By Jilly Gagnon
Note: while I’ve tried to be as honest as possible in this essay, it’s just one person’s memory of very complicated events. It’s not “the” truth, just one version of it. -Jilly
We’d already done the hushed-voices, bedside consultation about whether it was time to pull the plugs.
We’d already suffered through the shock—in one of the endless meetings with the doctors during that last week—of learning that P., the woman we thought of as my dad’s girlfriend, had in fact secretly married him about a week after the attacks started, and in the four months that followed, had told no one. Which made her my secret-stepmother. Which thought made the inside of my stomach itch.
We’d even managed to make it through the last, agonizing moments, after they pulled out the ventilator that had been keeping him alive; the gurgling, gasping, knocking sounds bubbling up from his weakened lungs as they tried—and failed—to draw breath; the moment, just like in the movies, when the heart monitor’s syncopated rhythm collapsed into a single, drawn-out note, filling the space where my dad used to be with its agonizing, unending screech.
Somehow, it never occurred to me to dread the meeting with the priest.
Naïve, naïve, naïve.
Even though it was Sunday, the halls of St. Patrick’s church were empty. The last service had let out hours before, and the only sound was my sisters’ and my carpet-dampened footsteps as we trailed after the elderly secretary leading us to meet with Father Greg.
The entire space was foreign; my dad had been raised Catholic, but my mom hadn’t, and they’d “met in the middle” with us, settling on Lutheranism (a faith that neither believed in). I think the most religious thing I ever heard my dad say growing up was “Jesus fucking Christ,” but in the last couple years, he’d started going to an adult bible study.
“He’s sick and scared,” was my mom’s verdict.
She was probably right, but either way, after decades of lapse, my dad was going to have a Catholic funeral, and my sisters and I—three barely-Lutherans who had never even stepped foot in St. Pat’s before—had to help the priest, and P., plan it.
So that was the first layer of painful awkwardness.
P. and her daughter, Liz, as well as my half-sister Nicole, were already in the priest’s office when we arrived. We murmured some sort of greeting to P., and got a stiff nod in return.
Already things were going so well.
Luckily, Father Greg bustled in the door soon after we’d sat down, breaking up the tense silence with a round of jovial introductions.
He was round, and soft-looking, with doughy cheeks, fluffy white hair, a perpetual half-smile that crinkled the blue eyes behind his glasses, and a small potbelly pushing against the buttons of his priestly black shirt. He reminded me of a particularly indulgent grandfather, assuming your grandfather had opted for celibacy later in life. Which, frankly, I like to believe all grandfathers do.
“Let’s get started,” he boomed, taking a seat at the front of the semi-circle of chairs. “I know this stuff is no fun, but we should be able to get through it pretty quickly.
“First off, a Catholic service doesn’t have a eulogy per se, but we can allow one speaker to offer a few brief words of remembrance. Have you thought at all about who that might be?”
“I’ve already spoken with a few of Craig’s friends, and we have three speakers, his dearest friend Tom Kane, his partner Steve Liefschultz, and of course his brother, Bruce,” P. said, looking at Father Greg with a simpering half-smile.
The priest looked around the circle, lingering on my sister Claire, whose fury was already reddening her cheeks. Jane and I were more like my mom, prone to silent resentment and fist-clenching. Claire was absolutely my father’s daughter; if something pissed her off, you were going to hear about it. My entire high school experience was proof of that.
“What about Piffy, or Louie?” Claire said tightly. “They’ve always been closer to my dad than Tom or Steve.”
“That’s just not true, Claire,” P. minced. I could almost hear Claire’s teeth grinding. Or maybe that was mine. The only thing worse than P. being openly hostile to us was when she was fake nice.
“And either way, I’ve already spoken to them, and neither feels like he’d be able to speak.”
They stared at each other, eyes narrowed, until finally Claire turned away, sniffing loudly.
“Well, would any of you girls like to speak?” Father Greg said, turning towards my sisters and myself. He held up a hand as P. attempted to cut in. “I understand Craig’s friends have memories to share, but if a family member wants to deliver the remembrance, we’d usually give her priority,” he said.
Claire twisted her mouth up in determination—you could almost see the thought flashing through her brain, “if I said yes, that would show her…”—but ultimately, she demurred. Which I was incredibly grateful for; if she’d said yes, I might have had to, too, just to keep up the united front we’d decided we had to maintain, and how in god’s name are you supposed to hold it together for your own father’s eulogy?
“Alright, then. But P., I’m going to have to ask you to let these gentlemen know that they have to keep it to less than five minutes between them.”
“Yes, yes, of course. They’ll be brief.”
“Because having three speakers is already unorthodox,” he went on, his voice firmer, “and this is meant to be a traditional service.”
“Of course,” P. said, looking up through her lashes coyly, suddenly sweet again.
