence. She was irreverent, disrespectful, hilariously funny, and completely inappropriate. There are times when I think of outrageous things to do or say, but I bite my lip. Sherry had no such filter to keep her from getting into trouble. The first time she made a bad mistake in the workplace, she strode into my office, shut the door, placed her hand on the wall, bent forward and flipped up her skirt. She announced that she was prepared to be spanked for her behavior. In direct contradiction of this behavior, her underwear read “F*CK U.”

I think my mouth fell open. “I am not interested in spanking you,” I said. “Firing you, yes, but spanking an adult is not something I do.” Oh. I can be so prissy that my mom once said she wished I had done something really bad as a kid so I would know you can get past it. I have. Mom just doesn’t know about those mistakes.

Sherry flipped her skirt back down and sat in one of the empty chairs in my office. “Well, I’m not interested in getting fired,” she announced. She raised one eyebrow.

We stared at each other. It was not the first time I had heard of workplace spankings. I managed luxury hotels before I went to law school and saw many surprising things in that line of business. On one occasion, the hotel’s owner summoned me and a coworker to his office and announced that he knew that I and this coworker had circulated an informal newsletter at one of the hotels. He did not care for the gossip included in it. My coworker immediately stepped forward and claimed sole responsibility. The owner shook his head and said, “I recognize Cheryl’s verbiage.”

My coworker offered to let the owner spank her. At that point he laughed hysterically and threw us both out of his office with a stern warning to refrain from further outrageous behavior.

On a later occasion, while I was an attorney, a word processing employee and “floater secretary” mishandled an assignment for me. She worked in a word processing pool and was not someone I knew well. Her supervisor instructed her to go to my office and apologize. She came into my office, shut the door, apologized, and then asked me if I would like to spank her. Deja vu.

I do not think I am the sort of person who ever liked receiving spankings. I strove very hard not to receive them and have no interest in delivering them.

I told the woman’s supervisor what happened. And the word processing employee was not terminated. I have always wondered whether someone else in the law firm was called upon to administer the discipline I could not. You meet unusual people in my profession.

Sherry was assigned to work for someone else after she worked for me. He was a powerful partner in the firm. While she worked for him, he traveled to Alaska on business. In those days, there were no laptops available to take on business trips. We did not have cell phones. There was no such thing as an unlimited calling plan. Sherry accidentally disconnected the partner while he was on hold. When he called back, he was FURIOUS. And he told her at length what an imbecile she was. Then he asked her, “Have you any idea how expensive it is to make a call from Alaska?”

Her answer? “Hold please, while I call the phone company to find out.” Then she put him on hold.

Even after she lost her job, I kept track of Sherry. We met occasionally for lunch. She told me about her failed marriage to some former hockey player. He was doing time for a crime I cannot recall. I met her son and her even more unspeakably hilarious mom. She brought some boss who seemed not altogether indisposed to spanking to my home to watch a movie and share a pizza. During the movie, Sherry excused herself to visit my bathroom.

Imagine my surprise when I visited my bathroom and found a sink full of shaving cream and hair. While she was in my bathroom, she decided the boss was going to get lucky that night, helped herself to my supplies and shaved her legs in my bathroom sink while the rest of us watched the movie. My mouth still hangs open when I think about it.

I ended up leaving DC to return home to Chicago. We stayed in touch. I think I need a few friends who express personality traits so long suppressed by polite company that I might forget anyone possessed them but for these friends’ company. I need shocking once in awhile.

I have already written in my blog I See Dead People, about Sherry’s death. https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/i-see-dead-people/. She died in her thirties of a brain aneurysm.

I actually got the news from the woman from the word processing department who also asked me if I wanted to spank her. She was assigned to me as a “floater secretary” for the day and took the call while I was at lunch. She decided not to have the caller leave me a voicemail message. She delivered the news in person as a kindness to me even though I had tattled about the spanking incident.

