Kentucky is unendingly interesting to me. I’m perfectly happy to spend all my time here. It is composed of many things that are unsurprising, predictable …pedestrian even. Still, it combines its un-exotic components and its people in small ways that don’t change the world, but delight me, or disappoint me, or both. Whatever, I have never not been interested.
A friend of mine died.
I can’t say I knew her well, even though she was one of my ex-wives – I have many ex-wives from the stage.
We did one show together. For about seven weeks we explored Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT. She was bright, quick, supportive, intuitive, and enthusiastic. As far I knew that was all she was and it was all good. I can assume she had bad days and moments, and possessed the same weaknesses and peccadilloes endemic to the species, but I didn’t spend enough time with her to know. I only saw the pleasant and the productive. AND I witnessed over the ensuing years the beneficent effect she seemed to have on my other friends and their children.
I knew enough to know she made the world better. S’enough.
Her funeral was being held in a small town about an hour south of my home.
It was a fine summer day. Sunny, warm and humid (but not stifling). Ample rain for the season meant everything green was in full celebration. It was a day for ignoring the interstate highway and instead, meandering to my destination on smaller state roads. Kentucky does state roads pretty well, asphalt being the life blood of politics in the state. Along the way there were discoveries, perhaps not on the scale of the first sights of Daniel Boone on his wanderings but happier (and safer) discoveries for me.
- The box turtle precariously plowing his way across the highway with the same confused alacrity of newly hatched sea turtles on the beach on Sullivan’s Island. I made a mental note to once more drag out my old Pogo books and ponder the adventures of Churchy LaFemme when I returned home.
- I felt I had been properly admonished to; “Be prepared! The Lord is coming!!” The spray-painted 4X8 sign was effective, though it occurred to me that another line might have been added; “And she’s pissed!!!”
- There appeared a yellow traffic sign like those signs that warn of “Deer Crossing” and “Falling Rock”. This one showed an icon of a horse and buggy. I was just registering the import of the sign when I popped over a rise and there in front of me was the sign made manifest; a real-life horse and carriage toting two bonnet-ed heads. It took me a moment to radically reduce my speed to 10 mph to prevent the acquiring of some intriguing, if gruesome, hood ornaments. Though I passed them carefully, the bonnets were still startled. My hybrid runs silently.
- Trumpet vine was rampant along the fence rows. It has become in these days of warmer temperatures and milder winters a slower, more substantial kudzu, but with the advantages of blooms attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. I love this plant, but spend too much of my summer days physically defying its ceaseless attempts to gerrymander my backyard.
It was a happy, thoughtful journey also aided by the jazz stylings of Conte Candoli on the car’s sound system. <<boo-waaaah, boo-waaaah…>>
Journeys eventually arrive…dammit.
This one arrived at the funeral home, as I suppose all journeys eventually do…double dammit.
Funerals in Kentucky vary – but not that much. This one was solidly within the range of what passes for normality ‘round here.
- Ya gotta sign the book.
For a goodly number of people, that’s the nuts.
My work here is done.
I use this as a lesson in participation all the time. If you say you want to participate in what we’re trying to do, that doesn’t mean just “signing the book”. Ya gotta participate.
I do this part of funerals OK.
I stand in line.
- Visitation is always intense. It may be two hours long. It may be 16 hours long (over two days). I’ve experienced both. There’s usually a dead person lying openly nearby, which invariably troubles me. There are people in various stages of grief and anxiety all around. These stages are not always compatible. There are old grudges, new feelings of shame, and cultural resentments adrift in the room. It’s easy to lose track for whom this event is happening.
Visitation worries me.
I wanna sneak off to a private room with my friends and eat and drink and tell stories.
I think “for whom this event is happening” might be me. My deceased friend doesn’t care. It’s me who’s lost something. It’s me who has to face tomorrow without my friend. I could use a little time away alone or with other friends in a similar frame of mind to come to grips with this now altered universe.
- And then there’s the actual service. <<cue the music from JAWS>>
Today’s service is being conducted by a local minister who admittedly didn’t know my friend very well. This is not unusual. I’ve attended several funerals where the minister spent 15-30 minutes describing someone I never knew. It‘s OK. I believe rite and ritual, even devoid of content and context can still facilitate the grieving process and offer comfort to those of us going on with life.
The minister invited participation in the form of stories and thoughts about my friend from the assembled mourners. I suspected he did so to fill the time and to garner some research for his message. I also suspect he failed to accurately judge the ramifications of offering an “open mike” to the two dozen plus theatre folks in attendance. The minister and the 50-60 local attendees were treated to stories about the love and tolerance the deceased showed to everyone – all types of people; republican, democrat, white, black, gay, straight, left-handed, right-handed, Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Hari Krishnan, Kentucky fans, Louisville fans…
I watched and wondered if perhaps the world and spirit being described might have exceeded the expectations and comfort level of the local attendees who were most likely just as passionate about the deceased, but less verbal about it.
Still, love and hurt was in the air for everyone and that’s we’re gathering to assuage…yes?
Well, it was time for the preacher’s message.
I perceived he was in a bit of a spot.
To whom should he direct this message?
- To the 25% of the crowd who were the theatre folks who’d be hittin’ the interstate back Lexington the minute the service was over?
- To the rest of the room who would be looking to him for counsel and comfort for the rest of their lives?
- To everyone? Was there possibly a message that would knit the room into a single-minded community of caring?
He tried #3.
I admire him for trying.
He reached back in his schoolin’ and dredged one line from AS YOU LIKE IT; “All the world’s a stage…” He got immediately hung up on ”entrances” and “exits”, got the two reversed a couple of times, and never quite sorted it out. It was far from iambic…hell, it was barely coherent. I didn’t mind it so much. I did the play myself and occasionally found it barely coherent.
He didn’t give up.
He reached back in his schoolin’ once more and suggested we could look to “Old Walt” for inspiration.
Now, I’ll fess up here. I was jarred by this suggestion…in a good way. I didn’t know what wisdom Walt Disney could impart to this solemn occasion, but I knew my departed friend. She was a gleeful gal and a quote from Mickey Mouse or a chorus or two from “It’s a Small World After All” would no doubt make her smile.
But no, “Old Walt” turned out to be Walt Whitman. <<cue the JAWS music again>>
I feared the minister was navigating dangerous waters. The Walt Whitman I knew had backwaters foreign to most established religions. My misgivings were wasted (may they always be). The minister again only had one line at instant recall. He said it. We all blinked in unified incomprehension. It was the closest he got to truly unify the room.
At that point, he dropped option #3 like last week’s newspaper.
He began quoting various verses from the Bible like a rapper. The air was filled with chapters and verses……and numbers were chanted……I expected the ball to be hiked at any moment.
It became clear that he was gonna “save” the out-of-town theatre co-conspirators (his word, I kid you not) in front of his neighbors.
I didn’t mind so much either. I was raised Southern Baptist. I was familiar with the physical need to block the doors and pass the plate and “invite” professions of faith. I still recall several verses of “Just as I Am”. It was the guy’s job.
Yes, I felt hi-jacked and held hostage. I felt bad for my friend. She would not have wanted to be a bad host.
I drifted away to a kind of “dream time”, filled with box turtles wearing bonnets driving horse-drawn carriages through jungles of blooming trumpet vine and butterflies (my friend liked butterflies).
Then I hit that interstate back home.