Flying back from my Dad’s funeral last week, I decided to write. Sometimes it helps me to put my thoughts down, and the day was something I wanted to remember.
Today I carry my dad for the last time.
It is a bright, sunny afternoon on a hill in western Pennsylvania. The day is something out of a dream. Often gray skies have been replaced with blue, and the humidity is uncharacteristically low for July. A few thin wisps of cloud float over the old steel town below us.
The cemetery is named Grandview. The name is perfect. As I stare out at the valley below us, I ponder the towns where my father sewed his often wild oats. Towns born from molten steel, with the ever present Monongahela River bisecting them.
My mind wanders to stories of my father’s youth. Outhouse bathrooms, bathing in the cloudy, polluted river. Ever present smog from mills larger than some of the surrounding towns. A youthful visage of my dad standing on the corner, selling newspapers. Baseball games on the river when it was still the pastime of America.
The houses are packed into the hillside, sardines amongst the tangled greenery. I can see the mill fire, burning off chemicals before they enter the air. Remnants of a town. My eyes scan down to the countless family before me. Remnants of a man.
As we amble to the back of the hearse, I get a few seconds to look at the pallbearer across from me. He is a hulk of a man, standing well over 6 feet and 200 pounds. His suit fits well enough, but you can tell he doesn’t fit it. He is my brother. His stoic gaze shows something I’ve seen before, when we lost our mother. A mix of sorrow and confusion. How does one cope with the loss of a parent? Where do we go from here?
The first time I carried my dad was alongside my brother. We were much younger (I was ten maybe?), and he was recovering from a stroke. We didn’t so much carry him as help him along. The look on my dad’s face when he walked for the first time after a week in bed was something I’ll never forget. He was so proud. Proud of himself, proud of his boys.
We would carry our dad many times throughout our lives. More importantly, he would carry us. In a doubly cruel twist of fate, dad would bury two wives in his life. Both events left him parenting young children alone. He did so with a passion that would rival anyone. I’ve yet to find such love and dedication in one person to their children.
The casket whines like a kitchen drawer as we slide it out. It is draped in Old Glory. The stitching on the flag is doubled over with care, and you can see the fold lines from where the Marines had unfurled it. Two Marines stand at attention as we carry him between them. One last time.
My dad was 50 when I was born. My entire life has seen him in his waning years. As I stand over the flag covered casket, I try to imagine him as a young Marine. I’ve seen a few black and white photos, but they have an airy quality I can’t explain. Sometimes he looks like my brother in these pictures, sometimes he looks like me. I realize this is an absurd thought as we both just look like him.
He was stationed in Japan and Hawaii at the tail end of the Korean War. He didn’t like the service, but always regaled us with memories of his time there. I’ve drawn correlations of this time with my own in college. Many hijinx ensue, and you form friendships as strong as Pennsylvania steel.
The priest says words I can’t remember. My eyes dart around, looking from face to face. The turnout is huge. My dad had five children with two wives, the patriarch of a large and boisterous family. His passion for friendship spread to his children like weeds, and friends rival family in number. My brother and three half sisters stand shoulder to shoulder, tears welling in their blue eyes.
My niece plays a beautiful rendition of taps on the trumpet. Tears come quick and fierce. Her half sister plays the echo, less perfect but no less moving. Both are heard but not seen in true taps fashion. The sound comes from nowhere and everywhere. Hard but fleeting, a mirror of well lived life itself.
The honor guard presents arms. They are older veterans – Many are the same age as my dad. A few even knew him. After the service they give us the shells. The spent casings feel warm from the shots, although that may be my mind playing tricks on me.
The flag is folded by two rod-straight Marines. Thirteen folds. Three shell casings are placed inside one of the folds, symbolizing a burial with full military honors. There they will stay. Like life and death, once the flag is folded it cannot be unfolded.
The flag goes to my eldest sister. Up until now her tears have been silent, but as the Marine kneels before her, she lets out a small sob. She looks so much like him.
One of the last times I carried my dad was into the shower. He always prided himself on his appearance. Even in the waning days he insisted on showering. As I helped clean him he told me stories of bathing me in a sink as a kid. He told me of the years trying to get my mom pregnant, and the look in her eyes when it finally happened. We discussed marriage and his fondness for my fiancee. We talked of cards. He loved all card games and would talk through old hands like they were yesterday. He brushed his hair then, just a few days before he died. He used the same brush he had used all my life. It still smells like him.
A man brings two doves around for everyone to touch. He says a few words but I ignore them. I watch my brother crying and hope with all my hope that he uses this death as a tool to become stronger in all that he does. It is what our dad would have wanted. His passion for his children living on in our success. Living on in us.
We have no living parents. My brother is not yet 30 years old. Pushing on together and living life are a must. I make a mental note to call him more. I want to be more involved in his life. That should be a start.
The doves are released. I watch as they circle a tree in the distance. They instinctively fly into formation with one as the leader. I wonder if they always fly like that. Maybe they don’t and this is a sign.
I realize I am dry eyed. Over the past week I have cried copious amounts. I grieve for myself as we all do. We want more time with our dad. As I scan the group I realize I am no longer sad, but proud. Proud of a long life well lived. A life that created and then nurtured so many other lives. A life that saw intense grief supplanted by intense love.
It is a bright, sunny afternoon on a hill in western Pennsylvania.
Today I carry my dad for the last time.
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