Sherry’s family wanted me to know that she might have wanted me to be her son’s legal guardian. She had told family members that she had written a will to that effect, but, her cousin thought it might not have been anything as formal as a will. The cousin thought Sherry might have written her wishes on a cocktail napkin and put the napkin in her car’s glove compartment for safekeeping. The cousin said that I was welcome to attend the funeral, but should be ready for a backwoods brawl if I tried to take the child back to Chicago.

I am not a properly maternal person. I teach, so I do enjoy the company of young people. But the people I teach are in college and post-college settings. Children are not my thing. I never stick out my arms to hold people’s babies. I do not pat the seat next to me and say, “Come sit here and I’ll tell you a story.” (In fact, I think other people’s insistence on such access is a problem. It seems inconsistent to put children on their guard against Stranger Danger and then insist they submit to “familiar strangers'” hugs and kisses.) I like adults.

I called an attorney from Tennessee to find out what the ordinary estate rules were for that state. When I spoke to Sherry’s mom, I told her that I had never spoken to Sherry about estate planning, had never agreed to be a guardian for her son, and planned to attend the funeral but had no intention of taking her grandson.

Sherry’s mom was not unfriendly. She welcomed me to come for the funeral but warned me not to listen if the cousin who first contacted me hit me up for money before, during, or after the funeral. “She will tell you that Sherry didn’t have enough money to pay for her own funeral. That’s true enough. But we will find a place that will bury her. Everyone knows you gave Sherry the money to move down here so they figure you have money they could find a use for.”

My mom warned me sternly not to go to the funeral. “You’ll just be asking for trouble.”

I flew down to Tennessee later that week for the funeral. I took a cab to Sherry’s sister’s home. Sherry had two sisters. Both were more unusual than Sherry. They were angry and violent. Sherry told me that she had a fight with one sister and, when Sherry turned her back, her sister lobbed a toaster at the back of Sherry’s head. It caused a concussion. Sherry’s sister had married a violent man and he had overwhelmed her violence with his own.

The other sister was very sick, but a secretary to some powerful DC lawyer. As a result of that relationship, she walked around in the mantle of his power, blistering with vile words anyone who upset her. She never raised a hand against Sherry, but that sister could wound with words and did.

Sherry’s mom was unabashedly funny in the way that the TV show Hee Haw was funny. The words might be simple, but the mind was sharp as a tack. When Sherry was married to the hockey player, mother and daughter visited his family in Canada on Canada Day. The in-laws were a bit pretentious and belabored the fact that Canadian fireworks were going to outshine anything you could see in Tennessee.

On watching the much lauded fireworks display from the in-laws’ lakefront condo, Sherry’s mom was asked to compliment the display. She responded, “I can fart higher–and in more colors!”

The house was a lovely home, but you could tell there were going to be problems as soon as I arrived. The cousin hit me up for a thousand dollars to help pay for the funeral. She told me that the mortician was working on Sherry as a favor and the cemetery was a sort of “potter’s field.” I was given the impression that a thousand dollars was needed or we’d be burying Sherry in a potato sack.

My hostess came down from her bedroom in what can only be described as a cocktail dress. It was black, but cut up and down so I knew at once the color of her underpants and that she wore a garter belt and stockings rather than pantyhose. No bra.

There were whispers about the other sister. She had arrived late for the wake, insisted on delivering a long speech about her own health issues and how she should have been the one being buried, and then had passed out, putting an end to the evening’s festivities as everyone had to rush home to tell their family, friends, and neighbors about the “hillbilly” (not my word choice) event. The family had taken the sister to the emergency room to get her checked out and had not gotten “home” until midnight. Everyone was tired.

I was several times told that the family would fight me to the death for Sherry’s son. I was told that the attorney who once got lucky after sharing pizza and a movie at my DC apartment had assured the family that, if Sherry had prepared a will naming me as legal guardian to her son, then “that will would never pass across the desk at a probate court’s offices.” I was asked if I knew the whereabouts of the cocktail napkin.