“Alright. Maybe you girls can do the readings, instead.”
My stomach back-flipped, once, but I ignored it. At least a reading wouldn’t be as terrifying as trying to give a eulogy.
We sorted through a list of vaguely-familiar bible verses, plucking out a pair that seemed suitable.
P. was noticeably silent.
“Are these alright with you, P.?” Father Greg said, his voice warm. “Ideally, we want to pick verses that speak to everyone.”
“Just pick whichever you think is best,” she said, turning to look out the window. “It doesn’t matter what I think.”
“Alright…” Father Greg said, his voice cautious. “Then I suppose we should move on to the music.”
He explained that, while certain hymns were considered standard-issue for Catholic funerals, there was some leeway on the processional music, which would play as we all filed in to our pews.
“I know exactly the song,” P. said, turning to Father Greg with a bright smile. “It’s by Travis Tritt, and Craig would sing it all the time.”
In my memory, she played it, and it was awful and wailing, and about how much the man in the song needed his woman, but to be honest, I’m not sure WHEN I actually heard it for the first time. I am certain I’d never heard it before that day in the priest’s office.
“I’m sorry, P.,” my little sister—normally so withdrawn that we jokingly called her “the ostrich,” since she’d rather stick her head in the sand—broke in, “but that doesn’t remind me of my dad at all.”
“Me neither,” I added. “I’ve never even heard that song before.” I left unsaid the other thought pacing the halls of my mind, twisting my stomach up in a mix of rage and embarrassment: how tacky it felt. We were really going to play him in to some mediocre country hit? This was actually up for discussion?
“Well maybe you girls just don’t know your father as well as you think. None of you really saw him that often,” P. said. I could see Claire revving herself up for the attack.
“Since there’s some disagreement,” the priest said, his voice calm, but loud enough to carry over everyone else’s, “let me suggest that we opt for something more traditional. You do have some choice here, but generally, we prefer a beloved hymn or religious song to open the mass.”
“Fine, then,” P. said, standing up and grabbing her cavernous black tote. “Just plan the whole thing without me.”
And she stormed out of the room.
Liz looked at us apologetically and followed after her mother. For the next 10 minutes, I communicated with my three sisters mostly through eye-rolling. I’d sigh loudly and raise an eyebrow at Claire, who would throw her eyes all the way into the back of her skull, head shaking back and forth, then Jane would join in with an annoyed smirk. Nicole just managed to look amused the whole time; 20 years our senior, she was able to take the whole thing more in stride. Or at least hide her feelings better. Finally, when we’d all but exhausted our limited proficiency in the language, they returned.
“So glad you’re back!” Father Greg said cheerily. “There’s really just one more question we all have to settle, then I’ll let you go, since I know you’re all busy right now. Will we be having a closed or open casket?”
“Open, definitely,” P. said.
My jaw dropped in time with my stomach. She couldn’t mean that. Not really. This was even worse than Travis fricking Tritt.
“P., I really don’t think dad would want that,” my older sister started, her voice slightly pleading. “He wouldn’t want all his friends to remember him that way. For us to remember him that way.”
“I’m surprised you’d say that, Claire,” P. returned, smiling tightly. “I’d think you’d want one last chance to see your father. I know I do.”
“But not like that,” she sputtered.
I joined in, terrified of the ghoulish almost-dad we’d all have to face. “I don’t think he’d want that either, honestly. When my grandpa died, he even told me that he wouldn’t want that.” I wasn’t sure that was the truth—I’d only been 9 when my grandpa died, after all—but it felt true. It should have been true.
“Well he must have changed his mind since then,” P. said tightly. “He and I had discussed the topic, and he told me he preferred an open coffin.”
“That doesn’t—” Claire started.
“And since I have the final say on it, I think we should respect his wishes,” she added, eyes narrowing.
Claire slumped back, defeated. I just stared, my body tingling slightly, buzzing with a static that made it hard for me to understand what had happened.
Because after that there was nothing else to say. After all, the final say had been final said.
Liz and P. stalked out the door, while my sisters and I gathered our things.
“Before you go,” the priest said, with a small polite cough.
All four of us turned towards him.
“I know not all of you are of the faith, but I want you to know that if you ever need to talk about any of this, my door is always open. Even if it’s just for a half hour. I know your situation right now is…let’s call it challenging. Perhaps one of the more ‘challenging’ family dynamics I’ve ever had to face. It might help to have someone there to listen.
“I promise,” he added, his eyes crinkling into a smile, “I won’t even try to convert you.”
I laughed gratefully, manically almost, at the unwitnessed minor victory. Then we all zipped up our coats and headed out, back into the cold February day.
Jilly Gagnon lives in Boston but she’s a Midwesterner at heart. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair online, and Boston’s alt-weekly, The Dig, among others. An adapted version of this essay appears in her first young adult novel, for which she’s currently seeking representation.