Season's grieving

Shedding light on a circle dark with sorrow

Shedding light on a circle dark with sorrow

December 23, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

Funny story. So, I'm home the week after Thanksgiving for my uncle's funeral.

(No, really. It gets better. And, unfortunately, worse. Much, much worse.)

It's a rough time for the family - my mother's brother Jim had been in and out of the hospital for a month when he was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer the day before Thanksgiving.

He was my grandparents' firstborn; Mom's big brother; Dad's best friend.

Day after Thanksgiving we're in a hospital room in Westfield, Mass. Jim's roommate must have been a lumberjack with the zzzzzzzs he's sawing.

My uncle doesn't look good - much too thin, clearly uncomfortable and morphine drip control within arm's reach - and though no one wants to say it we all know this snowy Friday afternoon is the last time I'll see my godfather again.


He dies on Nov. 28; my wife and I fly home the 30th for a Dec. 1 wake and Dec. 2 funeral. I am a pallbearer.

I've got my new suit on, looking sharp for the big man, a longtime teacher who traded in a classroom for a greasy spoon more than 20 years ago.

It's cold outside. We've guided the casket back to the hearse after the service, and we're to escort the casket to the funeral home, where we'll load Jim's body into a mausoleum until he is buried in April.

('Mausoleum' my foot. This sucker is nothing more than a white garage with concrete floor and racks for caskets to bide their time while the cemetery is closed for the winter.)

For reasons unexplained, a gentleman from the funeral home tells me, pallbearer driver, to roll down the window of my grandparents' gray Cadillac and back the car up in preparation for leaving the church. My assumption is he will be aside the vehicle, telling me when to stop.

But no. ... how very wrong a man can be.

(A side note: On the few occasions I have been able to drive this car it has been with grandparents in tow. Normally, driving is second nature; with Grandma and Grandpa, it becomes an obscene endurance test of wills, each mile per hour above 40 feeling like a jump into light speed. Stress is performing a solo in front of a roomful of strangers. THIS is performing a solo in front of a roomful of strangers from the Metropolitan Opera without out any formal training five hours after having a tonsilectomy.)

I gently shift the car into reverse and ease my foot off the brake.

Back I go, slowly, ever so slowly. ... Hearse not visible in either side mirror. ... back farther. ... little bit more. ... Big bulky pallbearers blocking rearview mirror. ... just a little more. ... little more. ... where is that guy, any-



Yes, sports fans, that was exactly what you think it was. I have successfully transformed the Our Lady of the Lake Church driveway from solemn mourning ground to bumper car rink.

Funeral home man is no where in sight. Maybe he's under the car.

Mortified, I pop that Caddy into drive and spring forward with the reflexes of a jungle cat. Reflexes, I might add, that were nowhere to be found mere moments before.

Minutes later, I'm following the hearse to the cemetery, checking my mirrors constantly and occasionally catching a glimpse of my suddenly ashen complexion in the mirror. Through my mind runs the same thought on an endless loop:

"I front-ended my uncle's hearse and my aunt's gonna kill me. I front-ended my uncle's hearse and my aunt's gonna kill me. I front-ended. ... is there such a thing as front-ending?... I front-ended my uncle's hearse. ..."

Lucky for me, no serious damage to the Cadillac. Just a few easily overlooked scrapes.

I mention this story, not because I enjoy sharing my flair for physical comedy with a Tri-State audience, but because less than an hour later my father - who just finished eulogizing his best friend, among the most difficult/emotional/draining things he's ever had to do - nearly head-butts me convulsing in laughter upon hearing it.

Before coming home for Thanksgiving I had not been home since June; this is my second trip north in less than two weeks and despite the sadness of the occasion I at least have the opportunity to share it with family, taking their minds off grief with an ill-timed career change to stunt driver.

When it seems all joy has been sucked out of the season, when hearts are heavy and tears all too plentiful, there is still a stitch of silver to be found.

The easy choice would be to stay away, isolate, avoid the sorrow and pain etched on parents', grandparents' faces. But sometimes staying away stings more than gamely facing the dark time.

I've missed my share of happy holidays the last few years. And I've gotten by, made up for it in other ways.

Yeah, this season will probably be more gloom than glam; already has, really. But I'm as anxious to return to north-central Connecticut as I've ever been, to be with family and maybe take their minds off of the hollow feeling of various sizes in all of us.

Even if it means enduring a couple of days of questions about when I'm opening my driving school.

Kevin Clapp is a writer in Lifestyle.,/I> He has an accident-free driving record - honest. Send e-mail to

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