Saturday, September 22, 2007

swedes and swish

Twenty-two months after suffering his first stroke, Michael's father Jack passed away peacefully at the age of eighty-nine. His illness was both lengthy and exhausting. We were all rather surprised by his endurance. Among other things, it outlasted my own relationship with Michael which dwindled on a parallel course but expired long before Jack did.

Finally, toward the last few days of summer, he seemed to become unresponsive, his breathing shallow and difficult. The nurse said it appeared that he had suffered another serious stroke. The family was summoned.

They accumulated throughout the day- His wife Gladys, son Michael, and daughters Peg and Patty all crowded into his room along with two of his longtime caregivers. It was not until his daughter Kathleen arrived that he allowed himself to let go. Fifteen minutes after she walked in, he breathed his last. He had waited for her to arrive. She was his favorite.

Draped in black, I found myself at the first Irish Catholic funeral I had attended since the late seventies. I walked into the funeral home and immediately spotted Delphina, one of Michael's closest friends. We approached the sign in table together. On the table were photos of Jack at the care facility with his family. Well, almost. The photos showed his wife and all his children, except Michael. Michael, who for 22 months spent every spare moment with his father, was excluded. I am reminded of why I was not particularly close with his sisters.

Gladys carried her husband's cremains in a silver urn. She was followed into the chapel by her children. Mourners on both sides of the aisle stood and followed her with their eyes as she passed. It was not unlike a wedding except there was no bridal march.

The priest conducting the mass had been acquainted with the family since he had been a child himself. His own father was a boyhood friend of Jack's. He himself had known Jack's parents, Fred and the inimitable Maud, quite well. He shared boyhood stories and observations of not only Jack but also of his parents. It was sweetly touching. There were moments where I could see that Michael, directly in front of me, was softly sobbing. It was very hard for me to see that.

One of the things the priest touched on was the immigrant experience. He talked about how Fred and Maud had both come from the old country to the new, as had many of their friends. It was something they all shared, he said. The Melting Pot. A community welcome extended to all- Irish and Welsh, Swedes and Swish. Yes, he said swish. I looked around the room at all of the blue eyed redheads. Not a sign of swedes, I noted, but with Michael's friends in attendance, certainly no shortage of swish.

At some point, sister Peg elected to narrate the twenty-two months for us in a level of detail that bordered on the excruciating. We learned the names and rotation schedules of all of his caregivers, his favorite routines, the television programs he favored, and even which nurses he developed crushes on. One mourner put his head down on the pew in front of him. The priest sighed loudly as a signal which went unnoticed. We actually began to understand what the seemingly interminable illness had been like. She staggered aimlessly as if wrestling with her grief in the improvised setting of a one woman show.

Finally Peg relinquished her seige and, after a tearful rendition of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling", we accompanied Jack to his final resting place. As it was very near to the chapel, we actually walked behind the hearse where Jack rested on his wife's lap. We read the names on the plaques in the colombarium. I noted an unusal number of plaques, including one for Michael's own brother Chris, whose inscription read "Beloved Brother and Uncle". These men were in their thirties to mid forties. The tragic early days of the plague, I observed. Again, no swedish names were evident.

I left Michael there, with his sisters and his mother. I did not stop by the family home, it did not seem like a place I needed to be. The priest's words stayed with me. I wondered, what things would have been like if the swedes and swish had truly been equally welcome.


Elizabeth said...

What a lovely, sad, and touching post. At least your friend can be at peace with himself because he did what he knew to be right in caring for his father. His sisters will struggle with their soul-deforming fear...

I'll visit again.

BigAssBelle said...

this is, again, a beautiful post. such fine writing that i felt as if i were there, in that church, right with the mourners. the sisters . . . it seems impossible that people can be that way and yet i know it happens every day. i don't know how anything can surmount the love family members (should) have for one another, but it does. tragic.