I’ve always liked the word “self-absorbed”. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me of sponges – absorbing always does – and I like sponges. Kitchen sponges, ocean sponges, that odd loofa thing my mom used in the shower. I like the idea of something that light, soaking up liquid, and then wringing it out again.
Now I use those mesh sponge things, which really don’t absorb anything, just sort of contain it vaguely, like human bladders with cheap beer.
Self-absorption, while most often used in a negative context, is my mode right now, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. You see, whenever possible, I used to soak up other people, because I found myself lacking in interest, or coolness.
And now I’m just full of … myself.
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The trip to Chicago was quiet, mostly, even in a loud city with a normally loud family. I spent a long time during those few days thinking about Uncle Joe, Aunt Louise, and my cousins, but even longer thinking about myself.
The wake was two days long. Well, not literally two days long, but it was held on Thursday and Friday, the 13th and 14th of May, from 3-9 p.m. both days. My mom, her partner T.R., and I were there for most of the time, and I was honestly glad to be there.
Wakes are creepy to me. There’s nothing about the whole wake/funeral combo that isn’t creepy to me, but wakes are creepier than funerals. I’m really glad my family is Italian and not old-fashioned Irish; seeing Uncle Joe in a coffin was creepy enough to worry me how I would react to seeing him in a standing-up coffin.
His hair had all gone white. When Chad and I last visited Chicago, over New Year’s, his hair was black, with just a touch of gray at the temples. Uncle Joe’s hair went white sometime after the chemo started, Mom said.
Uncle Joe was a police captain, and so many cops came to the wake both days, all in uniform and badges and guns, those pale blue shirts I remember seeing so many times hanging, in plastic from the cleaners, in the kitchen closet at Uncle Joe’s house. Uniforms are also creepy to me, in a way, but especially police uniforms; that singular look, on no matter what shape of human, marking a stern difference between who I am and who they are. And who he was.
Mayor Daley wrote a letter to Aunt Louise, expressing sympathy, and remarking on my uncle’s excellent work for the city of Chicago. T.R. was quick to point out that it had been hand-signed by the mayor, and not automagically done by someone else. The letter itself came on official stationery, brought by someone from the mayor’s office, even, and was encased in a navy leather portfolio. I was duly impressed.
I looked at the signature for a while, wishing I could see what Uncle Joe saw. He loved to analyze handwriting, and I wondered what he would say about Mayor Daley’s vivid, back-canted loops.
My mom and I went up to kneel before the coffin – casket, it’s always called, not coffin – and pray. I saw the dark rosary beads tucked around my uncle’s fingers, and remembered Nonno’s wake, and Nonna’s too. If I died tomorrow, would they give me a rosary to hold? Would they know what to do about that? What would they bury me in? All I could think about while looking at my uncle was the process of embalming, the stitching the lips together, how he looked like wax, and how I didn’t touch him because I knew he would be cold.
Aunt Louise didn’t look as awful as I thought she might; she actually held it all together rather well, except for a few, appropriate moments. My cousin Lisa, their oldest child, looked so lost and small. I sat next to her on one of the floral-printed couches and held her hand for a bit, telling her I didn’t know what to tell her, but that I was sorry, and I loved her. She cried some more, held onto my hand. We’ve never been close, and I wish I thought we could be.
Joe and John, Aunt Louise’s two other children, were in dark, sleek suits and solemn expressions the entire time. I did have two warm, strong hugs from Joey; he was always the gentlest one. Johnny has grown more and more like his father, overwhelmingly so, taking these days as sad but unavoidable, and doing his best to make sure everyone who came was greeted and shown the letter from the mayor.
I didn’t know what to say to Aunt Louise. My mom was also at a loss, but afforded more … credibility, it might have been, with my aunt, by virtue of closeness and age. The morning of the funeral, Saturday, we went back to the funeral parlour to say our last goodbyes before the casket was closed. Mom stopped to hug Aunt Louise and then toppled a bit, crying and shaking, and when T.R. and I helped her out she said she felt sick, sick, was going to be sick.
I was nine again.
I was nine and at the kitchen table and my mom was crying about something I couldn’t understand. I feel sick, she kept saying, sick.
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Selfishly, I enjoyed being part of the funeral procession because we had a real live police escort, directed by the commissioner himself. No sirens, just lights, and we drove past Aunt Louise and Uncle Joe’s house on the way to the church. Another creepy tradition, but one that I liked this time because there were neighbours out on the stoops, not waving, but watching, and it reminded me of some ancient, unknown place where whole clans carry their dead to the next life, if even with just the recognition of their eyes.
St. Pascal’s is a gorgeous Catholic church. The apse – where the altar is located – is tiled with gold mosaic in “columns” that meet in the dome’s spandrels and scatter over the ceiling. I couldn’t stop looking at those tiles sparkling in the cold morning sun that day; they were just so true as they were placed, carefully I imagine, but like they had always been there.
Whenever I visit that church, I look at it like I look at the fleshy begonias on our patio, or Zen stretched across a windowsill: there is something in each of these forms that squarely grabs hold of Something That Makes Sense. You can call it aesthetics, or truth, or even god if you please. I haven’t found my word for it yet.
And so, while I should have been worrying about embarrassing my mom by refusing communion, or remembering when to sit, stand, and kneel, and what to say when, and if I was going to have to shake hands in the sign of peace part, or genuflect whenever I exited or entered a pew … I was calm, and somber, and present.
The apostate finally feels at home in church.
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It wasn’t all about loss and grief. My mom, T.R. and I had some severe backlashes after maintaining straight faces for long periods of time, and we all giggled an obscene amount of the time we spent out of family’s way. I also got to visit with my cousin, Little Andy, who really isn’t little anymore but his father’s Big Andy so that’s just how it works out. Little Andy is now nearly six feet tall, and quite stocky and handsome, well-tanned and soft-spoken as ever, with his father’s kind playfulness groomed into a dashing smirk. He and I spent a good amount of time on Friday outside, chatting and smoking in the chill spring wind.
And anyway, I couldn’t be sad for long. Not when I stepped off the plane in Birmingham to see a familiar man I’d never met, grinning and waving a sheet of looseleaf upon which was scribbled: STED.