I had an uneventful childhood. Added to my mother’s conviction that her children were precious was my father’s terrible wariness. He saw peril in everything, disaster was ever at hand. Some mayhem with our name on it lurked around the edges of our neighbourhood waiting for a lapse of parental oversight to spirit us away. In the most innocent of enterprises, he saw a danger. In every football game he saw the ruptured spleen, the death by drowning in every backyard pool, leukaemia in every bruise, broken necks on trampolines, the deadly pox or fever in every rash or bug bite.
It was, of course, the undertaking.
As a funeral director, he was accustomed to random and unreasonable damage. He had learned to fear.
My mother left big things to God. Of her nine children, she was fond of informing us, she had only ‘planned’ one. The rest of us, though not entirely a surprise – she knew what caused it – were gifts from God to be treated accordingly. Likewise, she figured on God’s protection and, I firmly believe, believed in the assignment of guardian angels whose job it was to keep us all out of harm’s way.
But my father had seen, in the dead bodies of infants and children and young men and women, evidence that God lived by the Laws of Nature, and obeyed its statutes, however brutal. Kids died of gravity and physics and biology and natural selection. Car wrecks and measles and knives stuck in toasters, household poisons, guns left loaded, kidnappers, serial killers, burst appendices, bee stings, hard candy chokings, croups untreated – he’d seen too many instances of God’s unwillingness to overrule the natural order which included, along with hurricanes and meteorites and other Acts of God, the aberrant disasters of childhood.
So whenever I or one of my siblings would ask to go here or there or do this or that, my father’s first response was almost always No! He had just buried someone doing the very same thing.
He had just buried some boy who toyed with matches, or played baseball without a helmet on, or went fishing without a life preserver, or ate the candy that a stranger gave them. And what the boys did that led to their fatalities matured as my brothers and sisters and I matured, the causes of their deaths becoming subtly interpersonal rather than cataclysmic as we aged. The stories of children struck by lightning were replaced by narratives of unrequited love gone suicidal, teenagers killed by speed and drink or overdosed on drugs and hordes of the careless but otherwise blameless dead who’d found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My mother, who had more faith in the power of prayer and her own careful parenting, would often override his prohibitions. ‘Oh, Ed,’ she would argue over dinner, ‘leave them be! They’ve got to learn some things for themselves.’ Once she told him, ‘don’t be ridiculous, Ed’ when he’d refused me permission to spend the night at a friend’s house across the street. ‘What!’ she scolded him. ‘Did you just bury someone who died of a night spent at Jimmy Shryock’s house?’
He regarded my mother’s interventions not as contrarieties, but as the voice of reason in a world gone mad. It was simply the occasional triumph of her faith over his fear. And when she stepped into the fray with her powerful testimony, he reacted as the drunken man does to the cold water and hot coffee, as if to say: Thanks, I needed that.
But his fear was genuine and not unfounded. Even for suburban children who were loved, wanted, protected, doted over, there were no guarantees. The neighbourhood was infested with rabid dogs, malarial mosquitoes, weirdos disguised as mailmen and teachers. The worst seemed always on the brink of happening as his daily rounds informed him. For my father, even the butterflies were suspect.
So while my mother said her prayers and slept the sound sleep of a child of God, my father was ever wakeful, ever vigilant, ever in earshot of a phone, in case the funeral home should call in the middle of the night, and a radio that monitored police and fire calls. In my childhood I can recall no ordinary day he was not up and waiting for me and my siblings to awaken. Nor can I remember any night I lived at home, until I was 19, when he was not awake and waiting for our arrival home.
Every morning brought fresh news of overnight catastrophes he’d heard on the radio. And every night brought stories of the obsequies, sad and deliberate, which he directed. Our breakfasts and dinners were populated by the widowed and heartsore, the wretched and bereft, among them the parents permanently damaged by the death of a child. My mother would roll her eyes a little bit and dole out liberties against his worry. Eventually we were allowed to play hardball, go camping, fish alone, drive cars, date, ski, open checking accounts and run the other ordinary developmental risks – her faith moving mountains his fear created.
