I’ve never been to a funeral service with the body in the same room. My aunt Sally’s hand-picked, blue casket rested next to the altar at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Gallup, New Mexico. It was very solemn, very surreal. Most of you have attended funerals like this. The priest acknowledged the discomfort many were silently suffering through. “I understand Sally didn’t talk about her faith much. That’s OK,” he said, “because she lived it.” This simple truth of our dearly departed exhumed a sigh of relief in every pew.
Throughout the service, I secretly gazed around the church, my memory ignited by faces I hadn’t seen in years—my cousins, aunts and uncles, my great-uncle Tommy, my grandmother. While I was excited to see some, I began to feel guilty by all. A battle began to rage within me. I’ve been a horrible cousin, I thought. An absent nephew and grandson. The other half of me rebutted: It’s not like they kept in contact with you. Besides, we’re blood. That’s our bond.
I realized at that moment I no longer wanted family by blood only, but in bond.
After the service we caravanned to the cemetery on the other side of town; the annual Ceremonials taking place caused a delay and detour. I was soon staring at the Hurst on the gravel near the burial plot. I overheard the gentleman from the mortuary scold the young pallbearers, my cousins, for rotating the casket and accidentally switching “the head” with “the feet.” I think Sally would have found this to be hilarious, so I let the insensitivity of it pass.
After her body was lowered into the ground, the family gently sprinkling her descent with dust, we made our way back to the rental car. The drive to Sally’s for the reception was a little more joyous with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” playing in the background. That song represents one of my favorite childhood memories of Sally and could easily be the hit single from the soundtrack of her life.
I had been awake for 30 straight hours when we arrived at the reception. All hallucinations typically caused by sleep deprivation would have to wait—I had family to greet. A couple hours of casual reminiscing and playing catch-up revealed I wasn’t the only one feeling guilty. We had all missed graduations, weddings, divorces and the birth of new babies. We vocalized our determination for our next reunion to revolve around anything else but a funeral.
At any family function, it’s easy for the past familiarities we have of one another to take precedence over any changes or developments. For example, I asked my cousin Tanya how she liked living in San Francisco. It turns out she hasn’t lived there for years now. How embarrassing; I might as well have asked her how she was enjoying high school.
It wasn’t just the naiveté of her address and occupation, but that I have no idea who she is. She has no idea who I am. The temptation in these situations is to take the easy route—discuss work, the weather in Texas (where Tanya now lives with her husband) and fill the rest of the conversation with nostalgia: “Remember when your brother and I set your backyard on fire?” Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but I chose to risk it:
“Are you guys going to have kids?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Tanya replied.
“Because I think you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
This is totally none of my business, mind you, but we were close as kids and it was worth it to me to dive beneath the surface. I didn’t drive all night to talk about my job. "Risk it with me. Let’s make this count. Who are you"
You know what I’m talking about. We all know the tension of “the line”—the place where comfort meets the unknown. I knew my family felt it too. We were all just books with bright covers.
“You probably thought, ‘Who let in the homeless guy?’” I joked with my cousin, referring to my shaggy hair and 37-day stubble. They were all thinking it. I might as well say it. Fortunately everyone at his table all had a good laugh. Nothing says “icebreaker” like making fun of yourself.
After returning home, my wife and I discussed how to get three kids 2 and under across 12 hours of desert. (If only it was dessert. That would be easy.) I told her about my new convictions to bond with my blood. I confessed all of my guilt having not written to Sally before she died like she had written me. She even cut a very generous check as a wedding present for which we had yet to send a thank-you card. That was four years ago. If I were to send it now, this is what it would say:
Thank you so much for the generous gift! It will definitely help us turn our first house into our first home. You were always so generous with love on earth. I imagine heaven is now returning the favor.
See you soon.
Ryan Stillwater is a husband and father of three, the owner of Romanced Records and a talent buyer at the Visalia Fox Theatre.