When it was time to go to the church, Sherry’s mom said she would drive me and the cousin to the church in Sherry’s car. I thought someone else should drive, but the car had a stick shift, and I can only drive an automatic. I got into the backseat because, if I had gotten into the front seat, the temptation to open the car’s glove compartment would have been strong. Sherry’s mom asked her son-in-law for a few pointers. He leaned into the car through the driver’s window. Sherry’s mom got a little excited.

She threw the car into reverse, hit the gas, and all four of us hurtled down a wooded hill until we crashed into a large enough tree. The son-in-law was lucky we didn’t kill him. All of us had mild to moderate whiplash that we decided to ignore.

We continued on to the church. As we drove, we realized that the trunk of Sherry’s car had been damaged. The trunk was stuffed with Sherry’s belongings that had been removed from her apartment so the family could avoid incurring more expense. While we drove, articles of Sherry’s clothing fluttered out of the flapping trunk and blew off into the humid breeze the car stirred up. Other members of the family later reported that a blue bra had slapped against a windshield and someone else had caught a pair of underpants as a keepsake.

At the church, the casket was open and set at the front of the church. Sherry’s sisters had an unhealthy fascination for their sister’s corpse. The sick sister redid Sherry’s makeup and ended up putting the cosmetics back in her purse. The other removed an immense, black hat from Sherry’s head and slapped it on her own head. She declared that she was going to wear it because (1) the brim would be crushed when the casket was closed; and (2) I think, most importantly from her point of view, she looked better in it and it matched her black dress!

Someone had set the church’s organ to play what I would describe as spirituals. When the first notes of The Old Rugged Cross pealed out, it was a rousing rendition a little more appropriate at a revival than a funeral and so loud that many in attendance exclaimed and batted their homemade fans until one of Sherry’s sisters ran up to adjust the volume. She announced that we could all rest assured that Sherry knew we were seeing her off in style. “That music was loud enough to be heard in the far corners of heaven and hell.”

I sat in the row behind the family. I was introduced as the lawyer “who had come to steal Sherry’s baby.” Sherry’s “baby” was about eight or nine years old. He stood up and removed his belt, folded it in half, pushed his fists together and then pulled them apart so the leather of the belt made a loud smacking sound. He called out loudly, “That’s right, now I’ve got the belt.”

He looked up at his supposedly abusive uncle for approval, and I wished that there was a will naming me as his legal guardian. But the boy had a father who would one day get out of prison and come looking for him and Sherry’s family was where she had brought her son when she seemed to have a premonition that her death might be near, and I had no legal standing to protest these people’s claim to the boy because no one had found even a cocktail napkin with my name on it, and I am a lawyer and do not lay claim to others’ children without even a phone conversation to indicate that a person means to have her beloved boy placed in my care. As you might now suspect, this will be a moment I never forget, a road not taken, a cause for regret. I am ashamed to say that I did not even stay in touch to monitor the situation.

People got up to say a few kind words, but they mostly spoke about themselves. One of Sherry’s sisters told us how she was going to keep Sherry’s hat forever because it looked better on her and she felt certain Sherry would agree. The other told us more about her illness and her fears that she would die before her own young child was old enough to remember her. She let it be known that her boss’ law firm would fight me tooth and nail if I tried to take Sherry’s boy back to Chicago with me. The boy cried then and I wondered what Sherry had said or done to make everyone look at me so suspiciously. I hardly knew this boy. I probably had known her for a year or two. It had not been enough time for me to develop any relationship with this boy, given my lack of interest in other people’s children.

The sick sister ended the eulogies by losing her footing. Her husband ran forward to catch her before she could fall and strike her head a second time in as many days. I cannot recall whether I spoke (I always speak) or what I said (if I did speak, I cannot imagine what I could have said to save this sad and crazy memorial). I don’t want to go back and read my journal entry. I remember enough from that strange day.

