Dropkick Me Jesus

Christ Episcopal Church in New Bern anchors the tiny downtown historical district. It is a quaint church with aging red brick, stained glass windows, headstones from the 1700s and pin oaks that drip Spanish moss. In a side yard children swing from the play-set as mothers sit on wooden benches chatting.

At 10:00, Saturday morning, my family members began to congregate around an outdoor pulpit and low wooden benches located beside the formal sanctuary.

I arrived with the boys at 9:38 because, in typical family fashion- none of us were really sure when my Dad’s interment was scheduled to begin. “The priest said 10:30,” I told my brother. “But Mom said, 10:15.”

My brother, the youngest, the “whoops” baby said, “I’m showing up at 10:00 because wouldn’t it be just like her to tell me the wrong time and have me show up so she could say, ‘John Andrew, where have you been? I told you 10:00! No way. Not this time. I’m not taking any chances.”

As we all trooped up the narrow brick walkway toward the church, an elderly woman in bright green sneakers popped out of the main sanctuary. “Your father’s ashes are inside if you want to see them. They’re in a cardboard box.” She said this last part in an accusatory tone, like we’d been too cheap to spring for a pewter urn or something.

“That’s what he wanted,” I said, feeling like I owed this wacko an explanation.

Green Shoes pivots her attention to me, effectively pinning me to my spot on the slate courtyard as my brother sails on around me, in to look at Dad.

“My husband’s the one dug the hole,” she says. “It’s right over there, if you want to see it.” But there wasn’t any option. She was scurrying off toward the stone ampitheater like Igor, looking back over her shoulder to insure that I was following.

“He had to dig through roots this thick!” she says, making a circle out of thumb and forefinger.

Behind her back, my boys make faces at me. They are doing flawless imitations of the old woman.

Greeny stops and looks down. Sure enough, there in the center of the aisle, was a 10” square, dug at least 24” deep. I peered into the hole, searching for the appropriate social pleasantry to pacify the woman's obvious need for approval.

“Wow,” is the best I could do.

The boys are biting the insides of their cheeks. We didn't dare look at each other.

Fortunately, other extended family members began arriving...The kind you only see at weddings and funerals. People you vaguely recognize from ten years ago on the last momentous occasion. Isn’t it funny how glad you always are to see each other?

Given Greeny breathing down my neck, I am overjoyed when they arrive.

Dad’s brother arrives in a golf cap, which I think is his wry salute to the Greek fishing hat my Dad always wore…but he quickly pops this bubble. “Nah, I’m supposed to wear a hat every time I go out…you know, skin cancer. It runs in the family.”

We’re all milling around when Ben looks up and spots them…Three priests in long, flowing white cassocks, processing toward us. The one in front carries the huge brass cross. The second one carries something square and draped in a satin and brocade cover. The third one, the Hotrod Priest, walks with an open prayer book.

Now, I should take this opportunity to apologize for whatever I say from this point forward. I am my father’s daughter, a minister’s kid. In typical P.K fashion, I have avoided the pomp and hypocrisy of organized religion…but I am also deeply spiritual. The old rituals bring me to tears, despite the neglect of regular service attendance. My boys have not grown up in the church…which makes it inevitable that one of them will rebel and become a priest.

This was my first interment of ashes and the first time I'd buried someone before their memorial service. But this is how Dad wanted it. He wanted the sad part over with before the celebration of his life, and healing at his loss, began.

When it began it looked like the opening of an Anne Rice novel.

Three priests process toward us. One carrying a bright, brass cross, one carrying a satin and brocade square in his arms, and Hotrod bringing up the rear, his prayer book held out before him.

We scampered to take seats on the benches, forming a small circle of immediate family around the square hole in the dirt.

Hotrod kicks things off with a short prayer. The second priest whips off the brocade covering and then, like he’s tossing a piece of junk mail, chucks the box with my father’s ashes into the hole!

Behind me I hear a snort as Ben tries hard to control his nervous laugh. Adam, sitting beside me, is absolutely deadpan…except for a small twitch at the corner of his mouth. I have to bite down hard not to lose it myself.

Ben, the kindhearted, says later, “Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he just dropped it.”

“No, Ben,” Adam says. “I was right there. He just tossed Granddaddy in there.”

I say, “Well, there wasn’t any offering. Maybe they were pissed because they get a kickback on urns from the funeral director and this time they got stiffed.” No pun intended.

“Yeah,” Martha adds. “Like they're saying, 'Hey, for a thousand I kneel but for cardboard, we just chuck you in there.”

But this is later, after we've had time to adjust to the shock of seeing my father punted into eternity.

Hotrod is chanting something. He stoops over to pick up a glass bowl, the very same kind I’ve seen a trillion times in Dollar stores, sold as salad bowls. It is filled with grayish-brown sand…or….I try not to let myself consider the horrible possibility…it’s leftover Granddaddy.

Hotrod begins sprinkling the holy sand in and around the hole. Adam said later, “I thought it was Granddaddy’s ashes and the guy couldn’t hit the hole. I was gonna say, Damn, don’t just toss him around like that! If you can’t hit the target, give it to me. I’ll do it!”

When the short ceremony ends and the priests process away, like the three wizards in the Dr. Seuss book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck…an elderly man in a beige, polyester suit jacket slips up behind us, grabs the glass dish and just tosses the extra Holy Sand into the hole…like he’s tossing leftovers into a trashcan.

We are so appalled we are speechless.

