This is a long post, make your tea first and then read…………
A year ago my adoptive father passed away. We had been given 3 months to prepare.
My father was an enormously overweight chap. I still have photographs from his youth when he was a strapping young man, fit and strong. Funny enough he always kept his strength, but over the years became bigger and bigger. Despite this dad was always exceptionally healthy with nothing more than occassional hayfever to disrupt his peace. Even as he aged he had the bare minimum of ‘old guys’ ailments. In his sixties he did have a few moments of fear when he was diagnosed with skin cancer which was odd as dad was never in the sun. It turns out that he had probably developed it from his youth whilst playing badminton. Although it was a bit of a shock, we knew we didn’t need to panic. He was treated with a minimal amount of fuss and apart from the plasters over his nose (the worst spot), it was all smooth sailing. He insisted on buying the most garish ones he could – bright cartoons, flag designs etc, perhaps as his way of not attributing any more attention than was warranted.
My brother and I knew something was wrong when dad began to lose weight. We asked questions and nagged and he insisted that nothing was wrong, he was just ageing. When he complained of a particular ache or pain I would get him whatever over-the-counter medicines seemed appropriate and not worry – because after all, the old boy insisted he was fine!
For a year and a half he refused to acknowledge that he was ill and kept working and hiding his illness from us. Eventually it got to the point when we could no longer ignore the fact that things weren’t OK. My brother, bless him, all but man-handled my dad into his doctors offices and so began the tests. None of the fancy blood tests revealed the answers, but after complaining of a sore back, a simple urine test revealed the beginning of the truth. My father was diagnosed with tumours on his kidneys and liver. It was so advanced by that stage that the doctor said to us that Dad had no more than 3 months to live. My dad was told that he had 3-6 months as a kindness.
He was 79 years old and had never had any illnesses worth mentioning, even his skin cancer was a seperate issue and not connected to this in any way. He was huge – surely a gigantor heart attack made more sense?
He was diagnosed at the beginning of December. He died on the 10th of March.
There may come a day when I talk about that particular journey, but right now there’s not enough whiskey in the world for that.
Funny enough despite what I have written above, this post is not about his dying, that’s just background – it’s about what came afterwards.
My father loved the Catholic Church. There was something about the hymns and the rythyms of the services that soothed and comforted him. He remembered the latin prayers and recited them with ease. My aunt had been one of his best friends in his youth and had eventually become a nun, and through her and his own enthusiasm, he befriended priests and nuns all over the country. He loved the idea that there was a powerful and all knowing being who would sort out the mess, all he had to do was to be faithful.
Dad had a wonderful voice and used to boom above the congregation in full flight. He trained altar boys, ran a Catholic retreat and was constantly called upon for church readings. In short dad was church crazy to the point where I came to believe that he should never have married, he really should have been a priest. He loved my mom, despite their problems, but he loved the church more.
When it came time to bury dad comedy, heartache and madness combined to create a funeral that will eventually be funny, but at the time was devastating.
Dad had requested a particular priest who he had known since he was a young man – retired and almost impossible to find, despite the fact that we knew where he lived. We eventually managed to track him down to do the last rights for dad. If my father ever required punishment for his sins, he got it all that day. Dad was on his last and ‘Father Bombastic and Psychotically Cheerful’ boomed his way into his room calling him young man and asking how he was feeling in a voice loud enough to tear nails out of a floorboard.
I began organising a funeral with almost zero help from ‘Father Crazy’ (he had insisted on communicating only with my brother – ‘head of the family’ kind of a thing and who unbeknown to him was a complete atheist). In desperation I had turned to the local parish priest for assistance. He spoke about 4 words of English and couldn’t help because he was off that day and he duly turned us over to the local church receptionist, who quite frankly could have benefitted from a colonic or two.
Eventually I contacted the one priest I actually knew and liked, who had know my dad years previously when he ran the local church. So with the help of ‘Nice Priest’ and my aunts and uncles, I finally managed to piece together a vague idea of hymns and prayers for the service.
Now dad had insisted on the church next to his mothers house, so we duly called the local organist – sorry not available!
