I attended the funeral of a young father a few weeks ago. I arrived at the packed church and took my place in the back of the queue to sign the guest book. The man of the hour was resting in an open casket next to me. The interior of the casket was lined with a white sheet. As the mourners made their way to the pews, and as the family gathered in the back of the church to prepare for their long walk down the aisle, the two morticians went to work.
One expertly lifted the dead man’s hands and tucked the sheet under and around the torso. The other gently tucked the sheet around the man’s head and, in one motion, closed the casket lid and looked at his watch.
It wasn’t callous; it was stealthy and almost beautiful. Amid all the shattered faces, eulogies, sacraments and music, the stone-faced mortician looking at his watch may have been the most instructive moment of the day: He was making sure that everything was on schedule; that everything was in place for his next inevitable gig. I took it as yet another sign that we are only here for a little while and so we are supposed to enjoy ourselves, live in the now, let the dead bury the dead, seize the day, etc.
Here’s another, which came over the e-transom from a Swedish musician friend not long after the funeral:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.
Still treat each guest honorably,
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The mortician moment has stayed with me, especially through the viewing of “The Savages,” the slow-burn parable starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a dysfunctional sister and brother caring for their dying father. It’s a slice of life that gets to all the vagaries of the human experience, and the mini-epiphany that comes at the end reminds us that even though we’re not sure why we’re slogging through whatever it is we’re slogging through at the time, sometimes you get a glimpse of an answer. Which brings us to another poem:
I want to beg of you, as much as I can … to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the question now. Perhaps then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.
I’m getting to the age where I know a lot about death, which is why, I suppose, I choose life and really living it these days. My kids, on the other hand, are learning their death lessons for the first time — through the mercurial life span of guinea pigs. I’ve lost track of how many guinea pigs have come and gone in our house of death, but one of my favorites was LeBron, whose debut I wrote about two summers ago:
“My kids and I went to the pet store to get dog food earlier today. I ended up buying them a guinea pig. On the way home, the guinea pig got stuck under the car’s floorboard and the kids burst into drama-king and -queen tears and howls.
“I pulled into the gas station on Diamond Lake Road and Lyndale, got down and ripped up the carpet and a chunk of plastic from the passenger side, both kids bawling, ‘LeBron is dead, LeBron is dead,’ and we haven’t even had the thing out of the store for 10 minutes. Nice.
“I knelt down and stuck my hand in the hole in the floor. I could feel his warm fur. He squeaked. He was wedged between the gear shift and the back of the grill, and I was afraid that if I drove, I’d kill him. When I brushed my fingers over his foot, I grabbed the scruff of his back with everything I had, because guinea pigs are quick and because I didn’t want to see another dead thing and because I wanted to see my kids happy, and when I pulled him out, the kids’ cries of despair turned to cries of joy.
"I sat up, sweaty but weirdly not shaken. There was fur all over the car and all over my sweatshirt. I held the guinea pig in my arms, and stroked the part of his back where I’d ripped out a clump of his fur. He was freaked, but OK."
Here I need to report that LeBron, that heroic little rodent who stared death in the face and lived to purr about it, finally met his maker a few weeks ago. The kids were mortified. My son sat shiva in front of the cage for an hour. My daughter made a coffin out of a shoebox. The grief in our house went on for at least three hours.
Here I also need to report that we got a new guinea pig a couple weeks ago. My wife says this is the last one. His name is Hank. He’s got long blonde, white, and brown hair. He was skittish when we first got him from the Humane Society. But now when you pet him, he gets quiet and purrs, and when you give him a bath, his fur floats to the top and he looks like a boat.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.