Sunday, March 16, 2008

IRISH WAKES

I want to thank everyone who sent their condolences on the loss of my brother Robert, and for all of you who have sent prayers and good thoughts out to me and my family.

I also want to gratefully report that his funeral was one of the most moving and warmly human funerals I’ve ever attended. And I’ve been to way too many.

When the Dublin-born priest stepped up to the lectern on the altar, in his white vestments with the bright green Celtic cross on the front and back, (which he soon told us was a 50th birthday present from his parents and this was the first opportunity he got to wear them) and gestured toward the coffin and said “This character…” I could feel everyone in our extended clan who was able to make it there, as well as other friends and family, relax as we all realized at the same instant that this priest was one of us, and got who my brother was, and we didn’t have to worry about the rest of the funeral Mass missing the point of why we were there.

He went on to say a lot of good and funny things about my brother, who was indeed a character, as I’m beginning to finally realize most of my siblings were and are, and indeed, most of the folks in my clan seem to be and have been.

In fact, it seems to me now, that in many ways being characters was more appreciated than having character, which was sort of expected as a given. In the days preceding and following the funeral, days of staying close, eating tons of food donated by friends and family, sharing stories and singing and laughing and crying and sobbing and generally wearing ourselves and each other out with closeness and close attention, until a lot of us were finally drained enough to sleep, many stories were shared about one or another of the characters in my family.

Like one of my sister-in-law’s brothers, a character in his own right, who I used to work with when we were teenagers for my father’s “home maintenance business” as I like to call the little shop he had in which we repaired anything anyone brought to us, or did our best to, and out of which we went to their homes to repair or replace anything they asked us to, if we could.

This man, Jackie, chuckled as he commented that if someone came in to the shop and asked if we did heart surgery, my father would have said yes, sure, when did he need it done by. He reminded me that my father said yes to any possibility of making a dollar by doing what others couldn’t or didn’t want to do for themselves. And he also reminded me that my father could charm the pants off of these people, as they used to say.

Other characters from the clan were present and added to the general feeling of warmth and closeness despite the old feuds, some of which still simmer, or the more recent rifts in relationships across generations or in-law relations and all the other family baggage that ain’t heavy because it’s your brother, or sister, or cousin or in-law…

One of the main points the priest made at that funeral Mass, and I was delighted to learn, was that because Saint Patrick’s Day falls during Holy Week this year, and therefore cannot be “celebrated” as usual, the liturgical calendar was changed and the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day, at least inside church, was moved to Friday the 14th, the day of my brother’s funeral.

The priest implied my brother had something to do with that rare date switching, and by the time Mass was over, I believed he did.

Every holy song that was sung at that Mass brought tears to my eyes, and almost everyone else’s as far as I could tell. And when the woman who was leading us in those songs started “Oh Danny Boy”—no matter how corny and predictable—there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Because most of us there had heard my brother sing it many times, usually with us joining in at parties, and knew it was a favorite.

But the highlight of the Mass began when the husband of my brother’s oldest child stepped up to the lectern at the side of the altar to give the eulogy, or actually just share some stories about my brother, and before he did, pulled out a digital camera and took a picture of the large crowd in the church, as the priest from his seat at the back of the altar said “That’s a first!”

Michael explained that he wanted a record of all of us there to celebrate his father-in-law, because it was the kind of gathering that made my brother happiest. To be surrounded by family and friends always made him happy.

All the talk of “dysfunctional families” these days and all the sophisticated people I’ve known in my life and careers who view their families as “toxic” or something to be left behind (as I at one time did, though rarely in my true heart, or in my writing) seems so sad to me today, in light of my brother Robert’s example.

What family isn’t “dysfunctional,” but whether it’s a quirk of my clan or “people,” or just certain families, or the culture we come from, or something I haven’t figured out yet and maybe never will, I am grateful that my adolescent disappointment and anger toward the foibles and mistakes, even wrongs, of those who raised me and I was raised with has given way to understanding and acceptance that transcends petty judgments and expectations of a perfection all humans are incapable of ever achieving anyway.

I wasn’t thinking that, but certainly was feeling it, as my nephew-in-law made jokes about my brother’s penchant for “ugly” pants, but also made clear his respect and love for a man who’d been in his life for well over thirty years, and on an almost daily basis since my brother moved down to Georgia to be close to Michael’s wife and her family, and the other children and their families that followed them there.

Michael’s talk helped us all laugh and relieved us of the heavy sorrow that permeated the funeral, the deep sense of loss and disappointment at death’s finality and surprise, no matter how expected.

And then my nephew stepped up to the lectern, my brother’s only son, a man after my own heart, as they used to say, who seemed to share the genetic deviations of my strain of the family “characters” trait, who is known to speak so fast no outsider can understand him, who had declined when invited by his family to give the eulogy, who had fathered some of the darker-skinned generation of clan members who share our last name, who was as broken-up by his father’s death as any of us and who we all expected to break down before our eyes, now that he was standing ramrod straight, as he always does, with his earring and secret service shades and shaved head and runner’s slimness, though I doubt he runs anywhere, and opened his mouth and introduced himself as “William Robert Lally Junior”…

And then proceeded to give the greatest eulogy I’ve heard in a lifetime of them. I’ve given a few myself that I thought weren’t half bad. And his brother-in-law Michael had just done a great job of it himself. But what my nephew Billy shared in that moment was…well…a moment, one of those special experiences in life that can’t be shared. You had to be there.

If someone had thought to record it, I’d post the transcript here, or if they taped it, or whatever the word is now for digitally capturing the image with the audio, I would post that. And maybe it would give you an idea. But as is so often the case with those kinds of experiences, the musical event or art or stage performance, or poetry reading or sermon or party or sunset or bird sighting or any event that seems like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s impossible to repeat, even on film or tape or whatever else pretends to capture the reality of a reality that can’t be captured.

Suffice it to say, that he was inspired, and the words that left his mouth came slowly and deliberately, more so than I’d ever heard from him in the almost fifty years I’ve known him, and were shaped perfectly, into the rhythms and refrains of a great work of music, or a great poem.

The refrain began with the memory from his childhood of his father picking up one of his sisters when they were half asleep to carry them to bed, and as their heads rested on his shoulder, saying to them “It’s okay honey, daddy’s got you.” I’m not even certain those were the exact words my nephew quoted, but something close to that, which became the refrain, as he told of himself being picked up and comforted that way, and not just when half asleep, but when he or his sisters were injured, and so on, in a way that captured better what I was trying to say about my brother n my last post.

He even shared the story of one of my other brother’s wakes, when the voice of his father comforted a cousin of his. Only he remembered the way I first shared it better than I did and articulated it better than than I did in my last post!

Anyway, it was all about the reassurance, the safety his father’s voice and presence seemed to represent, or actually create. And he didn’t leave out the fact that they had their problems, or that his father was a “character,” but he reminded us all of what a rock of a presence he was in all our lives, but especially in the life of his wife and children.

And then he ended by sharing that just before his father passed, he asked for a moment alone with him, and then he leaned down to him and rested his head on his father’s shoulder one last time, and said, “It’s okay dad, God’s got you," as his father had always said he had his children over the years, and then added, "You can go now.” And he did.

Believe me, had you been there, like everyone else in that church, which included some folks who’d only known my brother since he moved to Georgia six or seven years ago, or even more recently, but were moved by his strength and his dedication to his family, like them, and the rest of us, you’d have been sobbing by then too.

But the laughs followed. Slowly at first, and then more and more, which is the great heritage of my clan, and perhaps the Irish in general but certainly my branch of the Celts, their great capacity to find the humor in any situation, no matter how painful, until by the end of the several days we all spent together, we could even laugh at the wake itself and the events of the past few days.

My brother would have been laughing the loudest had he been there in the flesh, which I am sure he was in spirit, as well as crying the most. He was never afraid of his feelings, like many of us have been and still are, just as he was never afraid to wear mustard plaid slightly flared golf pants with a wide white patent leather belt, if he felt like it, or to let his big belly hang out over his bathing suit on the beach down the Jersey shore he loved so much,

He wasn’t afraid to be himself, in fact, ever, as far as I can see. But he seemed also to be always willing to sacrifice self to the greater welfare of family. As my nephew-in-law Michael shared with me during a lull in the activities over the last several days, his older boy was and still is pretty much consumed with baseball and about most other things he hasn’t much to say, if anything at all.

So before he came to visit as a boy, my brother, who had no interest in and knew little about the teams his grandson was interested in, would bone up on the scores and the names of the players and have the rest of the family who was at home do the same, to be able to share that with his grandson when he came and make him feel comfortable.

I have my own stories about that. Like the time he and his wife sat through the interview Marlon Brando did with Larry King that time, despite the fact they didn’t feel the way I did about Brando and I’m pretty sure found his interview antics silly at best. Or the time after I first moved back to Jersey and BULLWORTH had just come out on video and because I really dug its message, as well as what Warren Beatty did with it, and Halle Berry, and Amira Baraka playing the chorus, and the rest of the cast, I invited my brother Robert and his wife to my house to watch it with me and my wife.

These are God-fearing, or at least God-loving, Irish Catholics. My brother would never curse in front of women or children, and certainly was not a fan of rap, or May-December romances, or any of the other major elements in the movie. I mean he was a cop when Amira Baraka was still LeRoi Jones, the activist poet who helped lead the “Newark uprising” otherwise known as the Newark “riots” of the late 1960s.

And here’s my brother, with his wife, sitting on my couch, watching a movie in which the dialogue is almost all swearing and cursing and rapping and drugs and booze and sex even if…at least in my eyes..,in the service of a political message I thought was profoundly articulated through the art form of film.

But it only made my brother wonder (as I learned later from my nephew) what the hell I was thinking, and only embarrassed his poor wife, my sister-in-law, as she sat there open mouthed, listening to this torrent of aural abuse.

But he never objected, nor did she, because we were family, and no matter how peculiar my taste might seem to them, they pretended to appreciate, if not exactly the movie, at least the fact that I had invited them to my home to watch it with me and my wife.

Ah, I’ve said enough about all this. I just needed to process it, and the way I have always done that, is to write it out, often in different forms over the course of my life, and I’m still doing it with certain experiences. I’m glad that some of you, like my brother, not only put up with it, but sometimes even appreciate it, without having to pretend to.

As for my brother Robert, the last time I told him “I love you” before he passed, he said, “I know you do, I love you too.” What’s better than that?



Only us two youngest left.

3 comments:

harryn said...

beautiful ...
a precious moment in time ...
thank you for bringing the experiences back to us ...
the progeny of 'characters' move on ...

JIm said...

Michael,

Beautifully said, felt and communicated. You have done alright for a kid from South Orange and OLS. Sr. Gemma, Bishop McCarthy and even Fr. Martin would have been proud.

My best to you and your family. Erin Go Braugh!

Jim McKenna

Anonymous said...

Beautiful dad, got me going all over again, but that's good like Carl said in the post below. I love you and our wacky family and am thinking of us all as I blast the Irish tunes alone in the house for the first time in weeks it seems. The sun is shining the tears are flowing. Perfect. Your first and favorite daughter.