‘Let go,’ she would say. ‘Let God.’
Once she even successfully argued on behalf of my older brother Dan’s BBGun, a weapon which he promptly turned against his younger siblings, outfitting us in helmet and leather jacket and instructing us to run across Eaton Park while he practised his marksmanship. Today he is a colonel in the Army and the rest of us are gun-shy.
Far from indifferent, my mother left the business of Life and Death to God in His heaven. This freed her to tend to the day-to-day concerns of making sure we lived up to our potential. She was concerned with ‘character’, ‘integrity’, ‘our contribution to society’ and ‘the salvation of our souls’. She made no secret of her belief that God would hold her personally accountable for the souls of her children – a radical notion today – so that her heaven depended on our good conduct.
For my father, what we did, who we became, were incidental to the tenuous fact of our being: That We Were seemed sufficient for the poor worried man. The rest, he would say, was gravy.
There were, of course, near misses. After the usual flus, poxes and measles, we entered our teen years in the Sixties. Pat was sucker-punched in a bar fight by a man who broke a beer bottle over his head. Eddie drove off a bridge and crashed his car into the riverbank and walked away unscathed. He told our parents that another car, apparently driven by an intoxicant, had run him off the road. We called it ‘Eddie’s Chappaquiddick’, privy as only siblings are to our brother’s taste for beer and cocaine. Julie Ann went through the windshield of a friend’s car when the friend drove into a tree and, except for some scalpline lacerations and scars, lived to tell about it. Brigid took too many pills one night in combination with strong drink and what her motivation was remained a mystery for years, known only to my mother. For my part, I fell off a third-storey fire-escape in my third year of college, broke several Latin-sounding bones, fractured my pelvis and compressed three vertebrae but never lost consciousness. My English professor and mentor, the poet Michael Heffernan, was first down the stairs and out the door to where I had landed. I must have appeared somewhat dazed and breathless. ‘Did you hit your head?’ he kept asking once he had determined I was alive. ‘What day is it?’ ‘Who is the President of the United States?’ To assure him I had not done brain damage, I gave out with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – a moving rendition I was told later, marred only by my belching through the couplet where your man says ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ Then I puked, not from the fall but the J.W. Dant bourbon that was credited with saving my life. I had been sufficiently limbered up, it was reasoned, by generous doses of Kentucky sour mash, to have avoided permanent affliction.
In the hospital I woke to a look on my father’s face I shall always remember – a visage distorted by rage and relief, at war with itself. And by amazement at the menagerie of friends and fellow revellers who accompanied me to hospital. While Professor Heffernan could affect the upright citizen in tweeds and button-downs, not so Walt Houston who studied physics and comparative religion and lived most of the school year in a tree somewhere on the edge of the campus and scavenged for food scraps in the student union. Nor Myles Lorentzen who successfully failed his draft physical after the ingestion of massive doses of caffeine – pot after pot of black coffee followed by the eating whole of a carton of cigarettes. Later, Myles would do hard time in prison for the illegal possession of marijuana. A month after his release they made possession a misdemeanour, punishable by a twenty-dollar fine. Worse still, Glenn Wilson whose only utterance after a six-pack of beer was always ‘Far out, man!’ which he would say, for no apparent reason, at the most inappropriate of times. Harmless drunks and ne’er-do-wells, my father looked a little suspicious at my choice of friends.
