It started with a death on Ash Wednesday. My father had been ill, and on the Monday before Lent, I felt the push to pray that he not be alone. I prayed too—no, I wanted—that my mother, who had spent the last year driving to Orange, Texas, nearly every day to keep him company, would not be robbed of those last few moments of their marriage. I prayed that she would not be alone either.
On Tuesday, Dad took a turn for the worse. When my mother called me, I shared my prayer—said it was my "wish" prayer, and she said it was a good wish.
He passed on Ash Wednesday, with my mother holding his hand, and there were two people with her. My first thought, upon hearing this was, "God, I didn't mean now!"
God had answered my prayer precisely, lavishly, and to the letter, but it took me a few minutes to mumble "Thanks." I'd believed I could channel my recessive English "stiff upper lip" and go about as usual, but my children, husband, and friends thankfully saw through that and packed me up for Texas.
There, I found my siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and countless friends already assembled, waking and waiting. We hugged and ate and talked and answered the doorbell again and again as more food was brought for the table. As a kid, I had always longed to have "everybody" around, and now every time another part of "everybody" came through the door, the burden of grief felt lighter. Dad would have delighted in any of them, and in all of them. We passed around beers and books, and whiskey and stories; many minds were needed to store memories of a man who read more books by himself than all of us, combined.
That night at the rosary, Uncle Steve looked at his brother—meticulously laid out in his Sunday best, and looking more like himself than disease had recently allowed—and shook his head. "The things my brother does to get out of fasting." He quipped, and we all fell apart laughing.
Laughter was a balm for an up-and-down time. Upon first sight of Dad, my interior thought was one of denial: "That's not my Daddy." I noted the word, "Daddy." A little girl's words, and my thoughts were a little girl's thoughts, explaining to the puzzled rest of me, "My daddy has his eyes open and he's smiling." Then a video ran; there was my "Daddy" with his eyes open, smiling at me. I lost it.
Saturday, tired from a night of singing and eating, and stories and hugs and tears, we moved slowly in confused grief. I misplaced my purse. My brother misplaced his wallet and talked about the irony of losing his identity at his father's funeral. We scrambled to the funeral parlor—not to be late to mark his lateness. Because of the nature of our family Church, we parked on the outside away from the parking lot; we could not see people going in, we could not see the number of cars, and so the procession into the church felt unbearably small, much too small. I resisted the impulse to start just pulling people, waving them down from the street, please come, please fill the church for my father. I couldn't bear the idea of empty pews.
I shouldn't have worried. When the doors threw open, it was standing room only.
It reminded me of my wedding.
It sounds counterintuitive but my father's funeral liturgy was a great one; it was a true wedding—earth and heaven joined. There were eight priests, two deacons, one bishop and four nuns, not to mention the rows of Knights and Ladies of the Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem—all robed in black and white with hats and beautiful red crosses. Even the choir was full of friends—people who sang at my first communion, who sang at my wedding. The Church was full to brimming, even at the altar.
On that Saturday, March 8, 2014, in the church of my childhood, I waved goodbye to half of it. Sitting next to my mother, I experienced possibly the happiest, certainly the most beautiful mass I've ever attended in my entire life. That sounds impossible, but there are moments, masses, whole years of masses when we attend and somehow we are distracted and do not "get" it. We do not process the fact that all of Heaven is present. That Saturday, I couldn't miss it, I couldn't stop feeling it; I couldn't stop knowing it.
I wanted to hold on to the solemnity of the moment after receiving Holy Communion, but I couldn't help it; a childish joy kept bubbling up. It felt like a procession, wave upon wave of joy and love made me attuned, hyper-aware. I wanted to look, to be sure I saw everyone, to take everything in, and to remember. I kept reaching out and hugging people. Turning, I saw my cousin in the front row of the balcony, and we smiled. Four hundred feet and two stories separated us, and yet, it all felt so close. Joy poured down over the whole of us and hung heavy like Southeast Texas Beaumont air; the world felt humid with joy; we were awash in it. I had always wanted everyone. "Everyone should be here." Everyone was.