Sunday Morning ~ Parcel of Life
Fukusi la moyo sakusungira ndi mnzako. ~ The parcel of life is not kept for you by your friend.
~ Chewa proverb
September 10, 2023
In June I was traveling in Bali and saw a large fire in an open area near a road. It was a hot afternoon and people were sitting around and eating, men in one group, women in another. “Cremation”, my driver said. “What? Did you say cremation? Like a burial? Burning a body?” I asked, rather incredulous. “Yes, a body. A dead one.” he said. And under my breath I said, “I hope so”, not sure if that remark would be offensive. I knew almost nothing of Hinduism. I knew they did cremation like many cultures, but did not know it was so public. This was not something I expected. I saw several cremations during my month there; the family carries the body in a portable (and flammable) temple, and they set it on fire in a park and then serve food and visit while it burns. It’s impressive as I can’t imagine eating during that. I am intrigued by rituals surrounding death and believe they are an important part of life and it’s cycles.
My cousin, Tom, died August 15th. It was not unexpected; he had been sick for awhile. But it’s still a shock when the end comes. Our fathers were brothers, his older than mine by seventeen years, so Tom was a teenager when I was a baby. My parents chose him for my godfather. As a small child I thought he was very cool: skinny, smiling and teasing, his Brylcreemed hair with a little wave on top. He later became a Navy pilot and when he’d visit in uniform, handsome and well spoken, my parents would get all a flutter when he arrived. It was like a royal visit. As I write this I can see how the happiness his visits brought my family added to my love for him. He drove a convertible; a big red convertible with a white hood. In my adolescent years he’d take us younger cousins for a ride with the top down. We thought he was the coolest person on earth. So free. So competent. So sure of himself without being cocky. I’d always hoped I would find someone just like him to marry. My father and Tom seemed to have a special relationship. They skied together and sat up late in our living room talking when he’d come to visit. Tom seemed to walk the adult/child border with a special skill. He was one of us, the cousins, but he fit in with the adults, meaning my father respected him and treated him as an equal. That was unique. Much later in life Tom and I shared father stories, another peg that bound us, and I gained a deeper sense of connection.
I was in middle school when Tom called to say he was bringing his fiancé to our house. The anticipation was thrilling. My mother scurried around the kitchen all day cooking. She barked at us to get the bathroom clean and vacuum the living room. We sprayed Pledge on the coffee table and polished the silver. It was a big deal that Tom was coming with, what was her name? A fiancé! He’d never even brought a girlfriend before, never mind a fiancé! It was all so exciting. We loved that we were important enough to have an official visit before the wedding.
When they arrived, we all crowded into the kitchen to meet the guest of honor. My mother was happy and effusive welcoming this soon-to-be family member, and oh! this beauty did not disappoint. She had gone to Vassar my mother gushed to neighbors, as if we were now Ivy League just by having her marry into our family. My father got home early from work, mixing manhattans, a sign this was a really important event. Kathy was beautiful, blond, smiling, poised, and perfect. Of course, this is the woman Tom would marry! She was all at once comfortable in our humble home, a blend of big sister and movie star. She told of how she and Tom met with such ease I sat and wondered at her lack of fear for my father. During dinner my father razzed Tom with, “So you are some romantic guy getting married on Valentine’s Day, huh?” as if a warning not to let any woman get an upper hand. Kathy laughed; Tom laughed, then gaily told the story of how the date was chosen. I sat in my awkward twelve year-old body enthralled. Could this ever happen to me, I wondered?
That meeting was fifty-four years ago. Quite a bit of life happened between then and now. I grew up to be more of a peer than the little silly cousin. We shared parenting stories, aging parent stories, childhood abuse stories. Visits weren’t frequent, but correspondence was. A few months before my book came out I was joking with him, saying “I don’t expect a pulitzer prize, but I’m proud of it.” His response was, “Why not?! I think it deserves a Pulitzer prize!” He’d asked me hopefully if I’d put my maiden name on it. His support meant a lot to me.
When our fathers’ sister died in February 2020 (at 107 years old), she gave us a gift of a family reunion just a week before everything shut down. Tom had been struggling with a chronic disease for several years by then but was still vibrant. He looked more like our grandfather than the skinny teenager, but when he spoke, his voice and words were Tom. I heard from him less and less after that, then not at all. A devoted reader of these blogs, his comments stopped. For a year I’ve been thinking I need to get to Rhode Island for a visit and planned to go after dropping the grandkids back home before Labor Day. When Kathy wrote and said he had taken a turn for the worse and was no longer talking, eating, or going for treatments, I knew that visit was going to be too late.
His funeral was another reunion. I remember my mother saying laughingly, “Weddings and funerals! That’s when we see each other! Imagine!” And…here we are. We are the old folks now, and as I looked at his four beautiful sons and their beautiful children I could see Tom will live on. I was comforted by the familiar Catholic ritual and grateful for it. Rituals bring order out of chaos and we need them, whatever they are. I’m sorry for those who lost loved ones during the pandemic and did not have the chance for a familiar cultural ritual. We left the mass at the church where he practiced his faith and proceeded to the cemetery for a military burial with the flag, gun salute, and taps. As the trumpet played it’s final note, a plane flew low over us and I wasn’t the only sobbing person who looked up quickly and looked around murmuring, “Did they plan that?”
Love to all,