My mother thanked God I had not been killed, then fixed her eyes on me in a way it seemed she’d had some practice at – casting the cold eye of the long-suffering in the face of a boozy loved one. My father had quit drinking the year before. Joined AA. Began going to meetings. My brothers and I had been a little surprised by this as we had never seen him drunk before. I had overheard my mother’s sister once, complaining aloud about my father’s drinking. I must have been six or eight years old. I marched down to Aunt Pat’s on the next block and told her outright that my father wasn’t a drunk. And once, the Christmas after his father had died, I heard him and my mother come home late. He was raving a little. I thought it must be grief. He insisted the doctor be called. He said he was having a heart attack. The doctor, I think trying to cover for him, behaved as if there was something wrong other than drink. In any case, by the time I’d taken my dive off the balcony, my father had a year’s sobriety under his belt and should have been able to recognise an inebriate when he saw one. But instead of a curse, he saw blessing: his son, some broken but reparable and alive.
Now they are both dead and I reckon a fixture in my father’s heaven is the absence of any of his children there, and a fixture in my mother’s is the intuition that we will all follow, sooner or later but certainly.
We parent the way we were parented. The year they began to make real sense to me was 1974. In February the first of my children was born. In June we purchased the funeral home in Milford. I was a new parent and the new undertaker in a town where births and deaths are noticed. And one of the things I noticed was the number of stillbirths and foetal deaths we were called on to handle. There was no nearby hospital twenty years ago; no medical office buildings around town. And the prenatal care was not what it should be, and in addition to the hundred adult funerals we handled every year in those days, we would be called on to take care of the burial of maybe a dozen infants – babies born dead, or born living but soon dead from some anomaly, and several every year from what used to be called crib death and is now called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS.
I would sit with the moms and dads of these babies – dead of no discernible cause – they simply forgot to breathe, trying to make some sense of all of it. The fathers, used to protecting and paying, felt helpless, the mothers seemed to carry a pain in their innards that made them appear breakable. The overwhelming message on their faces was that nothing mattered anymore, nothing. We would arrange little wakes and graveside services, order in the tiny caskets with the reversible interiors of pink and blue, dust off the ‘baby bier’ on which the casket would rest during the visitation and shrink all the customs and accoutrements to fit this hurt.
When we bury the old, we bury the known past, the past we imagine sometimes better than it was, but the past all the same, a portion of which we inhabited. Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort.
But burying infants we bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits, no known ends and the little infant graves that edge the corners and fence-rows of every cemetery are never quite big enough to contain that grief. Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams.
And I remember in those first years as a father and a funeral director, new at making babies and at burying them, I would often wake in the middle of the night, sneak into the rooms where my sons and daughter slept and bend to their cribside to hear them breathe. It was enough. I did not need astronauts or presidents or doctors or lawyers. I only wanted them to breathe. Like my father, I had learned to fear.
And as my children grew, so too the bodies of dead boys and girls I was called on to bury – infants becoming toddlers, toddlers becoming schoolchildren, children becoming adolescents, then teens, then young adults whose parents I would know from the Little League or Brownies or PTA or Rotary or Chamber of Commerce. And because I would not keep in stock an inventory of children’s caskets, I’d order them, as the need arose, in sizes and half sizes from two foot to five foot six, often estimating the size of a dead child, not yet released from the county morgue, by the sizes of my own children, safe and thriving and alive. And the caskets I ordered were invariably ‘purity and gold’ with angels on the corners and shirred crepe interiors of powdery pink or baby blue. And I would never charge more than the wholesale cost of the casket and throw in our services free of charge with the hope in my heart that God would, in turn, spare me the hollowing grief of these poor parents.
There were exceptions to the ‘purity and gold’. Once a man whose name I remember shot his two children, ages eight and four, while their mother waited tables up in town. Then he shot himself. We laid him out in an 18-gauge steel with the Last Supper on the handles and his daughter and his son in a matching casket together. The bill was never paid. She sold the house, skipped town. I never pursued it.
