On Coping

A letter about my father's last rites.

On Coping
A photo from my run the day after Dad's funeral. I did not see the spider web until I looked at the photo. I would have shown that to my father.

A week ago today, I was kneeling in the front pew at my father’s funeral, thinking about coping. More specifically, I was admiring the coping achieved by the stone mason who had set the marble stairs around the altar, getting the obtuse angles of the heavy white slabs just right, making them meet so perfectly.

Feeling discomfort at being an atheist kneeling before four priests and a deacon, my writerly brain had decided to conjure up just then the less-used definition of “coping”: “shaping the end of [construction components] to neatly fit the contours of an abutting member.”

Abutting me at that moment were my sister-in-law and my younger brother, we three sharing the pew with my mother and older brother. My spouse and my son were behind me. My sister, the one of us siblings who is still Roman Catholic, was off somewhere else in the church, playing the organ for what my mother calls “the penguin choir” – a phalanx of my sister’s sisters, all in their full-body white-and-black Dominican habits.

Besides admiring the stone mason’s coping, I had to marvel at the gorgeous ritualistic coping of this, my old religion – not just the marble, but stunning stained-glass windows depicting the seven deadly sins, airy woodwork, touches of gold everywhere, chanting, singing, praying, and incense – lots of incense, all delivered with that particular clanging of the brass pot along the chain held out from the body. So many medieval robes infused with so much fragrant smoke.

The casket, draped in an elegant cloth made of white and gold, stood just a few feet from us in the open space before the altar. My sister had ordered for Dad a simple pine coffin made by monks, a woodworked piece of grace.

It was strange to think of my father’s body in there at total rest – no more spasms, no more coughs, no more labored breaths. No more struggles to speak. No more requests to wipe his eyes to clear out the accumulated goo.

After days of feeling not much recognition of this long-expected event, I was moved to tears as three of the health aides who had been helping Dad at home came up to bring the priests the gifts of communion wafers and wine. There were the two who had been doing most of his care of late, both of whom had come back shortly after he died to wash his body one last time. The third, a critical care nurse, had just a few hours earlier come back to the house to do my mother’s hair.

As they said the special prayers over his casket, I wondered if the priests knew that my father’s shirt was missing a big chunk of fabric on the left shoulder.

My sister had created the hole a few days earlier, just after she had gone to get Dad’s burial clothes out of the closet to bring to the undertakers. The green shirt and yellow tie he was wearing had been picked out for his burial decades before, after my parents traveled to the Vatican with a Polish American group and got to meet Pope John Paul II.

After that trip, they had shown me a photo of Dad in his wheelchair, Mom standing behind him, the pope with his hand on Dad’s left shoulder, talking with my parents. I had observed that those cardboard cut-outs for souvenir picture-taking had gotten so realistic! And Mom had exclaimed it was a real photo; they had talked to the Pope, Mom in her native Polish, Dad in his second-generation Brooklyn dialect.

She and Dad decided around then to preserve that shirt and tie for his burial, keeping them together in a specially labeled plastic bag in the closet, one we transferred carefully when they moved down to Nashville to be near my sister. As my sister got ready to take these articles to the funeral parlor, she paused at that photo hung now in the dining room and said excitedly, “You know, I think this shirt is a second-degree relic!”

Little did I realize that an object a saint had touched counted as a saint’s relic…and of course JP2 had been sainted. Turns out, she had the degree wrong. Based on my later research, first-degree includes body parts of the saint; second-degree includes former possessions of the saint; things the saint touched that weren’t his or her own fall into the third-degree category. So, the shirt counts as third-degree.

But when my sister declared our possibly being in the presence of a holy relic, I didn’t know about any of this saintly transfer. I just knew I didn’t want her to hatch a plan to hoist Dad up one last time, this time out of the casket, to cut off the patch.

“If you’re going to keep that bit of the shirt,” I said, “please cut the shirt now. Don’t go hauling him up with the hoyer lift for old time’s sake!”

We were all laughing at the idea, but I was picturing anatomical havoc.

She cut the shirt on the dining room table and Mom took from her the special patch to preserve with a hastily typed-up note, printed on neon yellow paper, explaining the apparent rag’s significance. Together, the cloth and the note went into a Ziploc bag.

