This I Also Believe

NPR's This I Believe series is some of what I enjoy the most on Sundays. It seems like it's broadcast on Sundays, or it should be.

I think I could have written this month's featured essay, "Always Go the Funeral." After sixteen years I still remember my mother's old co-workers that came to her wake, and my high school boyfriend who I hadn't talked to a whole lot after he'd spent a year abroad in Germany and I'd gone to college, but who made us laugh at the luncheon afterwards. (I'd say a belated thank you, but this is probably the most weird Facebook message you could get from someone.)

For my father's funeral, four friends road tripped from Ohio, bringing my own car back to me, since I'd left it in a flurry to get home - an incomparable and immeasurable gift. All five of us bunked down in my bedroom at home, making me feel surrounded by a protective cluster of friendship when I fell asleep that night.

And turning around after my father's funeral service I was awed that the aisles of the church seemed absolutely full, almost as much as on a Sunday from my childhood. And sometimes I think of all the people I've met since, who would have been there, if they'd know me then.

I'm sorry if this made my pregnant, and maybe more emotional-than-usual sister cry, but here is the essay:

I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.

The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. “Dee,” he said, “you’re going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family.”

So my dad waited outside while I went in. It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson’s shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, “Sorry about all this,” and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson’s mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.

That was the first time I went un-chaperoned, but my parents had been taking us kids to funerals and calling hours as a matter of course for years. By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals. I remember two things from the funeral circuit: bottomless dishes of free mints and my father saying on the ride home, “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.”

Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that.

“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

And the lesson I take to heart and repeat: "In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing."


Sura said...

I know it, I do. Thanks for sharing and know that I too would have been there. It's strange the things we remember and that which stays with us.

Claire said...

Thank you.
(And glad to see you figured out the comments!)


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