And one Christmas twin six-year-olds fell through the ice on the river that divides this town. It ran through their backyard and no one knows if they went in together or one tried to save the other. But the first of the brothers was found the same day and the next one was found two days later, bobbed up downstream after the firemen broke up the ice by the dam. We put them in the one casket with two pillows, foot to foot – identical in their new Oshkosh By Gosh jeans and plaid shirts their mother had mail-ordered from Sears for Xmas. Their father, a young man then, aged overnight and died within five years of nothing so much as sorrow. Their mother got cancer and died after that of grief metastasised. The only one left, the twins’ older brother, who must be nearing thirty now, is long gone from this place.
And I remember the poor man with the look of damage on him whose wife strangled their eight-year-old son with a belt. Then she wrote a 14-page suicide note, explaining why she felt her son, who had been slow to read, faced a lifetime of ridicule and failure she felt she was freeing him from. Then she took three dozen pills, lay down beside the boy and died herself. First he selected a cherry casket and laid them out together on it, the boy at rest under his mother’s arm. But before the burial, he asked to have the boy removed from the mom’s casket and placed in one of his own and buried in his own grave. I did as he instructed and thought it was sensible.
So early on I learned my father’s fear. I saw in every move my children made the potentially lethal outcome. We lived in an old house next door to the funeral home. Still do. The children grew up playing football in the side yard, roller-skating in the parking lot, then skateboarding, riding bikes, then driving cars. When they were ten, nine, six and four, their mother and I divorced. She moved away. I was ‘awarded’ custody – four badly saddened kids I felt a failure towards. And though I was generally pleased with the riddance that failure provides – the marriage had become a painful case – I was suddenly aware that single parenting meant, among other things, one pair of eyes to watch out for one’s children with. Not two. One pair of ears to keep to the ground. One body to place between them and peril, one mind. There was less conflict and more worry. The house itself was dangerous: poison under every sink, electrocution in every appliance, radon in the basement, contagion in the kitty litter. Having been proclaimed by the courts the more ‘fit’ parent, I was determined to be one.
I would rise early. Make the sack lunches while they ate cereal, then drive them to school. I had a housekeeper who came at noon to do the laundry and clean and be there when the youngest came home from kindergarten. I’d be at the office from nine-thirty until four o’clock, then come home to get dinner ready – stews mostly, pasta, chicken and rice. They never ate as much as I prepared. Then there was homework and dance classes and baseball then bed. And when it was done, when they were in bed and the house was ahum with its appliances, washer and dryer and dishwasher and stereo, I’d pour myself a tumbler of Irish whiskey, sit in a wingback chair and smoke and drink and listen – on guard for whatever it was that would happen next.
Most nights I passed out in the chair, from fatigue or whiskey or from both. I’d crawl up to bed, sleep fitfully and rise early again.
The poor cousin to fear is anger.
It is the rage that rises in us when our children do not look both ways before running into busy streets. Or take to heart the free advice we’re always serving up to keep them from pitfalls and problems. It is the spanking or tongue lashing, the door slammed, the kicked dog, the clenched fist – the love, Godhelpus, that hurts: the grief. It is the war we wage against those facts of life over which we have no power, none at all. It makes for heroes and histrionics but it is no way to raise children.
And there were mornings I’d awaken heroic and angry, hungover and enraged at the uncontrollable facts of my life: the constant demands of my business, the loneliness of my bed, the damaged goods my children seemed. And though it was anything but them I was really angry at, it was the kids who’d get it three mornings out of every five. I never hit, thank God, or screamed. The words were measured out, meticulous. I seethed. After which I would apologise, pad their allowances and curry forgiveness the way any drunk does with the ones they love. Then I stopped drinking and while the fear did not leave entirely, the anger subsided. I was not ‘in recovery’ so much as I was a drunk who didn’t drink and eventually came to understand that I was more grateful than resentful for the deliverance.
But faith is, so far as I know it, the only known cure for fear – the sense that someone is in charge here, is checking the IDs and watching the borders. Faith is what my mother said: letting go and letting God – a leap into the unknown where we are not in control but always welcome. Some days it seems like stating the obvious. Some days it feels like we are entirely alone.