The pastor delivered his own sermon. I have already written about how Sherry’s recent declaration of her faith in Jesus Christ meant she was already in heaven “with Elvis . . . and Jesus, too.”

It was a long drive to the cemetery. A friend of the family contributed the plot. It was a field of green grass, some of it long enough that you knew no one got around to mowing every week. There were very few headstones and the ones that were there were small and flat. It was the kind of sunny day in summer when the air is so thick with humidity that you wade through it. The cicadas and crickets and every other manner of insect whined in a cadence that rose and fell but never quieted enough to let you form a clear thought. There were flies that pestered. My heels sank in the dirt. The grass was coarse and raspy against my nylon-covered ankles.

We gathered by the grave under a yellow and white canopy, all of us fitting in its shade if not beneath its covering. The hole was dug and you could smell the soil that someone had covered with a length of artificially bright, fake turf. The minister was taking his time as he picked his way from the parking lot. The casket rested on a sling of leather belts. There were children present and they had started to run about the cemetery playing tag.

Sherry’s sister, the one who hit Sherry with the toaster, threw herself down at the very edge of the grave and commenced to cryin’. I am talking about grief that seemed out of proportion to her demeanor. She stretched out onto the fake turf like she meant to climb into that grave, too. But she reached back at one point to straighten her skirt so we saw a little more of her legs and behind than was polite but a little less than would have been downright salacious. The hat never slipped from its perch atop a topknot of careless curls. The woman’s husband bent down, picked her up in his arms and carried her back to their car so prettily. For all the crying, I cannot recall a spilled tear.

The rest of us were frozen by the tableau.

I had arranged for a limousine to pick me up at the cemetery. It was finer than the hearse. It was an odd contrast to the collection of attendees’ cars. When the pastor finished his prayers, I said goodbye to Sherry’s mom and just walked away from the whole mess. I am not usually a coward, but I felt I had been dropped into a hot mess of family stew that was so poisoned that I had to get away from it.

When I got home I still had plenty of troubles and sorrows of my own to address. But I felt like I had briefly wandered onto some movie set. All of the classic signs were there. It was a place in which the observer squirms and thinks, “Oh, don’t go there. Don’t get in the car. Don’t open the door. Please don’t look in that closet. Whatever you do, do not go into the basement. Don’t trust them. For crying out loud, can’t you see the danger here?”

In movies, the person does what no one else would do. She succumbs to a bad case of stupid and for her troubles she is roundly punished. And the rest of us take our lickings with her. We are scared within an inch of our own deaths by the prospect of what will happen to one who has been lured into a danger from which there can be no escape.

I did not tread further. I let the limousine whisk me back to the airport. I caught the last plane to Chicago for the day. I picked up the burdens of my own life–bookkeeping for a failing family business, grief from the loss of a father and then a friend, a crazily demanding job in a place with its fair share of strange people–and I tried not to look back.

In the times during the last two years when things have been upside down and inside out people have told me that, if we could trade our problems for someone else’s, we would still take up our own burdens and carry on.

I think they are right. It’s tempting sometimes to try on someone else’s cares and woes and imagine we could handle them, even handle them better. But our own cares are familiar and we often have years of preparation for handling them.

But, every once in awhile, I think about a place in Tennessee where I watched men lower a casket into a grave in the midst of a tragic stew of family drama and I wonder, if I turned back and opened the door, whether I would find all my worst fears realized or flowers growing despite the tears that would surely fall because I still miss Sherry.

You Gotta Ride the Rails, Little Lady

Grandpa Tom

Grandpa Tom

This week I had to cancel plans to visit my sister and friends in Washington, DC because my landlady has decided not to continue leasing my apartment. I have to move and the news has upset me. I know, I kicked cancer, but, seriously!!! I am tired. And I cannot help wondering why I never get the “test” in which you get a million dollars and the heavens watch to see if you will use some of it for charity.

