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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Case for a Good Funeral: The View from This Side of Heaven

I think there is a benefit that has accrued to me by virtue of attending way more funerals than most people have in their lifetime.  At first glance this might seem counter-intuitive.  Funerals are to be dreaded.  They are sad, sorrowful affairs, with lots of crying, a ton of emotion, and in many cases, they are also occasions for more than a fair share of drama. 

I especially dread the ones with open caskets.  There is something deeply unsettling about seeing someone laid out “in state.”  I remember when my mother was interred, the first time we saw her, the undertaker had attempted to make her lips look less drawn by over-reaching with her lipstick, and the odd result was that she looked like she had the pasted-on smile of the “Joker” on the famous Batman series.  When my father died, it was after a week or so of extended hospital care on a ventilator, so he had hadn’t shaved.  Despite all the photos I had provided the funeral director, we showed up for the first family viewing to see him presented “in state” with a full mustache.  I had never seen my father sporting any kind of facial hair in his entire life, and the effect was startling.  He looked like he could pass for Tony Soprano’s older brother Sal.  Very unsettling. 

Funerals are further made awkward when relatives press their hands into your arm and whisper, “she/he looks good.”  I’m not sure why people say that, and whether it’s really true under the circumstances.  Even in a hospital bed my mother looked better—she was alive.  You get my point. 

The more funerals you attend, the more you also begin to see that they fall into a clear hierarchy.  Those of the elderly are small, orderly affairs.  In many cases only a few relatives and friends remain.  My mother said you could always tell how old someone was by the length of their funeral procession.  Given the tragic way my grandmother Vicki died, that proved to be a very prophetic commentary.  After all, she was taken from us prematurely, and despite that she was 85, her funeral procession stretched for almost a mile.  She was obviously young at heart and adored by throngs of admirers.  

For the truly observant, funerals also represent an opportunity for reflection; for looking back and for taking account of things.  It is almost impossible to sit at a wake while someone is reciting a decade of the Rosary, and not have your mind wander off in zillion different directions.  Thinking about your relationship to the deceased, thinking about your proximity to their circumstances.  It isn’t too long before it’s all about you—when might I be next?

My friend Brian Martinuzzi’s funeral these past few days offered me just such an opportunity to be observant and reflective, and a good many things came of this experience.  First of all, it is actually wonderful to see a great family at the funeral of an immediate loved one.  Good families seem to keep the press of drama to a minimum, or at least out of the public view, and they also rally.  They display themselves for who they are—just honest, caring, decent people you’d love to have living next door to you.  Families you’d love to spend more time with.  I can’t help but think it would be great to be part of one of the Martinuzzi’s intimate holiday gatherings, to watch the sibling dynamics, the inner family chemistry and repartee.  The traditions, the simple joys, seeing who brings the food, who shows up perennially late.  Just speaking with any of them, you get a sense that the quick and incisive wit that surely finds itself on display at their family affairs was probably shaped and crafted at spirited family dinners. 

As a kid I had some exposure to life at the Martinuzzi table.  With 7 kids, it was spirited for sure.  Pure chaos might be a more accurate description.  There was the time I was there for one of Joan’s meals, and Kurt had put Lisa on the Lazy Susan that spun the food around the circular table in the center of the kitchen.  Everyone except Lisa thought it was quite funny and highly entertaining to watch her spin, with her long hair flailing, until she finally screamed to be let off the improvised merry-go-round, and ran off crying into the bathroom where she promptly threw up. 

Watching the Martinuzzi family at the wake of their “number one son” was a sight to behold.  For all their differences, you can’t help but be envious of the entire clan.  The deadpan funny, tough-as-nails Massachusetts matriarch Joan, the graceful Anne, the scrappy boys from Brian, Kurt, Neil to the rough and tumble younger two, Eric and Peter.  And of course the ever adorable youngest one, Lisa.  Each of them pursuing life on it’s own unique terms.  It brings back memories of their dad, Eddie.  With his broad smirk and earnest demeanor, and his close-cropped hair, shorn as if to limit any display of his well-defined Italian hair and features, Eddie was clearly a patriarch well suited to the strong matriarch sitting across the table.  

