There’s a hum in the air in a room with a casket. More like a low pitched drone; inaudible to most people. But I notice it: as if there are a thousand whispering angels.
We stood in the small space of the funeral home in Pittsburgh, Dave’s father lying so still in that box of a bed, looking out of place against the tufted silk. However surreal it seems, I know it is likely good for us to see the ones we love this way when they are done with their bodies. We need to know that they are gone, and the coldness of the shell testifies of the warmth of the soul. I just feel a great tenderness toward my faith at times like this, when it is not hard for me to imagine a spirit in flight. I imagine how I might feel without that faith, understanding it is a gift, and I am always sent to my figurative knees in gratitude that I believe. In my imaginings the place of non-belief is so painfully empty, I’ve concluded that even if I didn’t truly believe I would try to pretend just to be out of that place. If I die and find out I was wrong, well then my life would have been happier in the pretending. So I guess I prefer erring on the side of belief, if nothing else, because it makes living taste sweeter.
In that space of juxtaposition; where grief meets celebration; where loss greets a river of long unseen friends and relatives; where anticipation dances with memory; and the taste of tears mixes with the freshness of freshly cut roses; that is where we married the emotions of excitement and sorrow.
“Uncle Jack! Aunt Pat!” We were so happy to see them. But so sad to have to see them here.
Uncle Jack is David’s father’s only brother. Two or three years older than Don, he still lived in Saginaw where he was a pharmacist with his own drug store; you know, the classic drug store with the soda fountain and shelves of penny candy, where the smell of bubble gum mixed with the distinct scent of medicine and molded rubber, where Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Moon River play over a mono sound system in the back of the store. Dave saw his Uncle Jack’s small family every year at Thanksgiving, when they made the nine hour trip from Pittsburgh to Grandma and Grandpa Connors’ tiny half of a duplex on the corner of Elm Street in Saginaw. A cozy family feast steaming with memory.
I had only been with Jack and Pat a few times. Since Dave’s grandparents had died, we didn’t stop in Saginaw much. But they were there when Jill was married on the beach in Tawas, and when Helen died.
Uncle Jack had that same warmth Dave’s dad had; the general kindness in his eyes, and the friendly greeting for all.
The first time I met Dave’s parents I was so nervous: eighteen years old and about to take their beautiful son away from them. We were newly engaged, and it was Christmastime. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway, his mom trying her hardest to be excited to meet me; his little sister Chelle being a great comfort to me because at ten years old she naturally had the heart of a child. As we stood there talking, Dave’s dad came into the room, took my hand, drew me in, kissed my cheek, and I loved him from the start.
So when we saw Uncle Jack walk in the room at the funeral home that same feeling of welcome came bubbling up and it made me miss Dad all the more. I find it so interesting how we can be in such pain with grief, but still able to laugh. And we did laugh with Uncle Jack. Not in any irreverent way. In a way of reminiscence. I pulled our son John over to greet his great uncle.
“John Connors,” I said, “You remember John Connors, don’t you?”
Of course they knew each other; I just wanted to play with those words.
I turned to Jack, saying that I assumed Jack was short for John (even though in reality Jack is no shorter).
“Actually, my birth name was Jack. My mother named me Jack. But when I decided to leave school and sign up for service in the Second World War, I was too young to register without a release. My high school principal, who was also our priest, had to sign for me in order to enlist. In the space for my name he wrote John Connors. I told him my name was actually Jack, and the priest said, ‘Son, you’re going off to war. You might not return. You’ll need all the help heaven can give you. As far as I know there are no Catholic saints with the name of Jack. But there is a Saint John.’ ”
There are, in fact, a number of St. John’s. It’s a good name to take at any age.
Dave and I stopped in Saginaw a few years ago after a trip to Michigan in October, to close up the cottage for the winter. We called the Connors’ home from our cell phone. Aunt Pat answered. She said Uncle Jack would be just about finishing up a shift at the drug store. He was close to eighty years old.
We walked into the store, back to the pharmacy counter, and asked for him. He came out in his white coat, saw us, and that same radiant smile twinkled from his eyes, the way it did from Dave’s dad that day we met: that uncontrived enthusiasm that makes people feel important even if they aren’t. That kind of twinkle is ageless. Jack has it still. And though Don’s eyes were closed to all the world that day we buried him, I think somewhere not too far away they are twinkling still.