It’s New Years Eve. The one night of the week that forced fun takes on a whole new level of ambivalence and irritation. I have two options: go out, stay home. Home involves wine, a bubble bath, a book, and an early bedtime. It’s also free. Going out means my favorite kinda local bar with amazing tunes and a good chance of midnight smooch. Thankfully I don’t have to decide anything until somewhere around 9:30 tonight. But this isn’t about that. I’m just hoping that 2014 brings with it a reversal of fortune for those who had a rough 2013. Happy New Year, all.
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Christmas. I’ve spent my whole life completely in love with Christmas. Not the presents so much anymore, since as an adult I can pretty much buy the stuff that I want, but more the whole build up and event itself. Chicago looks amazing in the winter but when you put lights and wreaths on everything, it really comes alive. It’s like one last glorious hug from the city before they take all that stuff away and we’re left staring at the gray, two week-old snow drifts dotted with dog poo.
This Christmas however, was an entirely different experience than I’ve ever known. My mom’s brother (“uncle” technically, but we weren’t close and neither were they, really) fell ill and had a surgery which resulted in a coma that he never came out of. His funeral was Saturday the 21st. The church was decorated with wreaths, trees, lights, and bows. Beautiful. Except for the fact that a funeral was occurring in it. It was the first to book end the week, as it turned out.
In the mid-70s, my parents befriended a couple who attended the same church as my family. They had two boys with one on the way, and my parents had two girls with one on the way as well (me). I was born in December, their son Andrew was born six weeks later. Andy’s mom was an ER nurse who worked nights so on the three days that she slept during the afternoon, Andy came to my house. We went through nursery school together, took swimming lessons, attended elementary school and eventually junior high and spent afternoons together all the time. We were inseparable. After Sunday School we plotted group lunch after church then divide-and-conquered our respective parents to make it happen, every Christmas our families gathered together to exchange gifts and watch movies. All these things went on from before we were born until somewhere around our 17th birthdays when our older siblings married and had kids, then it just became too difficult to get together. Andy was attending a different high school than I was by that time, and things had started to change between our parents due to some church politics (two words that should never go together).
Andy and I wound up losing touch except for the occasional run-in at a Christmas Eve church service or wedding, and in 2005 he got married. Something in me at that wedding hurt. I remember thinking, “but we’re only 10 years old!” and suddenly the memories of playing Star Wars in his bedroom or hide and seek in my house seemed very far away, almost as if they’d never happened.
I lost my father to a short fight with cancer in 2001. Andy’s father took me aside a year later and with a hand on my shoulder, told me that if or when I get married and want to do the father-daughter dance, be walked down the aisle, etc. that he would be honored if it could be he who was at my side. I kept that in a special drawer in my heart and mind, and went about my merry way. A few weeks ago, Andy’s dad took a spill and hit his head hard enough to cause a massive brain bleed. He too, never came out of the resulting coma and passed away the morning of my uncle’s funeral.
Christmas with my family was held in its usual crazy fashion: cooking, barely relaxing, presents, kids, but Andy was never far from my mind. I sent him a text Christmas night as everyone went to their separate corners to recover from the fray, and he responded that he was doing alright and his family had had a nice day together. The evening of the 26th was his father’s visitation during which I thought for absolutely sure I would be a puddle. I’d put it completely out of my head intentionally in the week leading up, with occasional tears welling and then quickly squashed. When I walked into the sanctuary, I saw Andy’s older brothers, his mom, old familiar faces I’d not seen in years, and eventually, next to his father’s open casket, Andy. My heart flipped in my chest. This was happening.
I made the rounds and said hello to those I knew, including another friend we grew up with and one we went to school with, who had remained one of Andy’s closest friends. Overhead, a constant stream of still photos played on a projection screen. As I stood there watching, I was amazed at the amount of images that either included my family, or that my mother took and have the originals of tucked into the overflowing photo drawer in her hallway at home. There was a wonderful one of our fathers talking and smiling at each other. That one got me. My family are all Christians, and it’s the Christian belief that heaven awaits the second you die and when you get there, it’s commonly held that you recognize familiar faces you knew in life. Comforting and amazing is that thought, and I found myself picturing them back slapping and hugging like they always did. Andy came over and we had a long, strong hug. He was holding it together astoundingly well, but I remember when I went through it being somewhat on autopilot, only breaking down when someone else did who I was particularly fond of. I told Andy that he probably wouldn’t remember 90% of the experience of the funeral, and that it’s ok. We stood together almost the whole time, adult fraternal twins who had just lost a father. Two fathers, actually. It was a powerful image, one that I know caused more than a few tears from observers.
The following day, the funeral was held at our parents’ church, same as the visitation had been. It was a church we’d known since it was built in the late 80s, where we’d attended youth groups and my sisters’ weddings. We filed in, took our seats, and the services began. One of the speakers was a dear friend to both of our fathers. He was so open and raw with his emotions that I finally felt it all let go. I cried. A lot. The pastor who baptized Andy and me, performed our siblings’ weddings, and spoke at my father’s funeral gave the eulogy. It was a message of hope, faith, and positivity but as comforting as his words were meant to be, the tears barely ceased. I had a very keen sense that my own father’s funeral must have been similar but I have virtually no memory of it. We fortunately have it on cassette tape, and I’d like to listen to it one day.
We left for the graveside service shortly after, which was very short and attended mainly by family and the closest friends. I took a rose from the casket as we were encouraged to do, and I plan to shadowbox it like I did with the roses I took from my father’s. Maybe I’ll give that to Andy or his mom.
The luncheon afterward was back at the same church, and was by far much lighter. It’s a strange custom, eating and socializing after a funeral. I understand it, it’s life-affirming, but it’s weird to be crying miserable one moment then laughing and stuffing your face the next. Again I had time to talk with old friends, friends of my parents, and Andy. He seemed exhausted but lighter, and I remember too the slight feeling of relief that it was finally over. Well, the service part of it anyway.
After we went home, we changed into less black clothes and allowed the emotional exhaustion rock us to sleep for an hour. Upon waking, I walked to the overflowing photo drawer, sat on the floor, and began to go through them. I managed to find several great ones of our families together and individually, taken at each other’s homes. Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, parties, babies, grandkids, it was all there, a visual history of our households and history. Sitting on the floor surrounded by photos, it struck me that Andy and I literally grew up together, and that he’s now experienced something I did 12 years ago, now our moms were widows, and the significance is something I hope rekindles friendships that have gone a bit dormant in recent years.
It was truly a brutal way to spend a holiday week and I hope to never repeat it. Until then, I occasionally stop and smile at the images of a laughing Poncho and Cisco who are together again shooting hoops, talking politics and about their kids, healthy, happy, and at peace.