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Does Everything Really Have to Happen for a Reason?

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I would imagine that at some point, each of us has been to a wake or a funeral. For a friend or neighbor, a dear family member. My first wake was for my grandmother when I was 10 years old. No one really explained to me the purpose for a wake, or what to expect. Some thought I was too young and naïve to attend. Still, many thought I needed that dreaded word: “closure”. I stared and stared at my grandmother from the back of the room where I had positioned myself, far from the crowd of people. I was convinced that she was breathing. So much so, that I interrupted my mother to tell her that she wasn’t dead. I attended the funeral, and quite frankly I have no memory of it. I do remember being brought home by a close friend’s mother, as I didn’t want to attend the burial. You see, I thought that they would literally place my grandmother in the ground and shovel dirt on top of her. That was something I surely did not want to see.

Over time, I have been to my share of wakes and funerals. Being Irish Catholic, it is a duty and a way of life. I have lost young friends and family to suicide, car accidents and cancer. I’ve lost dear friends and family that lived a good, long life and some that were taken way too soon. I am not trying to make light of these losses. Some were quite painful and sad. What words do you choose when saying good-bye to someone who was told ‘there is nothing more that can be done’. How do you ‘pull the plug’ and watch someone take their last breath. Up until recently, I thought I had experienced the worst pain and suffering I would face, but there are some tragic events and losses that you could never in this world prepare yourself for. Like the loss of a child, or of a spouse. When my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack that horrible Monday morning, I realized that there was pain I never knew existed. The pain is numbing and heavy, and consumes you. I truly believe until you have experienced a devastating loss, you can never know this pain. No one should know what this feels like until you have no choice. . and it happens to you. God simply protects us from this. God knows this pain too, you know. . . .

My mother and father met around age 10 in tap dance class. Their families were intertwined and theyshared a lifetime together and were married almost 46 years. We are a close family, my parents, sister and I. Losing Dad that morning was devastating on so many levels. We all suffered the same loss, but for each of us such a different experience. My mother witnessed this life altering situation unfold in front of her. Watching the paramedics and praying with a neighbor. For me, it was getting the call from my mother, and knowing something was terribly wrong. Calling my sister and having to share the news. Being escorted in to that little room in the E.R. and hearing those words that are so familiar on doctor dramas on television and in movies, but not believing them when said to you. It simply can’t be true. You haven’t done everything. You are wrong! You have to save him. Get moving! My sister trying to make travel plans from Arizona to Boston and hold it together for her family. I spent hours making phone call after phone call, all the while knowing I was breaking hearts left and right.

As I said before, I have been to many wakes and funerals, but I had never planned one. Until a warm day in August found us sitting in the upstairs office of the local funeral parlor. I remember when I first called them; there was some paperwork my mother had to sign to ‘release the body’ from the hospital. What a horrible form to print and sign. It was the first of many horrible moments and decisions.

When I sent it back all signed and dated, I received a confirmation call that they received it and would ‘pick up my father’ the next morning. I sat up the whole night, next to my mother, and worried about Dad. Where was he in the hospital? He is all alone. I should go up to the hospital and stay with him. But then who would stay with my mother? Who will watch to make sure she is still breathing? After all, it happened once to me. I lost my Dad. I could very well lose my mother. This fear of losing another parent would haunt me for months. Still does, actually.

My sister arrived on the red eye the day after Daddy passed away. We had an appointment at the funeral parlor at 1pm, and at the church the next morning. The funeral parlor gave me a list of items to bring with us. Birth certificates, military discharge paperwork, Social Security card, a picture of my Dad and clothing, of course. I never imagined I would be helping my mother pick out underwear for my father. For his funeral. My father never bought himself socks and underwear. My mother always bought them for Christmas for him. Growing up, that seemed like a terrible gift. Having been married myself, I totally get it now.

A couple of years back, my mother went to Macy’s to buy him his Christmas skivvies. My mother picked out some fancy brand name boxer type shorts. One day he went to where them, and realized, . . . . there is no ‘fly’. He was perplexed. Kept asking my mother: ‘Are you sure these are not women’s? There is no fly! How am I supposed to use the bathroom?’ Needless to say he never wore them, but he loved to tell that story to people. He was a story teller and loved to make people laugh.

You may now be wondering why I am talking about underwear. Well, the first pair of underwear my mother pulled out of his drawer when selecting clothes for his burial were the infamous ‘no fly’ underwear. So I say to my mother: ‘oh, you have to pick those ones.’ And we shared a chuckle amidst the ruins of our lives at that particular moment.

