Karla and I flew home from West Virginia two days before the party, which was to be held on Saturday afternoon. I’ve read that some people call this sort of event a, “Life Celebration,” but to me that sounds more like some precious New Age gathering where vegan finger foods are washed down with eco-friendly fruit juices after a ceremonial release of 87 white doves. Taking to heart our father’s aversion to the maudlin and his caution to, “never trust a teetotaler,” we were throwing John a cocktail party.
The menu was set, the obituary had been published, friends and family had been invited. The only thing I had left to do was prepare something to handout to the guests. I had all of Thursday and Friday to create a simple booklet. On the front was to be a picture of a young, smiling John in uniform, with the dates of his birth and death beneath it. Inside I’d include a brief yet poignant anecdote, which I had yet to write, and an insightful poem by some wise and well-respected literary figure, summing up what John meant to us and how much we’d miss him, which I had yet to choose.
By six o’clock Friday night, I hadn’t started working on it. Restless, I went out for an early dinner. When I got home I still couldn’t face it, so I laid down on the couch to do some thinking and rest my eyes for just a minute. At midnight, I woke up in a panic. I had no idea what to write. It was too soon. It seemed an impossible task to express in only a few paragraphs what an extraordinary person and a caring father John had been. I realized that composing the obituary had taken all I had in me at that point, so I decided to include a modified version of that in the booklet, and move on to choosing a poem.
A few days prior, Karla had forwarded some memorial poems she grabbed randomly from various websites dedicated to grief. I hadn’t bothered to read them until that night. They were all painfully sentimental and cheesy, but I tried to keep in mind that I wasn’t making the pamphlet to impress my jaded, over-educated friends (as one of my jaded, over-educated friends pointed out). Why I was making the pamphlet, I couldn't really say. In any event, I had to select a poem from the bunch Karla sent because I didn’t have time to come up with anything else.
The first one was called, “Weep Not For Me.”
Weep not for me though I am gone
Into the gentle night
Grieve if you will, but not for long
Upon my soul’s sweet flight.
There is no need for tears.
I am at peace, my soul is at rest
There is no pain, I suffer not,
For with your love I was so blessed.
I am in a place of comfort
The fear now is gone.
Put those things out of your thoughts,
In your memory I live on.
Remember not my fight for breath
Remember not the strife
Please do not dwell upon my death
But celebrate my life.
Apart from the faulty rhymes, precarious meter and gruesome final stanza, what most disturbed me about this poem was that it was written in the voice of the deceased. I imagined John reciting it to me from beyond the grave in a ham stage actor's cadence. I was intrigued. Karla hadn’t included any of the authors' names, so I googled, “weep not for me though i am gone.” Oddly, several sites about pet loss popped up. Come to find out, a woman named Constance Jenkins composed this verse about fifteen years ago, “to comfort her sister, whose beloved cat had died.”
Karla also included a traditional Irish blessing, an old Irish toast, and an inscription supposedly etched on an Irish tombstone. All too corny and too religious. Another poem claimed the dead walk beside us every day, “Unseen, unheard, but always near.” I thought that was creepy.
The one I finally settled on was entitled, “He is Gone.” It’s not a very good or a very graceful poem, but it does the job. The poet suggests that rather than dwelling in the miserable knowledge that your loved one has died and will never return, one should feel glad to have known him, cherish his memory, and carry on with life. In other words, as John would say, “Cheer up, kid. Life is short.”
A google search revealed that this poem, originally entitled, “She is Gone,” first gained popularity after it was read at the Queen Mother of England’s funeral. It was written by David Harkins, a former factory worker and gas station attendant who now earns his living as an artist, primarily by selling nude paintings of his wife over the internet. I wanted to include this biographical information in the pamphlet, but no one in the family except John would have seen the humor in it.
It was 3am when I finally pulled up to the 24 hour Kinko’s in Glendale. It was pretty bleak in there. The only customers were a couple of drunk guys making yard sale signs up front, a chubby actress in frayed jazz shoes duplicating her composite headshots at the color copier, a depressed ne’er-do-well slumped before a pay-by-the-minute computer at the back of the store, and a sullen, disheveled woman with puffy eyes standing by the door, shuffling papers and muttering to herself. (That would be me.)
I had noticed a spelling error in the booklet, so I sat down to correct it on one of the only working computers, which was right next to the ne’er-do-well, who kept glancing at me nervously as he surfed the internet. In all fairness, he may have been anxious because of my faux casual attempts to sneak peeks at his screen. I only wanted to know what was so interesting that he drove to Kinko’s in the middle of the night to research it, but every time I looked he blocked my view with his shoulder or switched back to the Yahoo home page.
After fixing the typo, I stepped up to the counter to order my copies. There, I discovered that the late shift clerk at the Kinko’s in Glendale is no Gutenberg. First he couldn’t open the file I sent him, so I had to rename it and send it again. Three times. Next, it took him a while to figure out how to copy a two-sided document. And then, after we had spent at least 10 minutes discussing what shade and thickness of stock to use, he ran 200 copies on the wrong paper. I didn’t get home until almost 4:30 in the morning.
My alarm rang at 6:00. Suddenly, my only concern was what I would wear. I knew John would want me to look nice, smile, and be a charming hostess. And, after all, despite our many differences, I am my mother’s daughter. Somewhere in my psyche lurks the hope that no matter what tragedy befalls me, if I just brush my teeth and throw on a little blusher, I will feel better.
I pulled several dresses out of the closet, but nixed them all on the basis that each one was either too casual, too dressy, too little-girlish, or too cleavage-y/clingy to wear to my father’s memorial soirée. I finally settled on a 70’s inspired, navy and white geometric print shirtdress that reminded me of something Mary Richards might have worn to an important lunch date.
At my 8:00am therapy appointment, we started to discuss how I could best get through the day and how I should respond if Trudy went nuts, but I kept coming back to the fact that I didn’t have any navy shoes to wear with my dress. “This is how navy dresses screw you. You can’t wear black or brown shoes with them. You can only wear navy shoes, and there are no cute navy shoes. Who owns navy shoes?” In the end, my therapist gave in and indulged me by offering suggestions as to where I might find a decent pair of dark blue heels.
Totally unhinged at this point, I was prepared to spend any amount of money if I could get my hands on the right shoes. Against all odds, I found them. There, in the second shoe store I visited, sat a pair of navy blue Joan & David pumps with a delicately squared toe, low heel and simple rectangular silver buckles that echoed the pattern on the dress. And modestly priced. They were perfect. I paid for them, got in my car, and cried all the way home.