Someone from among my friends suggested that I should have planned a trip to Disney world. She says that, if she kicked cancer, that’s where she would go.

I do not have children. I am not required by the natural law of making children’s dreams come true to visit the place. My family visited Disneyland for our last “family” vacation in about 1972. My sister and I were in high school. Grandpa Tom wanted us to see the West. He was 100% Irish, but he retired in Santa Fe, New Mexico with Grandma Elsie (50% Swedish/50% German) and he “went native.” He adopted the bolo tie. He explored every historical site in the area. He read the history. He had always told us stories of natives living in the western states while the women (sometimes Grandma Elsie all by herself) washed the dishes.

In my grandpa’s stories, the natives were smart and possessed a wonderful sense of humor. I am not sure where he learned his stories, but his father was a railroad engineer (as in a designer of the engine cars). They lived along the railroad tracks in many American cities. Perhaps his father told them. Perhaps he read them. After he moved to New Mexico there was little talk of Ireland. He identified with the native cultures. We think he adapted his “look” to blend in. He even started to refer to the Spanish that claimed the territory and subjected the native population to their rule “bloodless devils.”

He wanted my sister and me to take the train to New Mexico. We traveled by ourselves. Our parents loaded Danny into the backseat of the station wagon and set out by car while Kathy and I shared a two-bed sleeper compartment and dined in the diner car with its linen tablecloths and napkins.

(c) cardcow.com--Hope I don't offend by borrowing this photo.

(c) cardcow.com–Hope I don’t offend by borrowing this photo.

It was a wonderful experience. Having spent several preceding summers under the camp names Kettle and Little Pot at Norwesco, a Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin, with five cots in the tent, this was luxurious. We even had misadventures. We stored our Brownie Hawkeye camera in the tiny cabinet in our sleeper until our porter exclaimed that, “You don’t put your camera in the shoe box.” We were unaware of the fact that he could access shoes from the shoebox when outside of our room so that he could shine them. “Everyone knows you can’t leave your camera in the shoebox.” That was not true until after we rode the train. Grandpa had wanted us to see the world from a train and we learned many things from our experience. One thing that I learned was that a train ride can be marvelous! I loved the many luxuries and the stress-free travel.

Brownie Hawkeye Camera

Brownie Hawkeye Camera

We met up with rest of the family in Santa Fe. After an excellent exploration of the surrounding area, we set off in the station wagon for Arizona and then California. We visited with one of my dad’s friends from the Marine Corps. The two men posed gut-to-gut after deploring the way in which married life had softened them. At the last second one of them sucked it in and made his buddy look bad. I think it might have been my dad. He was a prankster.

We visited my mom’s dear friend who lived near the ocean. Her family seemed unfamiliar with Chicago. The kids kept asking us about Illinois where we “pushed cows and pulled pigs”–whatever that means. The culmination of our trip was a day at Disneyland.

I can remember every detail of the railroad ride to Santa Fe, but the only thing I can remember of Disneyland is Pirates of the Caribbean.

Fast forward about thirty years to the summer I took my niece and her son to Disney world. My plan was to rest in the hotel room. I was exhausted after a difficult project completed while I was sick with an upper respiratory infection. I was hospitalized the evening before my departure. I thought I was having a heart attack, but it turned out that my esophagus was seizing following weeks of coughing. I slept and read novels in the comfort of an air-conditioned room. Lisa and Ryan spent day and night in the park.

I only joined Lisa and Ryan one day. I paid for the lunch with the costumed cartoon figures and wanted to see Ryan’s reaction. I drove to the park and took a little train ride to the correct portion of the park. As I recall, I went to Frontierland. The heat was devastating for me. Then we ate lunch. I took pictures. When lunch was over the kids decided to continue on with their steady pace of rides and meals. I arranged to pick them up later at the park. Lisa asked me if I would mind taking back with me a bunch of souvenirs.

