I have been a bit at a loss, wondering how I am supposed to feel and what I am supposed to do these days, in response to the news that Dad has died. In these days – really, in the months since I first recognized that his demise was imminent – I’ve been considering different possibilities. Some of my thinking has been conscious and directed; and some, as I now realize, has been going on more surreptitiously, without my complete awareness.
There are some social boundaries. I would not be welcomed to whoop and cheer Dad’s death in public, even if I were so inclined; and on the other extreme, it would raise eyebrows (especially among those who are familiar with the facts) if I erupted into uncontrollable weeping. Likewise, in my role as a son of the deceased, it behooves me to be present at the funeral, but it might be unseemly for me to convert it into an event about myself, or about something other than Dad – if, for instance, I were to deliver a Mark Antony-style funeral oration: “Friends, Romans, countrymen …”
I rarely saw Dad mix well in an environment like that of the funeral home, so it’s not easy for me to say what role he would prefer for me if he were alive. Often, in his photos at important events (including joyous ones, such as weddings), his face bears a remarkably serious expression. I think he was always afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing – which, if that’s accurate, was a fear hard-earned, as I can testify in the wake of his ”Sieg Heil!” greeting to the parents of my Jewish ex-wife. He really could be remarkably inept in social settings, and I have to guess that, at some point, he became aware of that and lurched to the opposite extreme; hence the somber mien in those photos.
If it weren’t such a serious occasion – if, say, you took those same people in roughly those same Sunday-best clothes and transported them to someone’s parlor for a little after-church get-together – then maybe he would relax somewhat, though I’m still not sure he would be at his ease in anything other than normal everyday duds. I don’t know for a fact that he would actually prefer me to walk into the funeral home, proceed quietly to the casket, and then take a seat and, at most, exchange a few words sotto voce with someone seated at my elbow; but that is surely what he would do, at least until given clear license to loosen up.
The gist of those observations, I guess, is that Dad considered a funeral to be a place where one would have one’s thoughts about the deceased, whether positive, negative, or mixed, and perhaps would share those thoughts at most with a few people at the time, and perhaps more freely with others later. But I did not personally observe Dad in any instances in which he occupied a special position vis-à-vis the deceased, where he would be more than just one among the many who had come to pay their respects. Thus, as in so many things, Dad’s example here leaves a lot of latitude for me to try to figure it out on my own.
Much of the matter, of course, will be decided by those around me. If people at the funeral home, or afterwards, happen to segue into a festive mood of recollection, banter, and story-telling, then I will likely join in on that to some extent. But I don’t know that I have ever seen such a thing at an Indiana funeral, never mind a Lutheran Indiana funeral. So I think we are probably doomed, at least at the event itself, to recreate the very kind of setting that would have made Dad himself most uncomfortable.
All of this, so far, has had to do merely with the way in which I conduct myself at the funeral. That, I am concluding, seems to be almost set in stone.
There are also some larger and more enduring questions of how I will think and have thought about Dad, and how I will live and have lived my life in response to his. Those are too complex to trace out here. There is, however, the remaining question of what my thoughts should be, at least during the next couple of days; and I now see that, while I began this post with the intent of contemplating that question, I was perhaps necessarily subverted into the relatively tedious question of demeanor on the occasion.
Or maybe that is a reflection of how Dad raised me to think of death; maybe I am drawn to its formalities because I learned, to some extent, to underestimate its immensity. My mentor in this matter was the kind of man who would essentially discard a son – sons, I should say – who were inconvenient to him. He would shoot a bird or wring an animal’s neck without a second thought. It was Dad – speaking of his wartime experience, I assume – who casually commented that it bothers you, the first time you kill someone, but then it’s not as bad after that.
It was not that he liked to kill. He took care to distinguish those who, in his observation from the military, were of that type, and I think the distinction was genuine. It was just that death was a casual fact for him. He was always prepared for it – I am sure he was always among the most life-insured, will-witnessed, power-of-attorney-signed people in his entire neighborhood. There was, I think, a certain depressing awareness of mortality in our household, greater than in most, owing partly to this outlook of his (and Mom’s), and partly to our proximity to the cemetery, which we mowed and maintained in various ways over the years. Life was not cheap for us, as if we had lived in the Wild West; but death was certainly a known companion throughout.
