The church was exactly where I expected to find it, a short ride from my home, over the Putnam Bridge and into Wethersfield. As I approached, I found myself wondering if it was the same church that hosted the funeral of Paul’s father ten years ago. I am struggling to grasp how in ten years Paul can lose his father, his own 19 year old daughter and then his own life.
I notice the fire truck right away and am struck by the sentiment. My eyes immediately turn to the convoy of ambulance’s surrounding the church parking lot. As I pull into the lot I notice the crowd of uniformed service officers looking towards the sky. Slowing my car to a barely noticeable speed, I look up as well. It is at that moment they lower a massive American flag down from the fully extended ladder. It begins to blow in the wind.
I gasp and tears begin to spill from my eyes. I knew this would be a tough funeral. I had sincerely hoped I would get as far as the inside of the church before I started to sob. It would not be possible now. The unfurling of the flag, the uniformed volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians remind of both the funeral of my father, and oddly, my first wedding, where by ex husband arrived at the chapel on the back of an antique fire engine. I reflect on my dad’s service to our country and how the honor guard played Taps and folded the flag over his casket. Memory flashes of my first wedding, my intended in a bright white tux on the back of a cherry red antique fire engine. I feel the sense of fraternity in these events, these men, alive and now deceased. My ex husband and I once fought over his joining the Freemasons. A barb he threw at me suggested I did not understand the sense of fraternity, of brotherhood, or even sisterhood since I isolated myself from everyone. I disagreed at that time but now, years later, I wonder if he had something there.
I am early for the mass and as such I stay in my car and check email and Facebook status on my iPhone. I inspect myself in the rear-view mirror and smile at my very dark Brighton sunglasses. I don’t think I will be removing them. They will be sure to hide the many tears I expect to shed. I move them up on my forehead to check my makeup and smile again as I realize with a bit of surprise how well the new Kat Von D eyeliner is holding up under the duress of the events and my waterfall of tears. I scan the parking lot as people begin to arrive. When my friend D appears to the left of my car, I get out and join the crowd. D approaches me with an odd look on his face, something between sadness and pleasure. I reach out to hug him.
“You look like a movie star” D says.
I laugh. To myself I muse that I look more like Morticia Adams than a movie star. Wearing a long black velvet coat, my black funeral dress, black tights, black shoes, dark glasses with deep wine colored lipstick, my mind fails to retrieve the image of a movie star. Instead, I see me as dark as my mood feels.
More cars arrive and D remarks on our foresight in arriving early. There will surely be no parking available by the time the service starts. Paul was dedicated to the service of community. As a volunteer EMT for many years, a fourth degree knight with the Knights of Columbus, a bag piper with several area bands, he was very well known. No doubt this will be a well attended service followed by very large funeral procession.
Coworkers arrive and attempt to engage D and me in conversation. The typical funeral phrases are heard. “Great guy. Good heart. So caring….” To distract myself from the emotion, I start to count the number of uniformed fire and EMT personnel I see. I stop counting at seventy when we are motioned to start entering the church. I am impressed with the turn out, the show of support for my friend and his family.
The fire and EMT have lined themselves up on opposite sides of the sidewalk. All who enter the church must walk through this somber line of volunteers, aching for their fallen comrade. The respect, admiration and emotion of it overwhelm me. Their uniforms, each one adorned with a badge bearing a black ribbon across the center, form a sea of black, yellow and white. Each uniform so perfectly coordinated, each button fastened, pants perfectly pleated. Even the youngest members of the corp have perfectly starched pants and shirts. I sob. As I approach the door to the church, I hear a slight whisper.
“Suuuuz?” says an unsteady voice.
I turn to my left and see one of the content management project managers approaching from behind.
“Oh, I wasn’t sure that was you” she says as she quickens her pace towards me. I smile and utter a weak hello.
I find myself wondering if she really did not know it was me or if she was just at a loss for words and needed a reason to join me. My hair, black and red, well known and rather unique, is not covered by a hat like as her hair is. Anyone who works with me would clearly pick me out of the crowd. I welcome her to my side and we enter the church together.
