Sunday, September 9, 2012

he's gone . . . cont'd

You ride alone, beneath the overcast, and arrive at H.M. Patterson & Sons funeral home in Sandy Springs around nine to get everything set up.  You and Sandie were there last week, after Stew had become bedbound.  You’d met the Funeral Director, a Capote-esque character with a Southern, almost-lispy speech pattern direct from central casting, and “made arrangements.”  You choose the casket, the lining; you decide on pallbearers and are cautioned by the FD not to use oldsters as pall bearers because the casket is damn heavy and they might slip or fall and break a hip.  One of the arrangements you wanted was a Marine Guard at the graveside to blow “Taps.”  Months ago you’d called the local Marines office, the national office, and a few other dead ends and wound up with nothing.  You couldn’t find the right person to make it happen, and you let it go.  One of the first questions the FD asked was if your dad was in the service, and if so, did you want a Marine Guard at the funeral, and if you did, well he would arrange it!  Awesome.  All you needed was your dad’s honorable discharge papers.  Where those are you have no idea but after a day or two of tearing his office apart, they were found.

The A/V people are already there erecting the screen for the slide show.  Introductions and condolences from the guy who’s going to handle the service.  The minister my mother wanted to officiate shows up, pleasant and nice.  Rebecca sets up the computer for the slide show.  As you peruse the program again you see two more screw-ups: one of the people giving a remembrance is named Bill Pike (not Joe, like the program says), and you forgot to include a line for the slideshow.  Jesus.

Around ten o’clock people start arriving for the visitation.  The casket is closed, draped with a huge American flag, flanked by flowers.  You get to spend about thirty seconds with each person there; time’s moving, fast.  Before you’re ready, the visitation room empties of guests and it’s just the family.  The minister says a brief prayer; you’re ushered into the hallway and then a short walk to the chapel.  The program reads:

Processional: “The Solid Rock”
“Because He Lives”: Jim Bell, Lloyd Hess
Remembrances: Jane Gouldman, Jenny Hurlburt, Joe Pike
Eulogy: Steven R. Hurlburt
Meditation: Rev. Art Wilder
“Brokedown Palace”:
Steven R. Hurlburt, Rebecca Hurlburt, Jenny Hurlburt
Recessional: “Joyful, joyful We Adore Thee”
Pall bearers: Phillip Causey, Jim Gash, John Gouldman,
Ethan Hurlburt, Steven R. Hurlburt, Rick Yost

You’re seated and the casket is wheeled in, almost completely covered with Old Glory.  It is surrounded by flowers.  A cross of white flowers from my mother’s bridge group hangs on the wall behind it.  Time speeds faster, faster.  The minister prays, the singer sings with that deep, pleasing, polished, old school Protestant voice.  Jane’s remembrance is of your parents’ first date; Jenny’s is of her granddad, the storyteller and Bill’s is one of deep respect: dad as golfer, stand-up guy, a man’s man.  Your hands are sweating like mad; you’re emptying the box of Kleenex beside you, not dabbing tears away, but wiping the sweat from your hands every few seconds.  How are you supposed to play guitar with soaked hands? 

The slideshow, which we decided to put after the remembrances and which is ten minutes long seems over in a flash.  Now it’s your turn.

You walk up to the podium in time suspended.  Your hands sweat.  You look at the words you’ve written and suddenly English becomes a foreign language.  You start to speak (you’ve rehearsed this, read it out loud, perfectly, dozens of times) and you have marbles in your throat.  You’re not choked up, you’ve just forgotten how to enunciate words properly.  You hear every word critically.  Gee, did I just pronounce that word that way.  What the hell is going on?  You just plow ahead and hope for the best.  Overall, you had a few long compose-yourself pauses, but didn’t choke up.  You were OK.

Then the minister did Baptist standard-issue: he’s in a better place paved with streets of gold and all his questions about life are now answered and he suffered in this life so he could be really happy in the next, etc.  You don’t realize how hollow that all sounds until someone’s saying it to your face at your father’s funeral.

You and your daughters get up to do your song.  The sweat’s still oozing from your hands and apparently you’ve forgotten how to play a simple E chord.  God, what is wrong with you.  You’ve played the song a hundred times, and now . . .?  This is the first time you and your daughters have sung together in public.  They rally you and you all do a respectable version.  As they say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The benediction and recessional and it’s over.  Over.  It seemed to take no time at all.  Your hands aren’t sweating any more.