Listening to Lisa, Neil and Kurt speak about Brian in the past tense was both mesmerizing and intense, bittersweet and telling.  I have to be honest.  As I approached Brian’s wake, I felt a powerful reaction, a ton of raw unchecked emotion.  Part of it, I concluded, was a consequence of the announcement.  I had received the news about Brian from Kurt via a group email.  My first reaction was “here goes” as I saw Kurt move into his all-too-familiar distant, detached doctor mode.  He offered us telling tribute, sanguine medical prognosis and logistical details all in one matter of fact missive written like an auto-repair manual, something I’m sure Brian would have actually appreciated, given his penchant for exacting detail.  At the same time, Kurt shared how much he was already missing his frequent phone calls with Brian, and it hurt my heart to hear him say that.  Clearly Kurt was feeling the loss, and unlike Eddie’s funeral where Kurt spent much of his time in the choir loft, observing events from a distance, he was clearly participating fully in an exercise of communal caring and grief.

Part of my strong reaction to Brian’s passing also had something to do with our proximity in age.  It is hard to see someone you’ve grown up with since the days of boy scouts die so suddenly.  In real terms, Brian’s six-month illness was a rapid fast transition, made more stunning by the fact that it came out of nowhere.  One minute he had left the law firm and was in a job transition.  The next minute he was seeing a doctor for some unexplained symptoms, and in another nanosecond he had a terminal diagnosis, and was headed into surgery.  Of course, part of my reaction was the deep sadness I felt thinking of Joan.  I know too well from my own past family experience how hard it is to watch a parent bury one of their children.  As a parent, you cannot imagine anything worse.  There is good reason for that.  Nothing is worse.

I also may have been looking at Brian from my bias as a married man with a family.  Brian, after all, was a bachelor without children.  There was something I kept thinking—Brian was such a nice, caring, good man.  It felt a little like he had not benefited fully in the rewards such virtues certainly entitled him—that is to say, a good wife, and the blessing of children. But after listening to his siblings talk about him at length, I think I had that part of Brian’s story wrong.  Brian lived a rich and fulfilling life through others.  He was a dedicated uncle, brother, son and friend, relationships that stop us from otherwise worrying needlessly that he had somehow missed out.  

The redeeming part of attending funerals for people like Brian is that they confirm our faith in a higher order.  It is so easy to look back on his life, and fret about the question “Why?” until suddenly it hits you like the sudden revelation that it is.  There is a reason why good people leave this planet way to soon.  It happens all the time.  If you were God, wouldn’t you be stacking the skies above with the best and the brightest?  When you were contemplating spending an eternity of time with someone, wouldn’t people like Brian be among those first to come to mind?

There is also something very revealing about watching other people at funerals.  Members within close families sometimes take exception to the distant relative or friend who shows up at a funeral and cries excessively, in the same way they decry the person who seems to display no emotional register when the circumstance certainly warrants it. But grief is an entirely personal pursuit, and in truth, mourning is not an indication of character.  Rather, it simply reveals it. 

I was sitting next to my friend Gil’s dad, Mr. B, during the service, and watched him tear up during the eulogy.  He said afterward, he didn’t really know Brian or the family all that well, but there is something truly virtuous about a guy who registers strong emotions when he clearly sees something.  Mr. B immediately sensed that herein lived someone who truly made a difference in the lives of others. He said after, “I had heard all the stories about the Martinuzzi kids back in the day when someone was always in trouble.  What a great family. I only wish I knew him better.”  Isn't that what we’d all like to have said of us in the end?  It was so heartening to see Mr. B shed tears upon hearing the other side of the Martinuzzi family chronicle, that story for which a good funeral is necessary. 

That’s the stuff that really makes a funeral worthwhile.  It’s on this side of heaven, right up close to death’s door that we are reminded of better days, and a more complete picture of a person emerges, their unique worth ultimately revealed to us.  This got me thinking about the other display of emotion that always grabs me about Mr. B.  Whenever he sees any of his boys, he always hugs them and kisses them openly.  For men of his generation, this is an uncharacteristic display of affection.  But by God, seeing both of these sides of him, his ability to show real affection and grief, is an inspiration to be the guy that stand-up guys like Brian would want us to be.  And the fact is, we need more guys like Mr. B. and Brian, Neil and Kurt, to remind us that these emotions are not reserved for weddings and funerals, but available and ready for wear every day in the most common way, in the midst of life’s minor miracles and daily milestones.     

