This is my last day in southern Illinois—most likely, ever—and, having missed the freakish October N’oreaster, I am headed back to the East Coast, leaving a lovely autumn behind. The good-byes now are easier than they were a month ago because we have all adjusted to the new reality: I am dying. That is both more quantifiable and less emotional as the cancer marches on.
This past weekend the focus shifted to the wedding couple and other relatives on her side and the groom’s, our side. Some families probably hold weddings and funerals that proceed without incident and maybe even according to plan. Wedding guests sigh happily and whisper words like “perfect.” Mourners delicately touch tissue to damp cheek and proclaim, “He would have wanted it just this way.”
Not our weddings and funerals. The Addams family would feel quite at home with us.
I welcomed the diversions, taking the spotlight off Cancer; and in my detaching mindset, I watched it all from a perch slightly above the crowd, even as I was needling the brides’ sister and the irksome brother-in-law about whom the minister said, “I’d like to punch him in the head; and I haven’t felt that way about anyone in a long time.”
The FoB (Family of Bride) were the most socially inept group of people I’ve ever met. Strangers have (unsolicited) told me their intimate secrets on airplanes, trains, buses, in bars, selecting lipsticks at Sephora, on line at Target. I couldn’t pull these people past “hello”—at the rehearsal dinner, not even that far at the wedding a.k.a. “ceremony uniting two families.”
Before I get to the wedding, let’s talk about funerals past. (Don’t weddings and funerals blend together in the telling of family histories?) I’ve written a little about our special send-offs. A quick recap of the major events, starting with Daddy’s: My niece Beth’s latest husband looked at me; and she stormed out, nearly knocking down the man on the ladder holding Daddy’s ashes in an urn. A decade later, another niece Barbie, a paranoid schizophrenic, came to Mama’s graveside service with helium “Happy Birthday!” balloons. Weighing in at around three hundred pounds, head shaved and painted with food coloring—she so intimidated the aging minister that he trembled reciting the poetry we’d chosen instead of scripture. (Ellen, Dick and I returned to the cemetery after dark to gather up the balloons Barbie had anchored to the gravesite.)
Barbie lost her mother (my sister Jenny) and her sister (Beth) to heart disease. At their wakes, she stood by the coffins, camera in hand and asked mourners if they would like to be photographed with the corpse. Jenny’s ashes sat on the breakfast table for two years before her husband Bob—one demented brother-in-law—finally decided what to do with them—put them in the rose garden. Shortly, Beth’s ashes too were spread among the roses. Then he sold the house and moved to another state with the ailing Barbie who soon mercifully died. (No word on the disposition of her ashes.) He survives his nuclear family, save a young great-granddaughter.
Before the funerary dominance of Bob and Barbie, we suffered through Grandma Crain’s minor celebrity event and Grandpa Crain’s more restrained farewell, made memorable by cousins who “saw” their spirits around us. One engaged in a one-sided conversation with Grandma at the foot of Grandpa’s casket. Uncle Ed’s casket remained at the back of the church during his funeral mass because he had divorced and remarried to Aunt Helen who paid the priest a lot of money to get the mass said at all. Two years later, on the way to Aunt Helen’s funeral, my mother admonished us not to let her down by crying in public. Sobbing in the bathroom, Ellen missed most of the service.
No funeral for me, please. I want to be cremated immediately—with the cremains sent back to Illinois where Harry and Shawn will distribute them, half over Ellen’s grave, half over Mama’s. That reminded Harry of the role he played in brokering a deal between his late Uncle Hollie’s second wife and the grandchildren of his first marriage. She refused to honor the pre-nuptual agreement that he be interred beside his first wife and daughter in Illinois. She wanted him interred with her first husband, and eventually her, in Ohio. It’s hard to argue with a grieving widow while the corpse teeters on the verge of spoilage, but the grandchildren insisted on bringing Grandpa home.
Harry’s deal: Cremation, with half the remains buried in Illinois, half in Ohio; and Uncle Hollie rests divided, with both wives and another husband.
Saturday at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, our newest bride and groom were joined in matrimony. Since it was a small affair, the entire contingent of the FoG rode on the trolley from hotel to chapel. On the first step up, cancer pain announced itself, stabbing my hip bone, leaving me faint. My niece pulled me up. Meanwhile, The FoB had pulled blessed candles down from the alter to decorate the main aisle. I took the bride’s sisters aside and explained that the candles represent the prayer intentions of devout Catholics who drive all the way out to the shrine to pray for their own guidance and strength or for blessings on their ill or dead.
“Please put them back,” I said; and the girls looked at me with blank faces, speaking no words.
The candles remained, casting a pale glow on the artificial flowers. The bridesmaids’ black bouquets looked like feather dusters. I kept waiting for the young ladies to dust something. Mercifully, the ceremony was brief. Afterward, people from our side returned the candles to the alter and stuffed the donation box with cash.
At the reception the demarcation line was firm, FoB on the right, FoG on the left. We laughed easily and moved around among the tables to chat with everyone. They were demure, speaking softly to the persons next to them, behaving as if they weren’t guilty of sacrilege. The bride and groom disappeared for half an hour. During that time a dancing baby from the groom’s side, center floor, amused us. Smiling, the newlyweds returned. Their first marital quickie? I hoped.
No. Word went around that the brother-in-law/photographer had taken them back to the chapel to stage his perfect shot, her lying on the alter, him bending over kissing her. The mother of the groom, MoB, stifled tears. She’d offered to pay for candles vs. “borrow” them, for real flowers and a cake that didn’t come from Walmart iced in black and red, but she was excluded from the wedding planning because the bride wasn’t speaking to her. Each thinks the other is “controlling.” The grandmother of the groom didn’t attend because she wasn’t speaking to anyone in the family except one daughter who wasn’t invited because no one is speaking to her.
The groom’s fourth step-grandmother—Grandpa loved the ladies—came from California to fill in for the missing Nana. When I heard that my niece’s father’s fourth ex-wife would be attending, I wasn’t expecting much. But she was an outstanding replacement, more kind, wise and likeable than the relative—in fact, a much-needed blood transfusion for the FoG.
I realized there was something odd about the dancing baby. He never smiled or laughed. Imagine the e-trade baby without his characteristic break into chuckles.
This may sound false to some readers who might think I am making fun of my family, but I really enjoyed the festivities and only left early with some good neighbors because I was tired. Hey, these are my people; they are all part of who I am. I spent decades learning that. It’s not too late. I will live on in their hearts and minds.
Dear Bride, give your MIL a chance. She is a woman with a great heart--impulsive, passionate, maddening perhaps sometimes, but never boring. I am stealing this line from the Jack Nicholson character in “Something’s Gotta’ Give: She is a woman to love.
It was a family wedding; and I am so glad I was there. Too bad Gomez wasn’t available to give a toast.
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Dying, The End Game, Part Six: A Quickie on Questions People Ask
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