Driving home from Hilton Head today, I steered through steely clouds until sun peeked through, until steel gave way to blue. I wound through bits of towns: gas stations, roadside stands, cinder block houses, trailers, water towers. And then, dark gold winter marsh like a tarnished, tired crown, then opulent waterfront houses, three or four at a time, then stands of trees, scrub forest, the road bending out of sight.
My brother and I spent the better part of a day traveling to and from our Uncle Bob’s funeral on Monday. We began in the pre-dawn winter darkness of Wooster, Ohio, traveled to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan and found our way back to Wooster as the pale sun fell into its pink then blue place below the snow.
Along the way, dressed in funeral attire, we talked about family (memories of Uncle Bob, of our own Dad who died in 2009, growing up and its accompanying angst and adventure), politics (the economy, the 2012 election, John “tan” Boehner, Barack Obama and the tragedy in Tucson), music (John Lennon, The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, Gerry Rafferty to name a few) and movies (Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Big Lebowski, High Fidelity and Elf). It was an eight-hour ride.
While The Beatles were playing, I asked my brother where he was when John Lennon was shot. My brother is a huge Beatles fan. In fact, the first album he ever gave me was The Magical Mystery Tour. His answer, “at college,” reminded me of our 12-year age difference, which nowadays seems a much smaller expanse of time. He told me that he came home just days after Lennon was killed, and the news coverage was exhaustive, much like it’s been since the Tucson tragedy. My brother said that Dad, tired of the constant coverage, said in frustration, “He’s just a man.”
My brother said nothing back – but that moment was one of alienation and misunderstanding. My brother grieving his hero, a musical, social and political voice of his generation, unable to share any of it with Dad. And Dad, viewing Lennon as an aimless artist, hippie, troublemaker – who he didn’t even respect as a musician.
I sat with that for a moment when my brother finished. And I told him that I recently read an interview with Yoko Ono in which she spoke with pride about John being “the first man to push a baby carriage…no one did it before John.” I told Steve that whether or not that was true, it was amazing to think the effect one man could have had on a generation of fathers – a collective unconscious agreement to perhaps take a more hands-on role than their fathers had.
Interestingly, our own Dad was very hands-on with us when were babies. Not surprisingly, when we were old enough to voice our own opinions on the world, our relationships got more complicated.
I wonder if my Dad ever came around to John Lennon – understanding what a tragedy his death was, not just for his fans, but for his wife, his sons. And our culture. Did Dad respond that way because of his own fear of death? You’re walking through your life and suddenly, you’re gunned down in front of your home? Or one day, your mind simply stops working the way it once did. Was his quick anger simply his confirmation that we are all, always, vulnerable?
Now, at Uncle Bob’s funeral. A chance to honor the last of 11 children, a man full of life, a storyteller who often spoke of himself in the third person, a devoted husband, dad, grandpa, uncle, friend. A doer of good – in his church, in soup kitchens, with children less fortunate, with friends and family. A stubborn, funny, crystal blue-eyed character.
The minister said it out loud: “We are perishable. What has happened here will happen to us all.”
I looked out the window to the churchyard, where Uncle Bob spent hours cleaning up, tending the lawn and flowers. It was snow-covered now: a large birdfeeder hanging from a leafless branch.
The minister continued, “The pain is over for Bob…and he will live on forever through God.”
I didn’t feel convinced.
But a covey of doves flew into the churchyard and began eating from the feeder. That was something.
A mutual friend of Uncle Bob and Aunt Georgia’s delivered the eulogy. It was laugh out loud funny at times; poignant in others, as all good tributes should be.
Afterward, we gathered with cousins and church folk for a luncheon. I joked with my brother, taking bets on whether or not ham would be served. (It is the Midwest, after all.)
There was ham. And chicken. Pasta. Potatoes.
And literally, a table of desserts.
Everyone wins with that kind of grief buffet.
When I hugged Aunt Georgia goodbye, I felt her physical strength through her heavy wool coat, though I knew her heart was aching. She had spent 62 years with Uncle Bob and today, for the first time in 62 years, she would go home alone.
What she has, what we all have, is memory, the way in which her life is different and richer because of the moments contained within it.
It’s not for me to say if Uncle Bob is somewhere laughing now with his 10 siblings, parents, even with my Dad.
Written for my big brother: a great writer, a dear friend and the brave soul who first tried to explain love to me when I was seven.
Set upon the cold steel
I could feel the rivets through my dungarees
Could see the river below
Midnight blue, swift, mysterious
Patches of ice scraping together the only noise
I sat with that sound
While you walked slowly back and forth
Gently explaining to me, your baby sister
That love takes many forms
I swung my legs to and fro to keep warm
To feel the satisfying thud of my sneakers against steel
The purpose of that night
The walk to the bridge
The reason for that conversation
Have no place in my memory
The sharp cold
The ice floes
The distinct, deep night
No match for the warmth of a brother’s love