Sunday, February 19, 2017

Always go to the funeral

"Little Girl Outside Church," 
Albert Sorby Buxton
When Deirdre Sullivan was growing up in Syracuse, New York, her father always made her go to funerals.

"You can't come in without going out, kids," he would say. "Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family."

When she was 16 her fifth grade math teacher, Miss Emerson, died, her father took her to the funeral home for calling hours and waited outside while she went in.
When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson's shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, "Sorry about all this," and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson's mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.
Today, a lawyer in Brooklyn, she sees a deeper meaning in this ritual.
"Always go to the funeral" means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don't really have to and I definitely don't want to. I'm talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex's uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I've come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life's inevitable, occasional calamity.
And then, on a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. 
I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I've ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.
It comes around.

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