A storm was rolling in off of the ocean. I carried my umbrella, Lisa’s umbrella, a purse, a camera bag, and a bag of toys. At one point it did rain, and I was grateful to be under cover by that time. I joined the line for what I presumed was the little train that would take me back to the park entrance. I waited with lots of other people, but it never occurred to me that we were all waiting in the covered waiting area for anything other than the little choo choo. No one spoke with anticipation of a roller coaster–no one. When we finally entered a building the wood-slatted walls of the building reminded me of the train station. Then I turned a corner and saw the loading area for a roller coaster. It was the California Gold Rush ride.

A costumed employee who looked like Pecos Pete waved me toward the ride. I did not want to get on the ride. I explained my reluctance. I did not want to ride a rollercoaster. I was sick. I did not have anyone with me to share the ride. I was holding too many items to hang onto the handrail.

“There are only two choices,” he said. “Get on the ride or push and shove your way back out of here.”

It was, for me, an impossible choice. I refused to get in.

That’s when Pecos Pete snarled, “You gotta ride the rails, little lady!”

I got in and Pecos Pete locked me in. For the next five minutes or so I screamed as my behind slid from side to side in my seat. It was all I could do to hang onto the items in my arms. I did not have a free hand to stop the relentless motion.

I screamed until I coughed. Then I could not stop coughing.

When I got out of the rollercoaster someone had to grab my hand and drag me out. I looked like I had been dragged through the bushes backwards. A park employee came over and offered to escort me to the train ride when I could not stop coughing even after they got me some water.

The moral of the story is that you take a train when you want a scenic ride in comfort, but you never know when you buy your ticket if you’ll be taking a choo choo or riding the rails with Pecos Pete.

I may not like the fact that I will be moving in the next forty-five or so days, but I can complain all I want and I will still have to ride the rails. The thrills and chills are part of the price of the ticket in life.

I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out.

Cancer Survivorship – What Does It Mean?

Lately I have been writing about life “post”-cancer. There are no promises that it is over. For some of us, cancer returns. Treatment can continue for the rest of a person’s life. For others there are long-term effects from cancer treatment. Sometimes these effects are also life-threatening. Regardless of the outcome, there is no going back to the way things were before my diagnosis. Denise has posted this week some observations made about people’s initiatives for taking on life after diagnosis and treatment. I liked it as I was feeling a fair amount of pressure to cope yet again with challenges to my peace of mind just when I hoped to kick back for a week or two of relative leisure. This posting reinforced the messages of support I had already received from many friends and bloggers. I’m taking no prisoners. Some of the suggestions are a little extreme for me, but living a happy life means different things for different people. The Rx in this posting has ideas for all kinds of situations. Thank you, Denise, for inspiring me!

It was time for our annual 4th of July family gathering to celebrate the 17th birthday of my nephew, Tyler.  His father, my former brother-in-law, is a 35 year survivor of Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve written about Trent before as his life is inspiring.  He was not expected to live, and when he did live, he was told he would never have any children because of the strong chemo drugs he went through in the late 1970s.  The drugs Trent had to endure are no longer used.  These drugs were used for torture during World War I.  Plus, Trent had no anti-nausea drugs like we are so fortunate enough to receive now.

As Trent and I stood talking, my nephew who resembles his dad in so many ways, walks up and immediately with a smile says, “cancer talk” as he could tell  by our demeanor what Trent and I were discussing.   It is a secret language when cancer survivors get together. …

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Taking Off

I had a bad surprise yesterday. My landlady for the last eight years announced I will need to move. My home is owned by her and her brother; and they have made a family decision to have me leave. She did not say it, but it sounds like a family member wants to live here.

I have never wanted to own my own home. I managed luxury hotels when I was in my twenties and had quite enough of property management. I used to enjoy moving, even looked forward to it as an adventure. My last move took a “day”–thanks to two immense moving trucks and five professional movers.