As I ponder it in this light, it seems to me that Dad must be in the top five percent of those who manage a nearly seamless transition from life into death. He lived a remarkably long time, and he phased almost imperceptibly from the sometimes unintelligible bluster of his younger years to the growingly inscrutable babble of his decrepitude. I would have to say that he ceased to be clearly and vitally alive some months or years before his medical caretakers finally wrung the last breath out of him. Notwithstanding the sterile limits of what one can achieve in writing, he will be more alive in the minds of those who knew him, as they read his book in the months and years to come, than he has been, in the flesh, for quite some time.
I, myself, have been talking and thinking of Dad as a sort of zombie for a long while now. I have been proceeding, that is, as though I were referring to someone who had already died, given how completely irrelevant and removed from the world he had become. It has seemed to be a reasonable mindset. When your father no longer recognizes you, nor remembers places that were dearest to his heart, then you have to realize that something has changed forever.
So I have long since shed some tears about it. For Dad, opportunity – of the familial kind, especially, but of other kinds as well – was a light-footed adversary, capable of spitting in his eye and then dancing away before he could grasp it. He just never seemed to see it coming. Not to say that he did not have some important successes; he did. And often enough, he knew a bargain when he saw it. But the big-ticket items, the things that make a great life or family or fortune, these were forever the property of someone else. So, as I say, it has been a while since I cried out and dealt with frustration and surrender, with acknowledgment that the game was pretty much up and that there was not going to be a lot more progress in important things, as far as he was concerned.
What I conclude, at the end of this hour of contemplation, is that Dad’s funeral comes at the most natural and yet unnatural time. Naturally, he was winding down and finally expired. If he could have been embalmed and put on a shelf somewhere, though, I think I would have appreciated six months, maybe, or two or three years, before coming to a reckoning in the company of so many who knew him.
At the moment, it seems to me, our perspectives are distorted by the immediacy of his recent incapacity. We are not thinking clearly of Roger Woodcock as the man that he was for six or seven decades. If we had a year to get over that short-term impression of an old man, falling apart in a wheelchair, and to rediscover our more enduring conception of him, I think we would likely have had a more edifying and instructive funereal experience.
Since that is not an option – since we are obliged to stick him in the ground and begin to forget him almost immediately – I guess my conclusion has to be that there is no clear thing I should be thinking or feeling, and no definitive way in which I should be acting, between now and Friday. It is all too much, too soon. I will show up; I will probably see some people whom I have not seen in some years; I will hear many kind words. Most likely, I will spend some time thereafter juggling thoughts of gratitude and recollection, and also of hypocrisy and irony in some of those kind words, given the ways in which Dad inspired or provoked people and vice versa. Certainly it could be interesting.
What I should seek from this hasty and relatively brief processing of a man’s entire life, I guess, is just to gather information, in a researcher’s sense: to keep my own personality out of it, to the extent possible, and to acquire additional perspectives on the person whose day this funeral day will be. The conclusion, then, may be that it would be somewhat presumptuous for me to think that my own mental and emotional baggage, this Friday, will be important or even particularly relevant. This is Dad’s day. It is one of his biggest, even if he is not experiencing it as a living soul, and it will also be, for most of those present, his last.
And now, as I consider it a bit more, there is one more angle worth articulating. If this were my day, I would hope my friends and family would make it a great one for me. Like a politician at a rally, I would want to be pumped up and energized by the cheers and hopes of those who are looking to me for clues. This is not a day for dealing with all the dirt I have swept under the rug. It will have to be dealt with, I know; and I know, too, that there will be some present at the event who will not be able to resist dragging it out on the spot. As an overarching theme, though, without going to the extremes of exaggeration and outright distortion, I would think that this is a time for my best foot to be forward. I would want people to come away from this event with a feeling of hope, with a sense that something important has been achieved.
Roger Woodcock undeniably achieved important things. I know about some of them. Without waiving my right to revisit the full tally of debits and credits, in detail, at a later time, possibly I had better err, this Friday, on the side of blowing a trumpet on his behalf. He was a terribly flawed yet, in many ways, a terribly good man, and I should say so. Or so it seems to me now.
(I originally posted this piece in another blog on November 13, 2007.)