Here is a thing that happened here. I just buried a young girl whose name was Stephanie, named for St Stephen, the patron of stonemasons, the first martyr. She died when she was struck by a cemetery marker as she slept in the back scat of her parents’ van as the family was driving down the interstate on their way to Georgia. It was the middle of the night. The family had left Michigan that evening to drive to a farm in Georgia where the Blessed Mother was said to appear and speak to the faithful on the 13th of every month. As they motored down the highway in the dark through mid-Kentucky, some local boys, half an hour south, were tipping headstones in the local cemetery for something to do. They picked one up that weighed about 14 pounds – a stone. What they wanted with it is anyone’s guess. And as they walked across the overpass of the interstate, they grew tired of carrying their trophy. With not so much malice as mischief, they tossed it over the rail as the lights of southbound traffic blurred below them. It was at this moment that the van that Stephanie’s father was driving intersected with the stolen marker from the local cemetery. The stone was falling earthwards, at 32 feet per second. The van was heading south at 70 miles per hour. The stone shattered the windshield, glanced off of Stephanie’s father’s right shoulder, woke her mother riding in the passenger seat and, parting the space between the two front seats, struck Stephanie in the chest as she lay sleeping in the back seat. She had just traded place with her younger brother who cuddled with his two other sisters in the rear seat of the van. It did not kill Stephanie instantly. Her sternum was broken, her heart bruised beyond repair. A trucker stopped to radio for help but at 2 a.m. in No-where, Kentucky on a Friday morning, such things take time. The family waited by the roadside reciting the rosary as Stephanie gasped for air and moaned. They declared her dead at the hospital two hours later. Stephanie’s mother found the stone in the back scat and gave it to the authorities. It said RESERVED FOSTER and was reckoned to be a corner marker from the Foster Lot in Resurrection Cemetery.
Sometimes it seems like multiple choices.
A: It was the Hand of God. God woke up one Friday the 13th and said ‘I want Stephanie!’ How else to explain the fatal intersection of bizarre events. Say the facts slowly, they sound like God’s handiwork. If the outcome were different, we’d call it a miracle.
Or B: It wasn’t the Hand of God. God knew it, got word of it sooner or later but didn’t lift a hand because He knows how much we’ve come to count on the Laws of Nature – gravity and objects in motion and at rest – so He doesn’t fiddle with the random or deliberate outcomes. He regrets to inform us of this, but surely we must understand His position.
Or C: The Devil did it. If faith supports the existence of Goodness, then it supports the probability of Evil. And sometimes, Evil gets the jump on us.
Or D: None of the above. Shit happens. That’s Life, get over it, get on with it.
Or maybe E: All of the above. Mysteries – like decades of the rosary – glorious and sorrowful mysteries.
Each of the answers leaves my inheritance intact – my father’s fear, my mother’s faith. If God’s Will, shame on God is what I say. If not, then, shame on God. It sounds the same. I keep shaking a fist in the Almighty face asking: Where were you on the morning of the 13th? The alibi changes every day.
Of course the answers, the ones that faith does not require, and are not forthcoming, would belong to Stephanie’s parents and the hundreds I’ve known like them over the years.
I’ve promised Stephanie’s headstone by Christmas – actually for St Stephen’s Day, December 26th. The day we all remember singing ‘Good King Wenceslaus went out’. Stephen was accused of blasphemy and stoned in 35 AD.
When I first took Stephanie’s parents to the cemetery, to buy a grave for their daughter, her mother stood in the road and pointed to a statue of the Risen Christ. ‘I want her over there,’ she said, ‘at the right hand of Jesus.’ We walked across the section to an empty, unmarked space underneath the outstretched granite arm of Christ. ‘Here,’ Stephanie’s mother said, her wet eyes cast upwards into the grey eyes of Christ. Stephanie’s father, his eyes growing narrow, was reading the name on the neighbouring grave. FOSTER is what it read. It was cut in stone.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.