Patricia, who has been married to my father-in-law for twenty-seven years, called last October, on the day after Dennis died.
She asked us to come because she needed to print out a draft of her husband’s obituary, and the printer was out of toner. It was one of the things Dennis would have done for her, like cooking and cajoling her to eat.
We were the dutiful sons, the same ones who took them both out to dinner twice a year for Dennis’ birthday and for Father’s Day. It was the reconnection she permitted, after many years of little contact with Kevin, the only relative from outside Patricia’s family who still spoke to him.
I am the son-in-law: the one who engages Patricia during these dinners, so I know what she can bear. We brought her favorite sweet white wine, and gluten-free egg pie, which I claimed to have baked. Our grief belonged with our own lives, not here in Patricia’s childhood home, and was soon superseded by our concern for her state of mind.
Some years before I met him, Kevin’s father lost a large portion of his intestines to a blood clot; after resectioning, he survived, but was unable to absorb certain nutrients. The deficiencies went all the way to the bone, and while mowing his lawn last fall, he slipped on wet grass and fell down, breaking one brittle leg in several places. He was 68 years old.
He was between jobs and, still wearing a cast that stretched from toe to hip, maneuvered his way into a job interview. It was here in town, but because of the cast, Patricia had to drive him, so there was no furtive visit, as he used to manage in previous years. Less than a week later, he was gone, peacefully, in his sleep.
They had lived in Patricia’s mother’s house for a year or so before Dennis passed away—it was as a dutiful son-in-law, himself, that he had slipped and fallen on his mother-in-law’s wet lawn—but we never visited them there, only in the rented apartment they lived in for most of their marriage.
After a glass of Eiswein, she admitted that she had not yet told anyone in her family that Dennis was gone. That night, we were the closest we’ve ever been. We urged her to call her brothers and sisters. Kevin changed the toner cartridge in her printer, and we went home with plans to meet at the funeral home to see Dennis’ body, and later, at the veteran’s cemetery to make arrangements for his interment. He was going to be cremated.
My father-in-law served for just over two years in the Air Force, during the Viet Nam War era. He was honorably, medically discharged, and so his service entitled him to free medical care for the rest of his life, and a military funeral.
In the funeral home, we gathered in a conference room near the front of the building, meeting one another. These were the relatives that Dennis spent his holidays with, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easter, the summer grilling holidays. This was the family he’d chosen instead of Kevin and his brother and their mother, the people who had post-turkey conversations about books and politics. Yet Kevin was unbothered by this in meeting them. Dennis was gone, but these people held some mysteries they might still reveal to us.
The able-bodied among us were led down some narrow stairs to a small room. I wondered why, of all places, a funeral home was so inaccessible. In the smaller room, on a gurney, lay the body of my father-in-law. The director allowed Kevin to lead, so we were ahead of the press, with Patricia behind, struggling to get her mother inside. There was a great deal of activity around moving the folding chair and Patricia’s mother, who was still proud and dignified, despite her mental condition, into the small room with us, and then positioned close enough so that she could see Dennis’ body.
“It’s Dennis!” Patricia had to explain to her mother, who did not recognize him. “Your son-in-law!”
Eventually she was cajoled into mourning with her daughter. “He loved you, Ma! He was a good son-in-law!”
“He was a good son-in-law,” she sadly repeated. “Poor Dennis.”
The shocks had come so quickly that it took a long time to realize what had brought us to this tiny room. Patricia hadn’t called her family before making the arrangements. She hadn’t paid for a viewing, because she thought she was all alone. We were just supposed to be taking a look before the cremation, not paying our respects. Yet here we all were, dressed for a funeral.
Memorial Day is an occasion to remember those who are gone, in the most forgiving light. We send soldiers to kill, and know they may be killed instead. Dennis escaped Viet Nam. My father did, too. A friend of his went to Canada to dodge the draft: I knew him later as the cut-up father of one of my friends, another mail carrier like my dad. All of our fathers made hard choices that don’t make them look noble, that get them more pageantry than we think they deserve.
My son graduated from high school this month, and Kevin and I flew down to see him. As we did ten years ago, the last time we made this trip, we packed my son, his father, who is my ex-husband, and my current husband, who my son calls his step-father, around some bowls of pho. Our boy is joining the Army.
My heart breaks telling you this, because it’s not what I would have chosen for him. I am a fiercely against his generation’s war, which has been burning since he was a little boy slurping noodles. I reminded him of what he’d said that time—he’d loudly pronounced the Vietnamese menu “gobbledygook,” making all three of us blanch in bad parenting/white guilt—and he smiled faintly, having heard this story before. At 18, he’s a thoughtful, decent young man. When he was ten, he would say shocking things to galvanize our attention. We’ve still never spoken directly about the events in his life that he hoped to distract us all from considering, himself included, or what he was so angry about that he wouldn’t speak to me for more than a year, then was back in our lives again afterward like nothing happened, the prodigal son returned. I need him to return again, so we can have these conversations.
As in all else in life, young people are typically inexperienced in grief. It is mostly old people who attend funerals. People our age show up and we are as out of place as the ones who come to church on high holidays. We don’t know when to rise or kneel, whether we are appropriately dressed, the order of things.
Black sheep relatives are good for some things: we will sometimes show up to bail you out, for one. Patricia had her reasons for feeling sheepish about calling her kin, but her sisters and brothers and their spouses are kind and generous, and knew how to be a family at a time when someone dies. This time, it was in our benefit as well as in Patricia’s that they gathered, and we were sorely grateful.
After the viewing, Patricia’s family took us to lunch, and told us stories about Dennis. They invited us to join them for Christmas, which we did. They seemed to realize that they had taken Dennis into their own family, and in burying him, they would need to host his other kin, if they showed up. The military funeral had this essence, as well, of a military family burying their own, black sheep included.
The funeral was held a month later, at a time when a proper military funeral could be produced. We all gathered once again. We played the parts of the grieving family: the wife who receives the folded flag, all solemnity behind her enormous sunglasses. The precision of young men who folded the flag, riveting our attention for minutes, long enough to make even the most apostate among us wonder at the significance of it all. Dennis did not die serving his country, and he arguably took more than he gave. But this ceremony did not take into account the brevity of his term of service in a war era. Neither was the turnout of relatives about, in any way, the family argument that had isolated Patricia in her first 24 hours of widowhood. I thought it was remarkable enough that I was allowed to be there at all, the same-sex partner of Dennis’ only blood relative, surrounded by my step-mother-in-law’s family, and half of a gay and transgender couple in the front row of a funeral produced by a military that doesn’t ask, forbids telling.
I sat ramrod straight beside my husband, striving not to dishonor his father’s memory, and I wondered about the living men before me. I wondered who among the soldiers there honoring Dennis’ role knew or even suspected anything untoward about his military service. Young and old, they were uniformed the same, these men who had drilled and appeared, on that rainy day, more serious than any of us, because it was us they were honoring. This pageantry in a church of which we are not members was for us, the bereaved, and their best expression of formal grief, an honor they bestowed. Perhaps they are instructed not to wonder. Someday, the flag will be folded over them, and they will want to be covered, not exposed, in their due.
—Photo credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr