Sunday, July 19, 2009

Oy Vey, Maria!

Founded in 1927, St. Turibius Catholic Church stands at the corner of 57th Place and Karlov Avenue in a well manicured neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. A formidable yellow brick building, the church survives in Chicago’s changing demographics by simultaneously serving two distinct yet similar groups. These groups are reflected by the two editions of the Catholic newspaper that can be found on a table in the rear of the narthex, one edition printed in Spanish and the other in Polish. There was not an English edition to be found.

I found myself standing in front of St. Turibius at 11:00 a.m. last Friday morning, waiting for the contingent of pall bearers to carry Mr. Hallin’s casket up the steep concrete steps leading to the doors of the church. I wondered aloud whether or not a century earlier some sexton looked at a co-worker and asked, “Paul, help me carry this dead guy, would ya?” That earned me a few chuckles and a few more stares of disbelief. It wasn’t too out of line. The casket was a metal box painted to look like brown paper wrapping tied with twine. The words “Express Delivery” were painted along the lower edge, and “Return to Sender” was stamped in large red letters across the lid. My friend Butch stood next to me, trying to express his gratitude for my trip to Chicago. He spent the rest of the time just shaking his head in disbelief over the events of the last two weeks. I wanted to tell him about Matthew 25:40, "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” but I could not for the life of me recall the verse. His father helped me at a time in my life when I really needed help. Even if he hadn’t, I would have made the trip to help my friend.

Once inside the church, after the funeral rituals that are inserted into the Introductory Rites, I went in search of a Bible. There wasn’t a Bible to be found, in Spanish or Polish or English, in the book racks on the pews. This really wasn’t a surprise. If Catholics are anything, they are Bible poor. I discovered an old Bible on a shelf in a cloak room off the south end of the narthex. The shelf was on top of a coat rack that contained a selection of red sport coats used by the ushers at weekend services. Next to them were metal baskets on long poles, used for the collection. This is traditional Catholicism from when I was a kid. I need not have bothered searching. The very text that I was looking for was in the Gospel reading for the service. God has a way of providing when we least expect it.

A rather long eulogy started after the Gospel reading, and it was at that point that I ducked out the back of the church, climbed into my car, and drove to a local supermarket to get something to eat. I hadn’t eaten all morning, and I seriously thought that I would become ill if I didn’t get something in my stomach. I made it back in time to hear the sermon that immediately followed the eulogy. That meant that I did not miss the “Ave Marie.” I wanted to hear it, because my mother volunteered to sing. The old gal’s still got some pipes. Even at 67, mom can yodel. The previous night my father and I chuckled over using a pencil to cross-out each reference to “Ave” in her sheet music and substitute the words “Oy vey!” We might have, too, if her copy of the sheet music wasn’t the same copy that she’s used since she was 18. With the proper training and support, mom could have sung professionally.

Once outside the church, I stood with Butch while his father was placed in the hearse. Butch looked like he was going to crack. I gave him a gentle nudge and offered to tell him dirty jokes all the way to the cemetery if he rode in my car. That elicited the first genuine laugh of the day from a man under considerable emotional strain; although, if truth were told, I could not have thought of a single ribald one-liner if my life depended on it. So, part three of the four part funeral began with a 20 mile drive to the cemetery at the break-neck speed of 25 m.p.h. A graveside ceremony followed, and we all stood and watched at the sextons filled the grave. They quickly and quietly went about their work, finishing their job a little before 3:00 p.m. It still amazes me how fast a casket can be lowered into the ground and the grave filled with gravel and dirt. We all climbed back into our cars for a trip to the banquet hall a scant three miles from the church, for the traditional funeral banquet. I sat between my mom and my brother and sister-in-law, enjoying a nice visit and decent food before extending my final condolences to Butch and his family and heading out into the five p.m. rush-hour traffic and the start of a nine hour drive home. I arrived in Apathy a little before 2:00 a.m.

Closed casket funerals are difficult. Both Butch and his sister Kelly struggled with the fact that they could not view their father one last time. Closure was, for both of them, difficult to obtain. I strongly urged Butch not to ask the funeral director to open the casket to view his father, a desire that he privately shared with me the night before. I convinced him that with the condition of his father’s remains, he’d never be able to erase that view from his mind when in the future he thought of his father. Blessedly, he heeded that advice.

There is nothing better than returning home to your family after a long trip, especially a trip like last week’s journey. The Boss remained awake until I returned home. We visited until three in the morning, 20 hours after I awoke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee at my parents’ house, talking like we had not seen each other in months. That ended the journey that began 48 hours earlier, when the Captain awakened me before my alarm rang by climbing into my bed and placing her head on my pillow. I sat up in bed, heard the Boss say, “Turn off your alarm before you leave,” and decided, “Ah, I might as well get going.”

Few of my friends and even fewer of my family understand why I live in Kansas with my wife, three children, two dogs, a cat, three chickens and four fish. It’s hard to put into words why this is the best place for me, or the feeling of being rewarded when my best friend returns home from work in the evening or the kids rush to give me hug after I’ve run to the store for milk. There is nothing like a funeral to remind you to cherish the blessings that you have while you have them, because the entire time I stood watching Mr. Hallin’s casket being lowered into the ground I kept hearing a voice in the back of my head saying, “To this end we must all come.” And I pray that that doesn’t come for a long, long time.


CrossView said...

I'm happy to know you made it back safely!

There's nothing like an old friend to help you through the rough times. Glad Butch had you....

Kathleen said...

Last paragraph...beautiful!

And, while I hate to use the same word twice, "Ave Maria" is one of the most beautiful songs...I would have loved to have heard your mother sing it.

jedijson said...

(Still chuckling at "Oy vey Maria."

Glad to see you got back safe and sound.

Great advice to Butch. It's why I don't like open casket funerals. I'd rather just remember them the way I last saw them than the way they look in the casket.

Anonymous said...

I can't even imagine what your friend and his family are going through right now. Its difficult enough to lose a parent, but in such a horrible way, would be awful to bear. His family is definitely in my prayers!
Thank goodness you were able to help him out in his time of need!! I'm glad that you made it home safely! Tell the Boss hi!