Panic stations ensued and we phoned around in a sweat and eventually found a suitable replacement who actually had the music for the songs that dad had asked for – thank God! It was somewhere between my conversation with the morgue and ‘Nice Priest’ that I discovered that the organ in that specific church was broken and had in fact been that way for years. This was 2 days before the funeral was due to be held.
I then moved into ‘call a stranger and beg’ mode. I went through dads phone book and called one of the parishioners I had met once and asked for help. 4 or 5 calls later they eventually hooked us up with a church guitarist who knew most of the songs and was confident she could google and download the music for the other. She was friendly and even organised her choir leader to join her at the service to help with the singing.
On the day we said goodbye to dad ‘Father Crazy’ arrived on time.
He was followed my ‘Monsignor Sandals’
who was followed by ‘Nice Priest’
The service started off with one sweet old man asking if he should open the casket for the viewing –
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Don’t you dare open that lid dude!’
To be followed by a caterwauling of inimitable proportions (choir leader) accompanied by a guitarist who would have done better had she hit herself in the head with said instrument!
The service finally ended with Father Crazy threatening our Jewish and Agnostic pals with hellfire and brimstone because they hadn’t embraced the Truth.
Oh and in between that I had to deliver the Eulogy!
By the time dad was returned to the hearse for cremation, I was in pieces. My only consolations were that dad had not one, but 3 priests for his funeral and the fact that I was approached by a variety of people to do their eulogies when they kicked up their clogs!
I had no reason to expect that burying the ashes would go any better – boy I was wrong! Joyously and completely wrong!
Burying the ashes had started off in the same disatrous fashion as the funeral. The graveyard folks couldn’t find the family plots and because no one could remember when the previous family members had died, our only choice was to go through the 1000 page tome until we found the plot number, or walk the ‘yard’ until we tripped over a family grave.
Added to this, our local graveyards are ugly, deserted, revolting places parked in industial areas. I’d rather die than be buried there!
Between heaven and earth I prayed for inspiration:
My dad had known the Schoenstatt nuns for decades and I decided to call them to see if it would be ok to scatter the ashes there. Schoenstatt was peaceful and beautiful and carried many happy memories for us all- it would be perfect!
They said NEIN!
I was devastated! but before I could reach for the whiskey, this sweet honey nun mentioned that she had known my dad well and remembered that he had been very close to sister Mags and although we couldn’t just shake dad all over the place they would be willing to allow him to be interred into her grave and would add him to the register so that anyone who wanted to visit could find him.
Mazeltov! Hallelujah! Bloody incredible!
I was completely taken by suprise! My father was not only going to be buried in a gorgeous place, but he was going to be surrounded for all eternity with the priests and nuns he had loved and respected and spent most of his life with!
On the day the ashes arrived I took them with me to one of his best friends who owned a restaurant.
We bi-passed civilised and instead embraced a little moggy! We attached a restaurant sticker to the box and he and the staff wrote messages on it. I wrote a letter and my youngest drew a picture with a lovely note to Grandpa and we attached it to the box – next to the rather large sticker.
On the day that his ashes were to be buried, the nuns were supposed to have dug the hole. When we got there and nothing was prepared – they had experienced crazy rains and collapsing graves etc etc so we were directed to spades and shovels and off we went.
Disaster? No – Blessing!
My brother ended up digging most of the hole to bury the box and as I watched I realised that the Universe had given this to him as a labour of love, and he took it that way. My little one was in charge of the holy water and the sisters prayer book.
It was funny that despite being out of the Catholic church for the better part of 3 decades, my brother and I still remembered all the correct responses to the prayers.
It was a morning that was overcast and threatened hectic rain, it held.
Our father was buried peacefully and respectfully – except perhaps for the box…….
Prayers were said, and the nun while attempting to open the holy water ended up squirting my youngest with it instead, allowing us all to laugh and relax and say goodbye with lighter hearts.
I think that despite the fact that his funeral was a tad patchy, dad would have loved the idea that it was presided over by not one, but three priests.
I know that being buried in Shoenstatt made his heart glad and I definately know that watching his son labour over the hole for his ashes would have blessed him all the way to heaven and back. Watching my baby girl get squirted with holy water would have tickled him pink. So in the end he was blessed with love, light, humour and kindness.
He was laid to rest in the place he loved the most and you can’t ask for more than that.