Was this it? Was that an interment? That cavalier toss off of my Dad’s remains? I mean, yes, his body was a shell, but he was once in that body, for 79 years. Even we, his irreverent family, wouldn’t even think of commiting such a barbarism.

But like lambs, we follow the priests through a side door, into a wing of the church where we are instructed to wait. When Hotrod returns he says we are to process, two by two, behind the priests into the church, up the aisle during the processional hymn.

“Like Noah’s ark?” Ben asks.

My brother, pushing my mother’s wheelchair, whips around as the organ begins the opening bars of “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven.” His face dissolves into tears. We have been instantly transported back to our childhood…the image of our father processing down the aisle behind the choir, singing with all his heart even though the choir has asked him to lip-sync because he is tone deaf and throws them all off.

I begin to cry with my brother, then in tandem, we stop, turning around to follow the ministers into the sanctuary. Dad wouldn’t cry…not walking up the aisle. Not him. So we don’t either.

But I can’t sing. It’s always the music that gets me.

We file into pews and stand, finishing the hymn. Then the same priest who drop-kicked Dad begins to chant in a sing-song vibrato that sounds like the reverb is stuck on his Wawa pedal…which I of course, whisper to Ben, the guitar player.

Hotrod reads II Corinthians 4: 6-7, 4:16-5-5.

The Gospel is John 10:11-16.

My father has carefully crafted every bit of his own funeral. He speaks to us of love and the importance of the Shepherd to his sheep.

Later, Adam tells me he was freaked out by this. “It was like, Damn, he’s still teaching us even after he’s dead!”

Hotrod does the homily and I realize I was in part wrong about the guy. He does “get” my Dad after all. He didn’t think I was sacrilegious when I said Dad was the most loving man in the universe, because he says, “We were in the presence of Jesus.”

I try to sing the hymns but lose it when Martha elbows me. “There’s an entire choir up in the balcony!” she whispers.

The service continues with communion. Dad is doing it up thoroughly. He’s getting it all in there because when will he ever have us all together in a church again?

I tell the boys, “Just do whatever Uncle John or I do,” as we walk up toward the altar rail to kneel and receive communion.

I don’t know who Ben knelt next to…

Later he says “I saw Gammaw dip her wafer into the cup, so that’s what I did. I thought it was salsa or something!”

Adam and I stare at him. “What? Salsa?”

Ben shrugs. “I thought since there were so many immigrants from Mexico, the church was trying to include them. I thought, ‘This is cool. They’re trying to jazz things up with Salsa!”

Ben is the boy I vote most likely to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. “That Hotrod guy…he kept praying for Granddaddy to be forgiven so he could get into heaven and I thought, why would they have to beg for Granddaddy to be let in? I mean, he’s never done anything wrong! I guess that Hotrod guy was just trying to seal the deal…You know, like he was making extra sure or something.”

I am amazed at all the interior thoughts my boys have. It makes me wonder what else they think and never say.

I think this harder as we drive back out toward the harbor after the service.

“Let’s go sit on the boat,” I suggest.

I did not have any idea what this would mean to my boys. I should have known, but wasn't thinking.

Those boys grew up with my Dad. They spent all their time together on that boat. He taught them to sail, and in fact, on Granddaddy’s last trip out, they took the helm in an unconscious salute. They were showing him they could now take over. They could shepherd Granddaddy home.

We parked, walked down the gentle slope to the small dock where Dad’s sailboat sat in its slip, a For Sale sign clipped to the forward rail.

For the next thirty minutes, my boys held their own funeral for their beloved grandfather. They unlocked the cabin doors and meticulously inspected the Compass Rose. They checked every instrument and piece of equipment. They ran their fingers tenderly over the lines, murmuring to themselves.

“Look at this,” Adam said, calling Ben to his side. “This line. Granddaddy would never leave it like this.” They rewound the rope, looked up the mast at the halyard and nodded their satisfaction when everything slid into place.

Martha went through the equipment locker, finding tool kits and offering them to the boys. “You don’t want some stranger to buy the boat and then own your granddaddy’s tools, do you?”

Adam shook his head, waving off the tools, feeling the vulturish aspect to this divvying up of belongings. Instead they searched for a rusted out can of engine cleaner, selecting this as their token.

“Granddaddy wouldn’t take the engine in to get fixed,” they explain. “It was too expensive. So he just sprayed this stuff and some oil into the carburetor and waited for it to ignite.” They are rolling with laughter, remembering the inventiveness of my father, loving him.

Adam finds a small compass my father had used to teach them to navigate by the stars and cradles it. He hands Ben a rigging tool. “You should take this,” he says. “Remember? It has a knife.”

Adam picks up the Freon boat horn, steps out into the cockpit and says, “Hold your ears!”

I start to tell him not to disturb the peace, not to ruffle the feathers of the homeowners surrounding the tiny marina, but stop. This is their funeral for my father and the boat horn is part of it, a salute.

Adam fires one long, ear-splitting blast and lowers his arm, grinning at his brother, listening as the sound echoes across the water, surrounding us with its continued reverberations.

The sound is everywhere and then, gently, nowhere.


Kim said...

This was so touching Nancy. Your boys sound like delightful creatures, and they also sound as though they have it right, they'll be okay as will you. Your father is proud of you all, of this I am certain.

Nickle Annie said...

What a wonderful story. I don't know you or your father but I am in tears after your wonderful story. I'm so sorry for your loss.