The Funeral the next day was -
Is there any word that can possibly rise to the moment? Perhaps it’s enough to say the Funeral was, and leave it at that.
Except no, it’s not enough. It was lovely. It was hard. It was exultant. It was unreal and pointedly real. The coffin was flanked by two pictures - Dad as a young Navy recruit, and Dad seven decades and change later grinning in the plane he flew last month. The former picture I had always known, and was part of his unsung backstory, something you’d come across in a family album, perhaps, the time he jokingly brushed off as “the Big One. I was in the Big One, you know.” The picture of Dad in the plane was also familiar, since that was one of his favorite places. If it had an engine and gauges, he was at home there.
I was used to all that. It had hit me that perhaps I had taken for granted the enormity of my father’s life, its remarkable course and adventures, and the sense that my feeling inadequate to his example was a way of dealing with the fact that I was wholly and utterly inadequate to his example.
I read a scripture passage, and then Daughter read the second one.
At the end we followed the casket out the side door to the gleaming grey hearse while the Navy hymn played, and that was a hammer to the sternum. For those in peril on the sea. He never forgot them. I’d been told the night before of his visit to an American WW2 cemetery in Europe, and how he’d said only one thing:
They’re all my age.
Everyone had a moment by the casket before the hearse door closed. You don’t want a Kleenex; let them go, let us stand here until they’re done and the sun has dried your cheeks.
Then, because life goes on, there is lunch.
An hour in the fellowship hall having small sandwiches, of course - my sister and brother-in-law had wrangled enough small gas trucks to decorate every table, along with mints in wrappers (he chewed ‘em all the time, and Daughter said “it’s like you and your Vicks or Altoids.” The previous evening during the reminiscence someone had noted that he loved to organize his desk drawers, at which point my family all looked at me, and then the speaker said he’d organize other people’s drawers when they were away, and again, my family looked at me.)
There were also dollar bills on the table, asking people to take one and go to the casino and play a machine for Ralph. A parade of people to meet and thank, all with the same theme of sadness, amazement, and eventual delight in just having known him.
Then the procession.
The trucks that weren’t out hauling product were lined up, and preceded the hearse. We took a long route, and had no escort, no flags. You know what? No one argues with big trucks and a long line of cars with blinking lights. We wound west, past the stockyards, past the station. It’s all torn up for construction. Trust me, it’ll look great when it’s finished, and we have a signal to make it easier for people to swing in and gas up.
Then an old two-lane north to the church. But there was one final joke from Dad.
A BNSF train came barreling through, all 110 cars, and the entire procession came to a stop. It wasn’t the usual track - they came in on the Prosper line, slicing diagonally across the land to the spot where they’d be refilled for the rest of the journey east. Refilled, of course, by Lileks Oil.
“Ralph called the stationmaster in the sky,” my brother in law later laughed, “and had him send that one for us.”
“It’s money in the bank,” I said. “He’d approve.”
Finally it rattled past and the gate raised, and on we went.
Maple Sheyenne, the pioneer church my mother and grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins, the boneyard out back filled with familiar names.
With quick practiced hands the coffin was placed over the neat clean rectangular space, the prosaic measure we all share, and the ceremony began.
The VFW color guard fired into the blue.
The careful, reverent, sacred ritual of the folding of the flag, something precise and devotional, performed with expressionless men with gravity and intensity that spoke to an entirely different culture than the one we inhabit day to day.
Presented to my sister with the grateful thanks of the President and the Nation.
And then it was done. Laid a hand on the coffin: frypan hot from the North Dakota sun. Held it there past the point of discomfort. Sear the last few seconds.
Mom and Dad side by side again in the ground of the North Dakota farmland where they met. You cannot back away from this spot. You have to turn away, face the other direction, and take it.
I found a guy who could open up the church so I could show Daughter the inside - the row of pictures of the men who had served over the years, the pressed-tin walls and ceiling they’d had mailed from Sears to glorify the sanctuary, the name on the old stained-glass window that was one of her ancestors, a fellow who’d got caught in a snow storm rounding up the stock and saved his life by cutting open a dead cow and spending the night inside. (Yes, like Han Solo, except real). I was so grateful that she had this entire experience, this connection with the North Dakota roots she may some day feel stir: this is where you’re from. Not here exactly; you’re a Minnesotan, a Minneapolitan, but your father was grown in this soil, and part of you will always feel a tug to the land where you beloved Grandfather rests, and there will come a day when you rise to defend this place in the company of others, against some slack lazy jape or slight.
You saw how these people live, what they built, how they’re good and decent and industrious. The endless land, the mountains of clouds, the Raphael sunsets. The graves with your family name in a humble church yard.
Back to the house. They packed up and left: hugs. Now I’m Dad, waving a goodbye as the car leaves, waiting until it’s out of sight before I head in to an empty house.
It felt like a rain of bricks.
Make a cup of coffee. Sit on the deck for a while. Wonder what to do with the evening. (I’m staying on for the reading of the will the next day.) Smoke a small cigar. All is bereft.
No, no, there are things to do. Don’t dump Sister-in-law with the task of cleaning out the house. I went down to the crafts room, the space with a huge table suitable for wrapping presents. A thousand square feet of leftover wrapping paper, left by Dad’s wife, untouched since. This is a 45-minute job, fills three bags, sets aside lots of paper and useful boxes and bows in case sister wants them.
Hungry? No; haven’t been hungry in a week. But one must eat. Car, north, find a place, eat something. Starbucks for internet to do some edits on the Wednesday Bleat. Back to the house, finish the crafts room. Haul bags out to the garage. This makes the time pass. It solves nothing. Slakes no need, salves no ache.
Sit down, write.
Remember: something a cousin had said the night before, something that knocked me back on my heels, something I’d never heard.
“Your dad said he felt like he had to live for two. For Robert.”
His twin, who died pointlessly at 15.
My dad carried a ghost all his life. In addition to everything else, he carried a ghost.
I heard a bird cry twice. Two AM. The clock. At some point my dad bought a clock that called the hours in the voices of the birds of North Dakota.
It will sing in the voices of birds to an empty house until someone gets up on the small stepladder in the laundry room and takes the batteries out.
I get out the stepladder, take it down. Open the drawer where Dad kept his batteries. They expire in 2026.
I put in a fresh one and put the clock back on the wall.
The bird that chirped twice - what was it?
Thank you for reading, and for all your kind thoughts. I'll have some more photos and interesting bits next week.