The casket is wheeled out to the hearse.  The six of you load it in.  Your mother rides with you in your car.  The funeral caravan leaves slowly, the hearse never going more than 25 miles an hour.  The motorcycle cops stop/direct traffic.  At an intersection one cop pulls over, gets off his bike, halts the traffic and salutes as you go by.  You salute back.  You and your mother say few words, but she did say you and everyone else involved did well for your father.

You enter Arlington Memorial Park, where your brother’s buried.  The first thing you see on entering is a huge, over-the-top mausoleum with the name CARLOS on it.  It’s not Louis XIV, but it is, well . . .  “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” she says.

You drive by a thousand graves all with the gaudiest, cheesiest, cheapest plastic flowers sprouting above them.  Whoever thought that this was the way a cemetery should present itself should be shot.  Seriously.  “Now that’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” your mom says.  With conviction.

But as you round a corner in the gently undulating hills, the pines stretching tall and narrow in the grey sky, off to your left, a hundred yards away, you see the gravesite set-up: the tent, the chairs . . . and a space behind them, nine Marines in dress blues – eight men and one woman – lined up at parade rest, and two others at the entrance to the gravesite standing at attention awaiting your dad, and you instantly break into tears and say reverently, involuntarily: “That’s awesome.”  And your mother echoes: “That really is awesome.”  And it really, really is.  You drive as slowly as you can to take it in because all this respect and tradition and preparation is because of him, your dad, what he did and how he served his country sixty years ago, beginning the day after he graduated college, and you know you’ll never see anything like it again.  Ever.  Semper fucking fi, Marine.

You glue your eyes to the spectacle before you; it’s a dream, and dreamlike, it will evaporate before you know it.  You labor to take it all in and remember, remember . . .  You round a corner and it’s out of sight for a bit; you round another corner, this time almost to the gravesite, and it’s still there, all of it.  You get out of the car and mill around for a bit.   Everyone’s crying as they look at the magnificent sight of the Marines, some of them surely the same age as your dad, when he was in the Corps.  You and the other pallbearers line up at the back of the hearse.  Suddenly, your dad’s brother-in-law Bob (Jane’s husband) joins us.  He’s an “oldster” – just turned eighty – and in following the FD’s advice (yet another of your many oversights and mistakes in this whole process) you didn’t have him as a pallbearer.  But he’s as hale and hearty as you, and: he went to the Citadel; he’s lived the Code; he will not be denied.  He jumps in with the rest and you’re damn glad he does.  Together, the seven of you carry the flag-covered casket to the awaiting grave. 

You sit next to your mother on the front row.  Everyone assembles behind you.  You hear a gentle tapping on the tent; it’s started raining.  In thirty seconds, it’s over.  Someone from the funeral home touches your mom’s shoulder: “I’ll let you know when they’re going to fire the guns, so you’re not startled.”  A few moments later you hear the crisp click of the weapons and three shots are fired in unison.  Then, hauntingly, lovingly, gently, “Taps” begins to echo through the pines and over the hills, one last time dad, for you.

And you’re so caught up in it, tears streaming, straining to take in the fullness of every note, marveling at the casket and the two Marines at either end of it now, holding up the flag preparing it for the folding ceremony, that you forget to do the one thing you’d promised yourself you’d do at that moment: stand up and salute your father one last time.  Jesus, how could you forget . . .?

Then the two Marines standing straight and tall holding the flag – one black, thin as one of the pines, looking impossibly young; one white, older, stockier, who could have been my dad sixty years ago – begin the folding: studied, meticulous, detailed, deliberate, painstaking.  Upon finishing, the stocky one kneels down in front of your mother and says:  “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation of your husband’s service to Country and Corps.”  Tears upon tears upon tears.

And it was over.  All over, suddenly. 

You stand up and try to come back to reality.  People begin to talk and walk back to their cars.  You head straight to the two vans that the Marines came in and thank them for what they just did for you and your mother and your father.  Months ago you’d told your father you were going to send him off this way.  He gave you a wry look, which was to say: “Yeah, too bad I won’t be around for it.”  You said, “Yeah, I know, but I wanted to tell you; I wanted you to know.”

It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe if you need it 
Or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
Or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
And short time to be there
-- Robert Hunter

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