WAKING. by James Patrick Posted on 17 Jul 11:30
This essay was written mid July 2015, as I thought about the many Wakes I had attended in my sixty-four years, the most recent being the death of my father-in-law. Since then, my eighty- eight year old uncle died. A lifeguard in his youth, he chose have his ashes scattered at sea, just off the beach he protected so long ago.
By James Patrick
I guess everyone has a first encounter with death. For me, it was age four.
My mother’s parents lived in Queens Village N.Y., in a modest, yet detailed colonial on a wide street, with a detached garage and a good size backyard. For years my grandmother’s father, “DAD” as he is referred to in her diaries, lived there. He also died there at the age of seventy four. So, the family did what most families did in 1954, they held the wake in the living room.
The living room was a good size, about twenty five by eighteen feet. A brick fireplace stood to the left of the double wide entrance and bookshelves lined most of the walls. There was plenty of light and to the rear of the room you could pass through to the sunroom that was used as an eating nook and was attached to the left to the kitchen. My parents and I would visit my grandparents often on the weekends and occasionally sleep over and was normal for me to run up and down the stairs to and from my guest bedroom.
On the day of this encounter I was headed down the first four steps which then hit a landing and continued after a turn right down a full flight of stairs to the main foyer between the front door and the living room. Here is what I thought that day, and have thought about and replayed upon each subsequent encounter with death…
…hurry…down…around…dark…why…what is that smell…that is not soup…or chicken…why is it darker than night…what is that…oh…is it DAD…oh…what is that…why is he like that…I hear nothing…
As I first looked into the living room I could make out what looked to me then like a box on a table, in the dead center of the room, and some linens drooping from between the box and table to the floor. From where I was standing, ridged, I could see something at the top edge of the box but I could not really tell what was inside the box. But I did see DAD’S cane. He had used the cane for his last few months to summon his daughter upstairs by banging it on the floor of his room which was above the kitchen. Now it was silently resting against the table/box as if DAD would need it soon. I could only move away from the somehow dimmer than normal living room, which I realized then, held nothing living and walked around, through the dining room, the long way to the kitchen. I had breakfast and went outside to play without a word of explanation from whoever fed me. That is all I can remember now - or then.
That was my first wake. Yet, I have no recollection of the actual wake, when family and visitors may have been present.
The most vivid part was the smell – it was not offensive, but it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The closest smell I can relate it to is when you enter a mausoleum, and the air ceases to be fresh and natural. The other lasting impact was the effect of the silence, or at least my retained memory of total silence. No explanations. No discussions. No crying. No prayers. No eulogy. In looking back, I know now what I felt then.
Two fundamentals combined to establish an emotional building block about death that would go unused and unchallenged until my next encounter. To me, at four, and for some time thereafter, death was a silent surprise that could be known to be present by a smell that was very different than what life smelled like.
My first experience with death was a just a sneak peak. I was to find out over the next sixty years that was to be to my advantage.
Over that sixty year period I have not counted the absolute number of wakes I have attended. What I do know is that the impact of each of them was unique. The “wakee” obviously has a great deal to do with it. However, closeness to the deceased is not the only emotional factor impacts what you experience and /or learn from a wake.
I have attended the wake of the following folks: Both my parents, three grandparents, an uncle a great aunt…and that was in eighteen months. You can add the following to the list of my wakes both before and well after that eighteen month period, in no particular chronology: One of my best friends, my secretary of ten years, the mothers and fathers of my close personal friends as well as some business associates, two priests who were brothers and my great uncles, my bartender, my childhood baseball coach, my wife’s grandmother, my wife’s father, and my first born son.
It was about another sixteen years until I experienced a wake / death again. Well, my great grandmother died when I was about six but I have no recollection of that event or of being involved in any way. We just seemed to see less and less of her until she was completely un-seeable.
At about twenty years of age it was my responsibility to attend a wake for a friend’s father who had died of a heart attack. He was about fifty years old. We can call him Bob for now, and the circumstances of Bob’s death were rumored to be related to a girlfriend, a house (not his) and a position in a bed (not his) that no one wanted to discuss.
The funeral parlor was packed with friends and relatives, with all seven of Bob’s children and Bob’s wife dutifully present and grieving their loss. I can remember navigating that wake and trying to reconcile the reality of the rumor with the silence regarding the rumor. The emotional impact, of Bob’s passing on me was minimum, as I recall, but the faces I saw that were experiencing this night in a much more intimate way had a much more intimate impact on me.
There was a confused look to the sadness as if the mourner was asking those present to just accept that possible transgression as it was outweighed by a life of love and duty. The quizzical nature of the wake had an impact on me that I would later use in evaluating my own fathers life and our relationship. Ironically, Bob set the stage for me to realize that what is said is not always what is meant, but it is what can be said at the time under the circumstances.
It is a short coming of an otherwise valuable, useful tradition. A wake allows for the honoring of the lost, and a time period in which to help those left behind to absorb that blow. Yet, no matter how forcefully or subtly the deceased is referenced, the silent truths are left unspoken, to be navigated, personally and alone by each loved ones.
I attended the wake of a high school girlfriend that I had kept in contact with during the last thirty years. She had two grown daughters and two grandchildren. She was a well-respected, religious, giving soul who I guess I only really knew on a distant level. We would see each other at some social functions and always reminisce about her strong father and mother who would give her then very young new boyfriend a hard time so very long ago.
I had been to this funeral parlor, and this room, over ten times. So, as I entered I floated through the crowd so as to distance myself from my own memories of loss and reflect on “Jane’s” loss and the sadness her family felt. “Jane” had lost her own husband over twenty years ago when he died of a heart attack in their bedroom while getting ready for work. He was a good man we all knew from grade and high school. The unspoken in this case was the lost time the two never shared, a true love cut down too early, yet also a celebration of a life well lived until it too was short sheeted at sixty three.
Such is the focus of this time we all spend in a room from 3-5 and/or 7-9.
These rooms all share the same qualities, and while they all serve the same purpose, each visit is as unique as a human fingerprint. The intricate details of a person’s life are offered up and mixed with those in attendance, which in turn, are mixed with each other.
Each wake, each single event, each death, each life, is so different- yet each one is telling you what to expect for yourself at some point.
The origin of “The Wake” is believed to be Celtic in nature; a period of “being on watch” to guard the dead, as in “keeping watch over” the body until burial.
To watch over is to observe.
The waking process is just that: an observation.
It is an observation of the inevitability of the silent surprise that does not smell like life.
More importantly, it is the observation of the living and of oneself.
Every wake is a chance to watch over yourself as you are, and as you could be, so that when it is your turn, those who are watching over you, love what they see.