Who needs funerals anyway

Who needs funerals anyway - student project

 

Having aced my engineering exam, I felt glorious and splurged on a celebratory, long-distance call home from a beaten-up payphone in the University. 

“Hello! Dad, hello? Guess who nailed her exam today?” I shouted over the noise of students exiting the echoey marble floor hallway. “Dad! Can you hear me?”

“Yes, I hear you.“ His voice was softer than usual. I pressed the receiver closer to my ear. “Listen, your grandfather passed away.” No preamble. With a jolt,  I fell from cloud nine to the hard surface of reality. 

“It happened two days ago.“ Pause. “We didn’t want you to get upset and fail your exams so we didn’t call you." Pause. "The funeral was this morning.” Each sentence landed with a thud.

“You can’t be serious!” I gasped. I felt defeated and unimportant for not being told of Grandpa’s passing on time. Crushed with sadness, I held the receiver with one hand, while I fiddled and pinched the cord with the other. 

I was my grandfather’s namesake and his favorite. He footed the bill when Mom and Dad were short on money to buy me an accordion. When I was old enough he would slip me a note to buy him cigarettes and let me keep the generous change. Only I knew the secret to his bottomless 100ml flask, refilled with vodka from a big bottle hidden in a rusting tin behind the house. Dad thought Grandpa was lazy and ungrateful in his older age, but I adored him. 

Traditionally for Bulgaria in the 80s, three generations shared a roof these days and so did we. It felt impossible to grasp that I won’t see Grandpa every day, ever again. At the same time I was angry with my parents for deciding that passing a college exam was more worthy than attending my favorite Grandpa’s funeral and saying a final goodbye. I understand that the exam was part of pursuing a highly coveted educational degree, which would set my career future on track. Dad couldn’t afford to go to the college he wanted. He settled for a shorter undergraduate program so that he can get home soon and help his parents. I could imagine he wanted me to do well in the college I chose for myself.  Still, wasn’t family more important? This was one of many exams, that I could reschedule, nothing final & irreversible, unlike Grandpa’s death. Not only I was overwhelmed with sadness and unfairness, but deep down I felt I had failed Granpa for not being there for him in his last moments on Earth. I was heavy as lead with the inability to turn back time.  

I hung up the receiver. The coin fell into the phone's belly. Clink. I wasn’t dreaming. The hallway, now empty and quiet, seemed to have shrunk. It felt chilly and only a distant squeaky door exhibited a sign of life.

 

* * *

 

Sudden and premature death news evokes the last exchanged words with the deceased as if we want to make sure we would be remembered with good. 

I had phoned Paul exactly two days ago, congratulated him on his new job and asked about his upcoming return to the Midwest. I secretly wondered if the third time romancing would be the charm for us.  I wholeheartedly wished him a happy and fulfilling next chapter in his life, and teased him that for that to  happened I must be a part of it. 

Now I sat in front of my computer with my hand over my mouth in shock.

  “It is with great sadness…” the most foreboding and gut-punch email opening. My breathing stopped after my last exhale and  the dark uncharted waters of the news choked me.

I first had a crush on Paul eleven years ago when I met him at a conference. I was easily charmed by his down-to-earth, lighthearted personality and contagious laughter paired with an animated face. I was married at the time so I swam in my lane. 

Ending up with a job at the same company as him two years ago was a pleasant surprise. In a matter of days, we became confidants, trusted work-frustration vent buddies, and yes, I could see he was always there for me, willing to listen. Australian born, with European roots, divorced, no children, my age, the same line of work, and into me. He was perfect. But I wasn’t ready yet. I was still wrapping up a long-distance romance and I could not give in to Paul’s advances. Keeping the mutual liking at bay was a struggle considering his disarming disposition and his attractive, 6 foot, sculpted by cycling body.

With time we synced our commutes to work, enjoyed after-work dinners, shared lengthy conversations and tons of silly laughter. We built a strong platonic intimacy and trust. We even shared a bed a few times, laying next to each, enjoying that we have each other in our lives. Yet we never crossed the line. His eyes always smiling, only his lips when tightly pressed together betraying that he was frustrated with my indecision to choose him. 

But all this was back then. Now he was  gone, or so a somber email told me . I packed all three stages of grief in my reply: “I'm in shock. Paul was about to start a new job, a new life. This is not the news I expected to hear about. I wish today was April 1st, and this was a sick joke!” 

I cried a lot that day. In the evening I called a common friend. 

“Do you think there will be a funeral?” I blurted out.  “He doesn’t have a family States-side, you know, only in Australia and Europe.”

          And as she spoke it all came flooding back. Grandpa's death, how sudden and ultimate it was. And how, perhaps, in missing his funeral, I'd actually been spared the anguish of it.

“I don’t want to go to his funeral. I don’t want to see him dead!’ I cut her off mid-sentence with a shriek and unyielding fervor.

Silence. An eerie calm washed over me and there was nothing else left to say. Flashbacks of his sinewy arms and muscular legs came to me and I didn’t want to replace them with a wooden box, a neatly staged, pale-faced, cold, lifeless body. 

I submerged myself in studies and college life’s demands when Grandpa died. Now, I fight depression with sad songs and movies, along a full time job. I go to the memorial service, a celebration of his life at his favorite bar, drinking his favorite G&T. We share grief and stories about Paul. Like, how he let me plant raspberry bushes in his garden and he would take care of them for me, or how much fun we had when he taught me Aussie slang.  The quiet chatter at the memorial service offers comfort and suddenly I gain a realization lifting some of the darkness.  

Not witnessing my grandfather’s funeral had put him in a sort of a state of stasis for me. He was not around anymore, but he was not quite dead yet. He was someplace I could not visit. Less dead. 

I wanted the same with Paul. It was easier in a way and somehow more hopeful, less terminal. Why close his book when I can instead choose not to finish it? I’ve lost a few more close friends since then. Not attending their funerals, I might appear cold to some, but I want to hold on to the colorful and wonderful memories I have of the living. Because I doubt they would want me to remember them by their funerals. 

  I was only 20 when Grandpa died. My life was ahead of me. It was easier to look forward. Now, at age of 45, it’s easy to be reminded of my own mortality. What is death, but a reminder to appreciate our own and celebrate the deceased’s life. For that I don’t need black attire, a casket and a funeral. And I’ll ask for none of that when my time comes.