After I heard the news I got into my car and drove for about an hour because I hated the fact that my home was not really mine. The car will be paid off in less than a year–so it felt like mine as I drove in holiday “exodus” traffic.

I found myself wondering again about fate and about our capacity for steering in life. In the last two years my body has been treated for cancer–an ongoing event that has had me feeling alien in my own skin at times. After a gut-wrenching shedding of a massive amount of blood that left splash marks on my walls at home, I had parts of me excised. I have experienced what it feels like to have had nerves cut in surgery and (when the pain of surgery abated) to have no feeling whatsoever in the proximity of my incision. Then I subjected myself to radiation and chemotherapy that killed and damaged countless cells in an effort to root out the really sick ones. I have felt like every part of my body was strange (shedding, peeling, leaking, rushing out of or off of me). I lost much of my hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. Blood ran from my nose every day for months (as well as from all of my other orifices). My nails bubbled and peeled. Even my own body smells changed for a time and I hated them.

I lost a loved job teaching part time at a law school for having been diagnosed with cancer. I have returned to work there, but nothing is the same except the students and how I feel about them. Just this week I was invited to teach again this fall. The invitation requires me to teach my fourteen classes and attend five (now) mandatory meetings. The list of the five dates of mandatory meetings was accidentally omitted. The invitation tells me that the school reserves the absolute discretion to terminate me at any time for no reason. The invitation omits any mention of compensation. Ordinarily, an offer of employment requires each party to promise something to the other. Here, what is promised to me is nothing. The email invitation laid bare the deal–if I return, I get nothing from the school.

The last bastion of peace and quiet in life has been home and we will soon be parted, too. I have so many “things” in this apartment. I will have to part with some of them, too, before this is over. Every move I have ever made has involved some shedding. But I have long thought of this place with the living room laid out like my Grandma Elsie’s, its sunny yellow walls, and silver and turquoise bathroom, as a haven. It will be very hard to pack it all up and move.

This coming week I finish three more classes. That will get me down to one online class. I was looking forward to the summer slowdown. I was hoping to write. I have not done reading for pleasure in months. I recently began work for a search firm–as an independent contractor–and hoped I would have the summer to devote to it. I even made plans to go on a short vacation–ten days with family and friends in DC. I will probably have to cancel the vacation. There may not be any time for writing or reading. I will have to juggle to not lose this new opportunity to stretch my wings with the search firm.

That’s what finally did it. That thought is what finally broke me down emotionally yesterday. It is what made me drive back to the apartment so as not to risk others’ lives by driving while in distress–distress that I felt to the roots of the hairs on my head and arms. I haven’t cried for what I have experienced during the last twenty-one months. I have cried through physical pain and suffering but never for having learned I had cancer. I did cry when I heard I lost my job. And I cried yesterday for the loss of my home and my plans and all the lost freedoms. I finally cried for the cancer, too. It was not for very long. It is not like me to cry for things or events. I cry for other people in pain and animals abandoned. But it was another form of shedding that I guess I had to experience because I will stretch my wings.

This entire dreadful, painful, frightening, awful experience has been about peeling away what is nonessential. It has been a wrenching agony since it began and I have hated it even as I marked how things have started to improve. The very foundations of who I am and what I want have been tested, shaken, and stripped away. Soon it will just be me.

I sent my friends in DC a message yesterday to let them know that I might not make it out to see them this summer. I realized as I sent them that message that I have lost family and friends in the last twenty-one months, too. My aunt and uncle died. There were friends who were not strong enough to walk with me through cancer treatment and dropped me. (I am intensely grateful for the many family and friends who did not jump ship.)

I have been very focused on images of birds, but maybe this is the story of a butterfly. Maybe I will take flight after the last of the shedding, peeling, stripping, and leaking of all but the essential me is complete.

I should end this posting there–on a positive note.

But I am NotDownOrOut and part of the essential me has to ask, “What the f*** is going on here?”

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