When my wife and I were just starting to date seriously, her father died unexpectedly. We were sleeping when she got the call from her mother. I’ll never forget the sound of pain in her voice when she got the news. I was a little surprised when she asked me to go to the funeral with her. I had only met a couple of her family members, and as an awkward 20 year old, the funeral of a loved one was not the ideal situation for meeting and making friendly relations. But of course I went with her, she was hurting and asking me to be with her.
Her relationship with her father was one that I would call unique. He had gotten into a car accident when my wife was in utero. The car flipped and rolled several times, leaving him mentally handicapped. She never had the type of relationship with her father that so many of us have. Still, I have never heard her complain about it. She loved him. I got to meet him a few times. She would would take me to the group home where he lived and we would watch old John Wayne movies and play pool or air hockey with him (he would always cheat). He had an old, slow golf cart that he would ride around the property, chasing geese when available. His mind seemed trapped in a body that couldn’t communicate or move in the ways he wanted.
During one of our visits, we stayed the night at the group home. He was the only patient there and my wife granted the nurse the night off. After we all went to bed, he woke us up. My wife went to check on him and didn’t return for some time. I went out to find her in the kitchen. She said he had pooped the bed and she had to clean it up. I hugged her and told her that I was sorry. She cried. Not because she felt sorry for herself or her father, but because it upset her that people felt sorry for her. That’s why she didn’t come back to bed. Because she knew that I would feel sorry for her and she didn’t want that. That was her father, and she loved him. And he loved her. You could see it. He would always get so excited to see her that he would grab her hands and start kissing them over and over. He couldn’t speak, so this was how he expressed his affection. After a few visits, he started doing the same with me. That got me choked up.
One night, a few months later, he snuck into the kitchen of the group home and tried to eat some bread. He choked on it and died.
The funeral was unlike any other that I have experienced. People seemed almost relieved. These are good people, they were not relieved at his death. They were relieved at his release. His mind was free of his damaged body. They were playing Creedance Clearwater Revival because that was his favorite band and they were looping a slide show of pictures of him. Only, none of the pictures were of him after the accident. My wife’s aunt, his sister, leaned in and whispered to her, “That’s the John I know”. That made my wife cry. She told me later that the comment hurt her because that was not the man she knew. And she wanted people to acknowledge the man he had become. She saw no shame in who he had become. Her aunt meant no harm by the comment, and my wife knew that, and maybe that made it hurt more.
It was a small service of close friends and family. But one man, who no one recognized, wanted to say a few words. He identified himself as a childhood friend of John’s. He said they used to go fishing and goose hunting in Cutbank, MT, where they grew up. They tasted whiskey together and shared good times. He said they didn’t stay in touch after John joined the Navy and later moved to Washington, where he met and married his wife. And got into the accident. He said he heard about the accident and was even aware that John’s group home was not far outside of Cutbank, where he still lived. But he couldn’t bring himself to visit. He said he felt bad about that and apologized. I’m not sure if he was apologizing to John or his family. His stories were short and his thoughts were concise. He had clearly planned, carefully, what he would say. This man made my wife smile during her own father’s funeral. I think it is because he was telling stories about John’s playfulness. About his curiosity and mischievous nature. All traits that did not change after the accident. But I think it is also because he actually talked about life after the accident. He spoke of his personal struggles in trying to justify not seeing his friend because he was afraid that they wouldn’t recognize or know each other. I might be projecting here, but I think he was specifically talking about everyone’s desire not to talk about the “bad” times and just pretend like they never happened. As if those chapters were behind us and we could all go forward now. But the problem is that we all read those chapters. And some really good things, and people, were born during those episodes. And pretending like they never happened is ignoring all the hand kisses and goose chases.
I’m not really sure what the point is here, or why it is on my mind this morning. But I can tell you that when I think about John, I think about his happiness and his playfulness, not his pain. Granted, I never knew and “lost” the man he was before. But one thing is for certain, he didn’t feel sorry for himself.