He had come in the door last Thursday and immediately enveloped me in a strong and silent hug. Our daily reunions are always affectionate, but something in his embrace made me ask what was wrong. He said it was nothing, then immediately contradicted himself: there's a funeral on Sunday. He warned me that he would cry, explaining how he was just a sensitive guy. I didn't understand how crying at your grandfather's funeral meant you were sensitive. Sunday morning, I packed my purse full of tissues.
Together six years, this would be our first funeral as a couple. Somehow these sorts of things are always left out of the movies.
We arrived at his grandparents' house for a family potluck lunch and were greeted with lingering hugs. The atmosphere was tense, as everyone seemed to be dealing with the loss by being anxious about the ceremony itself. His mom told us about having to reprint the program three times because of mistakes and omissions. She said it was the work of the devil, rather than a inattentive Kinko's employee. Blaming the devil for a misprint seems like asking God where you left your shoes, but given the amount of stress the whole thing had given her, maybe she had a point.
It was important that we get there in time, so we left an hour early to drive less than a mile. The fellowship hall smelled like flowery discount cleaning products. Everyone looked so nice in their dress clothes. Josh was in a suit that his parents had bought him back in high school. He was a pallbearer, so he had to go off somewhere with his brothers and cousins, each wearing the one suit they owned.
I stayed in the perfumey fellowship hall and did more awkward standing. Funerals have a way of making everyday things seem surreal. Really, a funeral is an everyday thing.
Josh's mom asked me to walk in with the family. Rather, she said she would like me to and then asked if that was okay. It seemed silly to even ask, just like it was silly for his aunts to thank me for making the ninety-minute drive. They were just going out their way to include me in the family. They're good people like that.
Finally, we filed in, the family and also me. No matter what they did to include me, I still felt like an intruder into their grief, as if I was not sad enough to sit in the special section. Honestly, that's been much of my experience at funerals, even when I was a blood-relation. Most of them have been for elderly relatives who lived far away. I saw them infrequently and knew them only as their old and world-weary selves. When other family members would tell stories about the deceased, I would be unable to connect the person in those stories to the person I had known. Those stories were about active and vibrant people, while the ones that I knew had been merely old. I would watch my older siblings mourn and feel sad and a little jealous that I had never had the opportunity to become attached. And now it was too late.
I knew Josh's grandfather only a little. Someday, I will go to a funeral with these same people, and I will be sad because a member of my family has died.
I sat in the reserved section, behind an aunt, next to another girlfriend. Josh was sitting across the aisle with the pallbearers. I craned my neck to get a look at him, to see how he was doing. My purse full of tissues would not do him any good from this distance.
Josh's younger brother and cousin performed a piece by Sibelius on the violin and cello. His brother's face was impassive and focused on the sheet music before him, while the cellist looked about to break at any moment. Her grief flickered onto her face every few seconds, so fleeting that I hoped it was just an expression of concentration. But she got through it, and it was beautiful.
Josh stood and walked up to the lectern to read a poem. He took a breath, and then one more, before starting. Once started, he did not stop, though his voice shook once or twice. His emotion added more beauty and depth to the moment than the words themselves. Sympathetic tears formed behind my eyes, and I wished that I could somehow telegraph him the strength to get through it. But he didn't need it.
There were four preachers, and half of them made a joke about four sermons. I was disappointed in them all. I couldn't tell that they knew the deceased any more than I did. The intimacy of the music and poem highlighted the genericness of the speakers. I suppose that's a hazard of being a preacher - having to give eulogies for people you didn't know very well. Then again, it's probably worse to give one for someone you were close to.
When the service was over, and we all filed out to the graveyard. As I left the church, I got my first glimpse of the crowd. It was a packed house, all the way up to the top row in the second level of the sanctuary. From the perspective of world history, Josh's grandfather was an ordinary man, living an ordinary life. But from the vantage of my own ordinary life, he seemed to be have figured it all out.
More evidence of his legacy stood next to the gravesite: a row of pallbearers, eight strapping grandsons, ages ranging from sixteen to twenty-nine. They carried the flag-covered coffin like some sort of generational baton that has now been handed down. Their youth and strength was thrown into sharp relief by the occasion; in the midst of death, there is so much life. Their duty complete, they stood looking straight ahead, hands clasped in front of them. I watched their faces, searching for any betrayal of their feelings. There were a few surreptitious nose-wipes, but mostly just stubborn jaw-clenching.
There was one in the middle, though, who had given up on trying. I saw a tear make its way down his face, a face that I had kissed, oh, about a million times. I snuck around behind the row of men and slipped a tissue into his hand. He gave me a small and grateful smile. I walked back to my position in the crowd. It made me angry that Josh should feel like less of a man for daring to show emotion upon the death of his grandfather.
This stoicism was all a surprise to me. The men in my family cry at funerals. Sometimes they even cry at other times, too. It's not because they are blubbering sissies, it's because life is sad. It was a little shocking to me the first time I saw one of them cry, but also natural. I cry, they cry, life is sad.
But I guess that's not how it is for everyone. I felt sorry for the rest of them. Maybe some people really don't ever tear up, but maybe they were so busy keeping their emotions on lockdown that they didn't allow themselves to grieve. I actually hoped that the younger guys, the sixteen-year-olds, would see Josh and rethink their ideas of manhood. Being a man is a lot more complicated than being strong, and strength is more than lifting heavy things and being invulnerable. I was proud that among those men, mine was the one who was not afraid to feel.
The service ended, and finally I was able to hug my sweet and brave man. We returned to the perfumed, but mercifully cool air of the fellowship hall. Old ladies, and a couple of old men, came up and told Josh how much much he has grown and how they had loved the poem. We talked with family and friends over cucumber sandwiches and orange soda. The crowd thinned out gradually until it was just us, the family. We cleaned up the plastic cups, packed up the flowers, and drove back to the house and our interrupted lives. A funeral is only a ceremony after all. It's the next day and the next and the next that you have to watch out for.
We stayed awhile for leftover potluck, but then we had to leave, too. Just like that, our first funeral together was over. Here's to many more, my darling.