The night he died, many people came to the house, including two dear friends. Actually, these are the friends whose mother drove me home from my grandmother’s funeral all those years ago. We sat. They comforted and consoled as I hyper-ventilated from sobbing. Then we looked at pictures, and we laughed about stories. One friend said the story she will always remember is the one about the ‘no fly’ underwear he told at their mother’s birthday party that was held a few months before she passed away from cancer. Dad had everyone in stitches that day, all over a pair of No Fly fancy pants. My mother and I exchanged glances and smirks. Then my mother blurts out, ‘well, the joke is on him because he is being buried in those!’

What’s that saying from “The Godfather”? It’s not personal, it’s business. Funeral Directors are in a pretty good business. People will eventually die. I’m not saying that most of them don’t do a respectful and compassionate job. But it is still business. Their organization and dedication to assisting families at this terrible time is commendable and much needed. We answered questions that would eventually become the obituary. We made timing decisions and picked out prayer cards. And then we were ushered into this room with every casket imaginable. We were numb, and kind of just going with the flow. However, I was married to a car salesman at one point in my life. I know the deal. Too bad there is not a ‘CasketFax.com’ website, or a Kelly Blue Book for caskets. As we were being shown our 4th or 5th $15,000 casket, which was practically gold plated and lined in embroidered silk so that your loved one ‘can rest in peace and comfort for all eternity’, I began to emerge from the denial coma I had slipped into. I finally spoke up and said: “My father wore the same pants every day one summer until they could get up and walk away. Where are the pine boxes?” With that we were shown some other options and were left alone to ‘come to our decision’. My mother sat down. My sister wandered. I looked around. My mother instinctively started rubbing her hands on the closest casket and said: ‘This one is the same color as your father’s Cadillac.’ Now my father was a simple man who wanted for nothing except: God, his family, his friends, golf, an occasional cold beer, cheeseburgers, a good cigar and Cadillac’s. He came from very little, and earned every cent he had. Once his kids were raised and money was stocked away for retirement he started buying a new Cadillac almost every 2 years. And that is how we came to select my father’s casket. Because it was the same darn color as his Caddy.

Later that day, my cousins came over to visit and with dinner. These were the children of my Dad’s younger brother. They had already experienced our loss and could relate, as their father passed away 17 years earlier. So they did their best to prepare us for what to expect and offer anything they could. They warned us that people sometimes don’t know what to say, and you will be amazed at what comes out… so just let it roll off your back. Truer words were never spoken. We heard some doozies. One of the more memorable comments was no doubt intended to explain how much this person thought of my Dad. However, stating that ‘if my mom had gone first’ she would be fighting for my father. My reply was, ‘well I hope you enjoyed the chicken kebob’.
But I digress! That night, we told our cousins about ‘Casketland’, (as we have fondly nicknamed it) and of how we ultimately came to our choice.

On the day of Dad’s wake before everyone started to arrive, my cousin arrived and pulled me aside, wanting to ask me a question. From the inside pocket of his suit, he pulled out a Cadillac emblem that is intended to be adhered to the rear of a Cadillac. His question was: “Do you want me to pimp up your Dad’s ride?”
So here we are, Tommy and I, trying to adhere the emblem to the side of his casket. I was doing my best to hold on to the casket, as Tommy is using all his ‘freakishly strong’ force to adhere the thing. As the casket is rocking back and forth, the Funeral Director comes over, quite puzzled, and says: “uhhh, may I help you with something?” And I know you are all wondering – NO! We did not knock it over. We chose the best spot, right on the side where people kneel to pay their respects. We overheard some people saying: ‘I didn’t know Cadillac made caskets! That is good to know!’ Many others were afraid to mention it.

After the burial while still at the cemetery, the Priest calls us over and says: “So tell me, who is responsible for the Cadillac emblem?” We explain and chat for a while, and he says: “Well this was terrific. If I could do funerals like this I would do them all the time!” I guess my cousins were right about the things people say. I just didn’t expect it from the priest.

So how does one cope with such grief? The love of family and friendship. Looking for those signs that are all around us and knowing that our loved ones are still with us in spirit. Knowing that one day, it won't be a struggle to find joy. Accepting that everything does happen for a reason even if we don't understand it. And finding humor in a pair of 'No Fly' skivvies.

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