Since we were having the wake at home, Dad came back from the funeral home to “sleep” one last night in his room. The next morning, a couple of hours before the funeral, one of the aides stopped by to drop off fresh peaches and I asked her to come in and spend a little time with me and Mom. She asked then if she could take a tiny bit of the shirt herself, and I handed her scissors and another Ziploc bag.

“Did you put the beer in the casket yet?” she asked, coming back from Dad to the kitchen with her one-millimeter-square of relic. She handed me the scissors and I answered no, but now seemed the time to get that done, as they were coming to get Dad to take him to the church at noon.

I went to the garage and got the last two bottles Zywiec, the beer Dad always said was the best in the world. He had told me weeks earlier that he was looking forward to drinking it with the pope.

“Do we just put the beer in the casket tucked into his arm?” I asked.

My mother answered in a pragmatic tone that we should put it in a brown paper bag, noting that’s how you traditionally sneak beer past the gate. So, we put the two bottles in a brown paper bag. When I worried aloud they would clank together when the casket was moved, Mom found a leftover piece of a Chux – the pads we used to put under Dad to deal with his incontinence – to put between the bottles. We all started laughing anew.

“He won’t want to see THAT in the afterlife!” said the aide. But I opined that he’d be happy to see the Chux and realize he was done with those.

The aide and I went into his room, lifted up the little curtain that draped over Dad’s waist in the casket, and tucked the bag of beer in next to his right leg. It startled me to see how emaciated he seemed in those pants.

When the funeral mass was finished, his closed casket was wheeled back to near the baptismal font at the back of the church and we followed, my mother on my arm. There, two more of his aides – two young women for whom I had cooked so many dinners when I visited and they were helping Dad on evening shifts – they moved to fold the shroud that had covered the coffin. But they couldn’t quite get the fold right, and, realizing they were screwing it up, they glanced up at my mother sheepishly. We smiled at each other and giggled. A thousand times my mother had showed them on their shifts how to properly fold a round tablecloth or a fitted sheet. (“Look, it’s simple…!”)

And then it was over and time to go to our cars to drive to the cemetery for the burial. I whispered to my mother, “Bathroom stop?” and she nodded. We headed off, her still on my arm, to the hallway that held the restrooms.

Suddenly, I became aware that the entire congregation was following us, presumably thinking we were still leading the funeral procession. I whispered to my mother to tell her what was going on – that we were accidentally solemnly leading a hundred people to the ladies’ room – and at this, she cracked up so hard, I had to keep her from falling.

Some people might have found all our laughing in poor taste. But my father was dying for so long, even he had joked about it for years. When yet another priest would come to give him yet another round of last rites, he would say, “Father, get it right this time, please.”

When he would talk about dying, he would remind me that he was afraid we might bury him alive by accident and he would instruct me, when we thought he was dead, to put a feather under his nose to see if it moved and to do so in a drafty room, just in case.

When years ago my mother complained that, to use the funeral plots they had bought in New York, we would have to ship their bodies back north at great expense, I had told her I would get a freezer and keep the first one of them who died in the garage until the other one expired, and then I would haggle with some driver from New Jersey for a two-for-one shipment deal. Upon hearing this plan, my father asked only that, if he were the stuck one in the freezer, I label him carefully.

Now, Dad is buried with his beer and a hole in his shirt. The relic is off to my sister’s motherhouse. I am wading my way through the endless paperwork of pensions, insurance policies, and the like.

We will order the headstone soon. It will have Mom’s name, too, with that dash of uncertainty.

The morning after the funeral, I went for a run at the state park ten minutes from my parents’ place, to the trail I have always run to get away from Dad’s blaring TV. This time, I would not be returning to tell him, “Dad, I saw a barn owl; a young deer with its mother; a salamander sunning itself,” all the natural things he could not himself go outside to run to see.

I showed the photo I had taken on my run to my mother instead, as I shared with the new widow the breakfast she most likes me to make: potatoes and onions fried very crispy; fluffy scrambled eggs; steamed broccolini; and fresh blueberries. I was just about to put a forkful in my mouth when she stopped me cold with this:

“I guess I will have to change my pronouns.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, utterly confused.

“I usually say, ‘We would love to see you,’ and ‘We have four kids.’ Now it should all be the first-person singular.”

And I thought to myself that, of course, this woman who raised us on Strunk & White would think about the grammar of grief.

Meanwhile, the daughter she trained to be a writer looks up the definitions of “coping,” discovering that in most English-speaking lands outside of America, when speaking of woodworking like that of the monks, coping is called instead “scribing.”

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