Friday, October 18, 2013

COLUMN: Visitations

Death stinks.

I realize a sentence like that is about as revelatory and headline-worthy as other such breaking news items like "the sky is blue," "the Earth is round," and "Tom Cruise is simply awful."  Still, it must be said.

This past year has been rife with people in my life passing away, and most of them before their time. Not that I'm a big fan of that phrase, because really, is it ever anyone's "time" to depart this realm? If I had my druthers, and my health, I'd be perfectly okay with remaining alive until further notice, and I'd reckon most of you feel the same. The great beyond might be a much better place, but I'm honestly in no big hurry to find out. I've always been one to resist change.

But even more unfair than our inevitable demise is the fact that as we get older, more and more people that we care about are taken away from us. It may be an unavoidable fact of life, but it still stinks. If there's one place on Earth I hope I don't set foot in the foreseeable future, it's another stinkin' funeral home.

Last week, I wrote a column about how, in most social situations, I'm incredibly gifted at being incredibly awkward. Nowhere is this on display more clearly than when I have to attend a visitation. By the time I'm in the door, I'm already stammering and breaking out in an uncontrolled sweat. In weird situations, my usual defense mechanism is to crack jokes and look for humor in the situation -- but, as a general rule, the interior of a funeral home is, by and large, a joke-free zone.

Instead, I'm left to somehow fend off the sadness and try to stammer out words of compassion, encouragement, and support for family and friends, all while trying my absolute best not to sweat all over them. It's an entirely awkward and uncomfortable experience. But this is probably a GOOD thing. If you're the sort of person who's completely at ease and comfortable at visitations, you are most likely a Class A weirdo-pants. Or you are a funeral director. And, honestly, to dive into that career path by choice, you might still be at least a SMALL bit weirdo-pants.

But it's not as though I learned funeral awkwardness on my own. For that, I had a coach.

When I was a kid, my great-grandmother suffered a debilitating stroke. My memories of the woman are a bit cloudy, but what I recall was everything you'd want a grand-grandmother to be: a chubby, smiling, boisterous lady who earned my affection through a non-stop supply of hugs and candy. A resilient woman, she went on to survive the stroke in a vegetative state for over a year. I may have just been a little kid at the time, but even then I knew how awful it was to see this vibrant woman connected to life support.

I don't remember much about my great-grandma's funeral, but I do remember what happened a few months later. My dad was out of town when my mom was reading the paper and suddenly stood up.

"Go put on some nice clothes," she told me. "We need to go to a visitation."

My mom had spotted an obit in the newspaper, and the deceased was my great-grandma's former roommate from the nursing home. She and her family had been nothing but nice to us during our time together, so my mom wanted to return the favor by paying respects.

There was just one problem. As we rounded the corner to join the receiving line, I saw my mom ever-so-slightly go from sad to panic. She looked at me. "IT'S NOT HER."

Sure enough, my mom had the name wrong. It turns out my grandma's old roommate was alive, thriving and surviving. Instead, we were in line to express our condolences to the family of a total stranger. "Follow me," my mom whispered as we exited the line and tried to sneak out unnoticed. We would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for that pesky funeral director who stepped in-between us and the exit.

That's when my mom showcased something I'd never seen: her acting skills. Yes, my mother -- the light of my life, the woman who taught me everything, the person I looked to for strength, guidance, honesty, and wisdom -- quickly assessed the situation and came up with the best and most mature possible strategy: fake crying. "I just need a moment outside to collect myself," she told the funeral director, hand to her face, pretending to sob.

You would think a funeral director would point us in the right direction, perhaps even open the door. You'd think a funeral director would know when to back off and let someone in fake grief fake-grieve in private. Not THIS guy.

"Here," he motioned. "Let me take you to one of our quiet rooms where you can have a seat and reflect. How did you know the deceased?"

"No, no," my mom said awkwardly. "I just need to step outside."

I might have been little, but I knew comedy gold when I saw it.

"Mom, it's okay," I said. "Let's go to the quiet room. You need a tissue."

I'm pretty sure my hand still hurts from the death grip she put on it, but it was worth it to watch my mom squirm her way out of this mess. Eventually Mr. Overly Helpful turned away and we stealthily scuttled off into the night. As I recall, it took an extended layover at Pizza Hut for my mom to get properly un-mortified and lose the red from her cheeks.

You'd think we would have learned our lesson. But some twenty years later at my grandfather's funeral, the minister was not on his A-game. At one point, he told us that my grandfather was likely being embraced by a whole clan of Connors. Comforting, except that my grandfather's family was the COOPERS. Knowing my grandpa's beloved short fuse, my mom and I both simultaneously pictured him yelling at a heavenly room of strangers, "WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE? GET AWAY! SHOO!" which made us both inappropriately start to giggle mid-funeral. Which we both tried to cover up... as fake crying. What can I say? I guess I learn from the best.

In the end, there's no point in feeling awkward at visitations, because it's an awkward time for everybody. Last week, I lost a friend -- but instead of feeling awkward, I found myself surrounded by her family and sharing the love for a lady who touched many lives. Earlier this year, another friend of mine died who was a big theatre buff. Her visitation included show tunes and a beautiful enlarged photo of her -- dressed in zombie gear crawling out from behind a tombstone. It was the exact way she'd want to go out, and that's the important part.

So here's to you, Rose, Peggy, Brian, Russ, Leevon, Kenny, Ruthie, Jesse, my cousin Jenni, and everyone else gone too soon. Leaving you might have been awkward, but knowing you  was a pleasure.            

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