More coworkers arrive. Jim, Tom, Lisa, Sylvia, Steve, David, John, Sharon. We fill several rows of church pews. For the most part, we all remain silent. As newcomers arrive, we bow our heads, offer a slight grin or squeeze of hand. Years of religious conditioning have taught us how to behave in church, particularly a Catholic one.
Boredom, a need to distract myself and a sense of curiosity overcome me. I am intrigued by the gentlemen dressed up in what appears to be items stolen from the closet of Christopher Columbus. In full regalia with chapeaus complete with feathers, colorful capes and swords, I chuckle at my own ignorance. Friends of Captain Jack Sparrow or something else? Oddly, the memory of my ex husband chastising me over the Freemasons returns. My desire to know the origin of these dapperly dressed fellows is too strong not to ask.
I turn to Kathy on my left and whisper to her.
“Forgive my ignorance, but who are the guys with the big hats, feathers and swords?” I ask.
“Knights of Columbus color corp. Paul was a fourth degree knight. “she responds.
“Ahhh. Gotcha.” I say in return.
Dad’s voice comes to me. “Daughter! You should have known that! I was in the Knights.”
I respond to my father’s voice in my head by stating that I remembered he was in the Knights but I was very young and he did not remain in the club, or lodge, or whatever they call it. At my lack of vocabulary, the flash of my ex-husband and the Freemason conversation comes to my mind.
My point in the argument centered around the idea that women were not allowed in the lodge, had to sit and do and be a certain way and that all things discussed in the lodge were secret to the men and the men alone. The lodge went so far as to demand my husband keep things from me, his wife. I objected to him joining such an organization that represented things totally against my views. He cited history and tradition and generations of men in his family that were members of the Masons. He told me I was overreacting. I wanted to know the extent of things he would do, at their demanding, without my knowledge. I did not trust this organization any more than I trusted my parents church. In attempting to explain his position in contrast to mine, husband once again hones in on my lack of sisterhood, my counter culture attitude, my lack of religion and more. There is nothing wrong with the Masons, or him he infers. There is much wrong with me.
The funeral mass begins and find myself feeling uncomfortable. It is more than just the loss of my friend. It is being here, in this environment, this holy place. It is the crucifix in front of me, the Stations of the Cross next to me. It is the requirement to sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, shake hands, peace be with you and more. It is, most personally, the fact that this church teaches that single mothers are only good mothers when they give their children away to strangers. It is that I allowed myself to succumb to those beliefs. My eyes hurt from holding back tears. Tears for my friend Paul mixed with tears for me and the daughter I surrendered to strangers.
My coworkers follow along, responding in kind with the appropriate “and also with you’s” “amens” and “lord have mercys”. I become paranoid that my lack of participation is noticed. Am I being disrespectful to my friend by not partaking in the ceremony of his religious beliefs? I feel sick. Even though I know the mass by heart, was emotionally beat with the book the priest is now reading out of, I am conflicted. I do not believe. I will not be hypocritical. This is not my church, my god, or my religion. Can’t I just be here and show my respect without having to celebrate the mystery of their Christ’s love? I hear my sisters making fun of me for taking communion at my fathers’ funeral mass (“Did the communion wafer burn your tongue? Leave a scar?”). I remember the conflict I felt in doing so. I see Father Tom (yes, this Father Tom) leaning over to me during the Sign of the Peace and saying “LOVE, the hair color”.
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
I am shaken from my daydreaming. Four stations are set up for receiving communion. I sit back on the pew and opt out. My coworkers, all but one, file passed me to receive the body and blood of Christ.
I cannot do it.
I am sorry, my friend Paul. I cannot. In respecting you and your beliefs, I disrespect my own. My beliefs, unlike the teachings of your church, demand that the bond between mother and child be protected, retained and preserved. Your Church, your God, is still needlessly separating mother and child. I cannot do this. I love you. I will miss you but I cannot do this.
The mass is ended. Go in peace.
Oh, dear Paul, my dear friend. You did not go in peace but I do wish for you to rest in peace. I may not recognize fraternity, brotherhood, sisterhood and need to belong to an organized religion, but I do recognize a good heart, a great friend and what it means to know that person.
I will miss you.