The morning of the memorial I didn’t want to get out of bed. People flew in from around the country to remember my husband and support me, but I didn’t want to face it.
I had previously picked out a funeral home based off of online reviews and the kind face of a white haired man who had been in the business for 60 something years. He was gentle, and he didn’t try to upsell me anything. I knew he would take care of Tim’s body, but I also knew the minute that I saw the “chapel” that I couldn’t bring people there to celebrate my husband. The building was right by a busy highway, the carpet was old and torn and the entire place smelled like chemicals to me. Their chapel a decent sized room filled with pews, but with no religious icons anywhere. Above an empty space that wouldn’t be filled with a casket, extremely artificial lighting peered down on the off-gray floor. The funeral director told me had one colored bulb “designed to make the body look better” and another “to show off the flowers.”
Tim would have hated that place so much that his ghost would have risen just to say, “Fuck this shit.”
So I had a little breakdown until I realized I could have the nice man care for my husband’s body and plan the memorial elsewhere.
I quickly decided on Austin’s largest park, which Tim had spent a lot of time in. When we first moved to the city, him and I would take Eliot and BT swimming and adventuring by the creek. Later it became a 10k training track for Tim and his co-workers, with Eliot in tow. We have taken guests for walks around the river with our dogs, bickered over who’s not doing a good job steering the canoe and attempted to swim in the pool until I squealed about the plants underwater slimy against my legs. There are bad memories in my house, but there are not really any bad memories in the park.
My dad and I picked a spot on Sunday afternoon, a picnic area beneath a shady grove of trees. We weren’t really sure if the area was available to rent or not, and even now after the memorial… I’m still not sure. What I am sure of though, is that I had one friend call the Austin Parks & Rec department far more times than I would have the patience to do so in the pursuit of this picnic area. When we couldn’t get the official word on reserving, I had two other friends set up base camp early in the afternoon as they warded off family picnics with hand-written “Reserved 6/25” signs that were held down with shaving cream cans from their carry on luggage.
I have the best people getting me through this.
Having his memorial at the park meant that I had to actually plan things. I knew it would be causal and I knew there would be no service, but that’s about all that I knew. Memorial ideas came to me in cognitive waves. Our last weekend together in hill country, while we drove along the countryside Tim randomly said “I like sunflowers.” I remembered that, and asked yet another dear friend to bring sunflowers for him. Then I thought of one of my favorite poem’s of all time, and decided to look up an appropriate excerpt from Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman chronicles. When I asked my mom what I should do with these “readings” she suggested a pamphlet people could take, so I designed and printed pamphlets.
“All around me darkness gathers,
Fading is the sun that shone,
We must speak of other matters,
You can be me when I’m gone
Running errands for my husband’s funeral the day before was like swallowing lead a little bit at a time. With each stop, we marked something off the list and the gathering began to take shape. As it did, things became more real. I felt heavier and heavier and heavier. Eventually I had to go “nap” and hide in my room while I selected 155 photos from the past 9 years and just cried and cried.
Then the day came. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but what choice is there? You don’t leave your brother and lifelong friend waiting at the airport. You don’t neglect to write his favorite joke down just because it’s hard. Everything is hard now. You just do it.
So I did it, and it was pretty lovely. I think he was pleased.
After the sun set and we took everything down, I managed to laugh with my friends. They’re funny people, and I was so exhausted and numb from all the decisions and consolations and greetings up to that point that my brain tried to save itself by switching off for a bit. Even though I managed to keep from sobbing the rest of that night, I was sitting there with all of these great people who I had watched struggle through their own relationships for years. They have all recently found the happiness and stability that I shared with Tim for so long, and leaned on their spouse for support during the difficult time of losing their first close friend.
I want happiness for all of them. These are extraordinary people, but as I sat there and watched them… I felt heavy again. With aching eyes, I went home. I was so tired, but could not sleep.
A Postmortem Guide For my eulogist, in advance
Do not praise me for my exceptional serenity.
Can’t you see I’ve turned away
from the large excitements,
and have accepted all the troubles?
Go down to the old cemetery; you’ll see
there’s nothing definitive to be said.
The dead once were all kinds—
boundary breakers and scalawags,
martyrs of the flesh, and so many
dumb bunnies of duty, unbearably nice.
I’ve been a little of each.
And, please, resist the temptation
of speaking about virtue.
The seldom-tempted are too fond
of that word, the small-
spirited, the unburdened.
Know that I’ve admired in others
only the fraught straining
to be good.
Adam’s my man and Eve’s not to blame.
He bit in; it made no sense to stop.
Still, for accuracy’s sake you might say
I oftened stopped,
that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.
And since you know my hardships,
understand that they’re mere bump and setback
against history’s horror.
Remind those seated, perhaps weeping,
how obscene it is
for some of us to complain.
Tell them I had second chances.
I knew joy.
I was burned by books early
and kept sidling up to the flame.
Tell them that at the end I had no need
for God, who’d become just a story
I once loved, one of many
with concealments and late-night rescues,
high sentence and pomp. The truth is
I learned to live without hope
as well as I could, almost happily,
in the despoiled and radiant now.
You who are one of them, say that I loved
my companions most of all.
In all sincerity, say that they provided
a better way to be alone.
From Different Hours by Stephen Dunn published by W. W. Norton & Company 2000