We can’t possibly sustain a saccharine-sweet life with all bliss, and beauty, blue skies and babies.  With pain, suffering and life’s ultimate impermanence facing us squarely in the face, we must come to appreciate that without some exposure to Death’s sting, and illness’ bitter rough edge, life’s most important victories and joys would be lost on us, taken for granted, cast off as ordinary.  Without others on hand to laugh, cry and grieve, we would simply wither into that isolation that our blessed connection with others prevents.

In Kurt’s tribute to Brian, he mentioned the two opposing life views held in the palm of his hand.  In one hand, was a note saying, “I am but a speck of dust.”  In the other hand, the note said “The world is all for me.”  If not for a good cry at a sad and bittersweet funeral of a dear and wonderful soul lost to us, where would such reminders of the truths grasped in both his hands greet us? 

As I completed writing this, I learned that a former colleague was killed this morning on the side of I-696 awaiting assistance on the way to work.  I re-read the email Dennis had sent me three days earlier talking about the blessings of the New Year.  There but for the grace of God, go us. 

Living well, I rest thee in the thought.

Why We Write

Once a thing is known, it can never be unknown.  It can only be forgotten…It is wiser, in every circumstance to forget, to cultivate the art of forgetting.  To remember is to face the enemy.  The truth lies in remembering. 
Anita Brookner, from Look at Me

I'm pretty sure I'm remembering it correctly, that my childhood yearning to become a writer re-appeared years later as a lofty desire to write great fiction when I declared my major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.  But I stopped short.  Apart from a clich├ęd ending to a passionate co-ed romance, I really felt I had no life experience upon which to tap the arsenal of a writer's imagination. Or so I thought.

And as many typical slacking twenty-somethings trying to chart their course in life, I never summoned the discipline to write every day, to write anyway, to write on every scrap available to me at every free turn.  That is, apart from all the compulsory writing that comes from being a liberal arts student. Even after college, I couldn't seem to get my writing act together, this despite the fact that I entered the field of publishing successfully right out of college, and ended up in New York fairly quickly as an acquisitions editor with a major publishing house, Macmillan.  I was reading and evaluating other people's writing all day, (not fiction, but college business books) but I couldn't summon the wherewithal to get my own writing underway.

Whenever I sat down to write, nothing good ever seemed to come of it.  I felt like that recovering reprobate who has a brilliant epiphany late in the dorm one night, and awakens the next day to find some lame over-written result on a cocktail napkin that seemed uniquely brilliant at the time, and in the light of day is exposed as anything but revelatory.

So what changed for me?

Life happened. And life happened suddenly and unexpectedly and tragically.  Life steered itself off course in an unexpected direction, and veered instantly way past my meager imagination. Strangely, in the span of an instant, the truth in my life became more telling than any fiction I could have created or crafted.  That's the way truth often reveals itself: it suddenly becomes infinitely far stranger, and at turns, uglier and more absorbing than any fiction.

Writers were tagging along with cops through the cities of Detroit, Los Angeles and Toledo to capture the noir feeling of an urban crime scene.  Suddenly, I didn't need to do that.  I had my own crime scene to sort out. 

Because right in the middle of my mildly interesting middle class life I woke up in the middle of my worst nightmare. Instantly, I was no longer a bystander on the sidelines of life, I had a ringside seat.   Unfortunately, no one really looks to garner that center seat in a horror story that promises no chapter breaks from the live action.

But there I was, one minute kissing my wife Kay goodbye, as I headed off to the airport to attend a sales conference.  I had spent a good part of that day at a baby shower my parents hosted for our first-born, who was a mere three months away.  The next minute I was in Minneapolis, returning to my hotel from dinner.  Only as soon as I entered my room, I realized something was horribly wrong.

I knew it the instant I walked into the room.  The red light on the hotel phone was blinking.

There was a message for me. But who could possibly have known I was even here? It had to be Kay.  And Kay never called me on the road.  Not ever. As it turned out, nothing in my sometimes over-reaching imagination could have prepared me for the ultimate discoveries that followed from that phone call.  Or the media circus that attempted to tell the story, albeit from the vantage point of those interested in the headline, the sound bite, and the gripping, gruesome page-turning details.

