A letter I wrote to my friend Nadine in 1998, found while cleaning up files.
April 8, 1998
It pays off, spiritually speaking, to enter into another’s world. Knowing you only in the workplace, I so appreciated the opportunity to meet your family, Franklin’s family, and the members of the church you have told me about so often.
I loved the retelling of the Christian Bible stories. Though my church stretches its beliefs beyond Christianity, I learned these stories when I was a child, and they are familiar and comforting. Franklin as a “strong angel” sticks with me. His death was so sudden and unexpected – who dies at their desk at 38! We needed a bridge into the unthinkable, and the stories served well to do that. I might love the retelling of the Bhagavad Gita also, but haven’t sat in anyone’s temple to hear that. There are so many roads to God.
Since you were not there when we kept watch before the service, I thought I would write and tell you what happened (I’ll leave out details of the tragically broken dike which allowed so many tears to flow).
Susan and I arrived early, mistakenly thinking that the funeral would begin at 11:00. Already in the church were Reverend Queen and some of the Men’s Choir members. There were quiet hymns playing in the background.
One by one, the men came over to greet us, either just shaking hands or stopping for a time to talk. Joe tried out his “I’ll have to take away your apron” and the “swinging too hard in the choir” stories on us before he told them to the congregation, which made them all the more funny and touching when rendered in fully finished form. They say the Marx Brothers used to try out their act on small groups to see if they were really funny, and Joe confirmed that his memories of Franklin triggered laughter. Joe also told us about the proposed expansion of the church and I had a look at the plans on my way back from the ladies room.
We sat quietly as more people came in and they all greeted us until it became too crowded to acknowledge everybody. As the only white people in the room, we appreciated their graciousness; we were not sure what was in store for us. It wasn’t so much skin color that mattered, but our differing church (and, in Ellen’s case, synagogue) experiences. I had never been in a church like this one before.
As the members of the Men’s Choir gathered they reminded me of a jazz ensemble, where everyone knows what they are supposed to do and, without cue, does their task. They considered each other in every step they took. They were equals, the rich and the poor, those who could sing well and those who couldn’t (Joe joked “That Franklin, he couldn’t sing a note!”), the shuffling old ones, and the vibrant young ones.
The choir members surrounded the casket and moved it a bit this way, that way, until it was just right. They raised the lid and I couldn’t stop crying when I saw Franklin’s familiar face.
One man carefully placed the roses on the coffin, rearranging them once or twice. A man came down the aisle holding the lamp which was clamped to the open top of the casket. He uncoiled and straightened the cord and experimented with the path of the light, finally reaching what he thought was just the right angle. They fiddled with the flowers. They fiddled with the lights. They dusted and patted and plumped things.
One of the older men patted down the lapel of Franklin’s suit, which stuck up like a cowlick. He draped the white liner differently. I don’t think it really made any difference, he just wanted to fuss tenderly over Franklin.
Ellen arrived just as the casket did. She, surprise, surprise, talked whenever that was even remotely acceptable. Fortunately, I was one person away from her.
Just before the family came in, a woman dressed in a white uniform appeared. I wondered if she was a steward of the church or a nurse on duty for the funeral. Her white garb and serious demeanor were comforting.
Franklin’s family was bigger than I had realized. Marlon embraced his mother and his grandmother. From behind, with his identically shaved head, he looked so much like his brother! And I wondered who their father was. I don’t think he had ever been mentioned.
His grandmother was crying bitterly as she entered the church, the triangular handkerchief sitting daintily on her head. After the service, sitting on the couch in your apartment, with her knee-highs not quite covering her knees, she told me in an island accent which I didn’t always understand about her multiple recent losses, her imminent loss to cancer of one of her children, another having recently undergone heart surgery. She said that when she entered the church she thought of these losses and couldn’t help crying.
When the family had said their good-byes, each differently, and sat in their seats, his mother was overcome. I couldn’t understand everything she said because her head was buried in the shoulder to the right then the shoulder to the left, but heard her say, “To have him take this road before me! I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it.”
With the church filled, the pianist began to play, building up to the entrance of the organ. They played the same tune over and over and it was comforting.
I thought to myself that the people of this church do as they say they do. There are no excuses on a Saturday afternoon. They were there for their brother and for you and really for all of us.
We were wondering where you were. Were you going to be dragged into the church unable to stand? Were you refusing to come at all? Would it be entirely unthinkable to have the funeral without you? The minister mounted to the pulpit, greeted the congregation…and still no Nadine. He mouthed questions to someone at the back of the church…and still no Nadine. The choir began to sing.
Ushers snapped a red belt in place to block the center aisle. People seen and unseen were doing their jobs — taking back the cassette player which had played soft hymns as we sat, the man took away the lamp on the casket, the men who rearranged the white casket liner were back, tucking it carefully around Franklin before closing the top; the ushers looked for places for latecomers. Franklin’s mother’s grief burst out of her once again as they closed the casket and my heart broke for her. At least half of the grieving for another is the fear of grieving oneself and I of course imagined what it would be like to close the casket on my own child and found the imagination unbearable. Life has taught me to (try to) kick fear out of the way, because you can end up quaking in a corner bedeviled by your own imagination. There was plenty of real-time grief to go around on that day without adding the imagination.
When the choir had raised the spirit in the church, filled it with noisy praise, you came in quietly with a smile, leaning on Tina, trying so hard to feel what they were singing about — the triumph, the liberation, the release of Franklin’s home-going over the desolation of your own loss. I understand why you didn’t come in until the coffin was closed. Seeing that door closed would have broken your heart.
You know the rest because you were there. You know about the strong angel, the streets paved with gold, the pearly gates, the tearful and joyful remembrances of Franklin, Flying Away on the Wings of Jesus which brought us to our feet, the congregation shocked and stung by the Shadow of Death, the fried chicken, the heavenly baked beans, the chocolate cake, the friendship, camaraderie, the caring always the caring for one another which will go on long after the wounds of Franklin’s loss have begun to disappear under scar tissue which is itself painful to live with.
In some languages there are many words for the one word which we use so frequently with so many meanings, love. The love you had for Franklin is so unlike the love which filled the church that day, but we use the same word for both feelings. And I love you too, in yet another way.
People feel so helpless offering to “do” something for a grieving friend, but why should they feel helpless. There is so much that we can all do for one another. In the jazz-like improvisational way that the choir worked together, such different people each playing an important role, we can all contribute.
Besides, I figure if I’m really, really nice to you, maybe you’ll offer me a bowl of your famous spaghetti when I come to visit you.