Years later I would find myself writing about the murder in my family that day.  For some time, the words were as pained and difficult to write as the story itself.  And while there is certainly a strong argument to be made for writing as catharsis, I was driven now in a different way to write, to keep writing.

Sometimes we are compelled to write because we have no choice.  Despite the difficulty of the task at hand, we must create a record of something we've learned through life's hard lessons is worth preserving.  We are honor bound, and nothing including an agent's misgivings or an editor's rejection will hinder us, short of finishing the job.

My story began to take form as memoir.  There is no way I could take liberties with the bold bare facts.  Rough and brazen, it is a story I became obsessed about writing. Adversity didn't inspire virtue, it simply revealed it.  


Given the difficulty in re-examining the painful forensic evidence and facts, and re-visiting the stomach turning events of the day, I wasn't sure I could answer that question, much less give it the justice only good writing could.  Finally, the answer came while I was in a writer's workshop with novelist and UM professor, Laura Kaschiscke.  I had been leading classmates and readers along the path of that day's events throughout our semester of work shopping. On the last day of class, convinced that by leaving out any foreshadowing of the murder, I could create for my readers the same experience that befell me, my main character, I was ready to share what actually happened that day.

So that last night of class, last among my peers, I read the passage that revealed what I had such difficulty talking about, much less writing about.  I began with a scene that opened in my grandma Vicki's kitchen.  I was sitting at her table, and she was going on about how hard it is for people to get along, all the fighting, violence and misunderstanding.  "We need to just bury them hatchets. Let bygones be bygones," she said in her blunt-spoken broken English. Weeks of earlier passages I had shared with the class revealed Vicki as a character akin to an immigrant version of Edith Bunker from the All in the Family series, with similar housedresses and a Polish accent.  From their reviews, it was clear many classmates were developing a strong affection for Vicki’s character as weeks of readings followed; her baffling simplicity, her brazen honesty and forthrightness.

On this evening, I took a turn with my readers, and led them from that simple scene in the kitchen to a passage called, The Witness Statement.

I did not write the statement.  It is a small, but stunning piece of writing that looms large.  The Witness Statement captures the unedited confession of a 14-year-old boy who admits to having murdered Vicki after a romantic encounter gone horribly wrong.  The class was stunned, beyond the graphic description told in the oddly candid, cryptic voice of a teenager.  Students finally began to speak, at first haltingly.  Several cried.  One student, in particular, felt betrayed.  She had come to love Vicki, revealed in my earlier pieces, and was having a hard time reconciling that portrait of Vicki, with the woman whom she had just heard had led on her killer, and was complicit in her own murder.

I couldn’t have been more stunned.  I never imagined a more startling example of how powerful writing can be.  The fact that The Witness Statement betrayed a false fashioning of the facts was clearly lost on this student.  The student took something as fact solely because it had been written: that somehow my 85-year-old Polish grandmother had seduced a 14-year-old boy into killing her as their "misguided romance" unraveled.  Wow. 

Leaving class that day, it felt as if my private horror would continue forever, until I realized my writing had been summoned for a higher purpose.  I simply needed to tell it right.  After all, Vicki was more than just my grandmother, she was my komuschka, and more, a companion and friend, a pani from the old country, a friend and komuschka to her friends, and all these words meant everything to the story yet to be told.

My relationship with Vicki provided a cogent formula for writing not as catharsis, not as vengeance for wrongful deeds committed, but rather as testament to truth and something far more everlasting than life. It was not a chronicle of Vicki’s rape and murder, but a story about who I had become because of her. 

I remembered Vicki's words, spoken only weeks before her murder.  "Bury them hatchets. Let bygones be bygones." In a final irony, I was now haunted by the compulsion to capture in words how Vicki would have viewed her own murder in that small frame house in the old neighborhood, through the lives of those she loved.  If I face another thousand rejections on my way to publishing My Last Dance with Vicki, it won't matter.  The Witness Statement serves as but one part of the story. 

Ultimately, we are redeemed in life by the women who love us. The rest of this story, by virtue of my written words, must necessarily follow.