The phone call brought more surprise than grief. I had not spoken with my cousin Ricky in three years and had barely interacted with him in my lifetime. More surprising than the news of his death by heart attack at 40 years was his father's request that I be a pallbearer and speaker at the funeral. Of course, to my knowledge, my introverted cousin had few, if any, friends. My interactions with Ricky and his family, with whom he had lived until his death, had been confined to occasional extended family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had attended only a few of these gatherings since I had moved from the East Coast to California five years prior.
The conservative Christian values and abstemious ways embraced by Ricky and his family in the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland were a far cry from my hedonistic escapades in San Francisco. Indeed, my uncle seemed to regard me with some measure of concern as a wayward soul. Upon my first return to the East Coast for a Christmas gathering after moving to California, he admonished, "Be careful out there; there are a lot of freaks." I decided against informing him that I was proud to be one of them. In fact, I considered this to be a major asset of living there.
Rolling along the idyllic countryside on a sunny autumn day, our car followed the small funeral procession. My father admired the scenery as I reviewed the bible excerpt (4:13 - 18) that my uncle had requested I recite at the church. The reading, a letter from Paul to the Thessalonians, celebrated "those who have fallen asleep." It was the only time I had read anything from the bible. Parenthetic clauses abounded in the confusing text. I felt like a bad actor reading a script; my affected manner would surely betray me as a fraud when the curtain opened.
My reverie was broken by the honks of Canadian geese navigating the picturesque landscape. Against a backdrop of chartreuse and crimson hardwood forests, gently undulating fields of recently harvested feed corn provided food and sanctuary for
dozens of flocks of resting geese. Rustic farmhouses and the occasional idle tractor further painted the bucolic picture. As we passed through a tiny crossroads town, ancient oak boughs formed a yellow canopy over our heads. From lazy front porches of festive houses, jack-o-lanterns and scarecrows watched our passage. We continued past the hardware store and a colonial inn overlooking the languid Sassafras River and its modest marina harboring immaculate little sailboats. Crossing the drawbridge, we waved to its
operator before completing the final few miles of the journey to the church.
At the end of the long unpaved driveway, the faded red brick church with its bright white steeple stood next to the only other building, a similarly modest and well preserved house for the resident priests. White marble and granite tombstones, stained and effaced by time, dotted the manicured green grass of the adjacent cemetery. A small field of dry corn lay between it and a forest of oaks, sweet gums, and maples ablaze with peak fall foliage. The entire scene looked as if it had not changed much since the construction of the church in 1740, the region's oldest catholic church.
While my guilty conscience knew that I was supposed to be grieving, I sat in the front pew, nervously awaiting my recital. An endless barrage of litanies further unnerved me, as I seemed to be the only person unfamiliar with them. I could only hope that the
mourners found solace in the arcane rituals. Stand, sit, kneel: everyone else seemed well drilled in the ancient exercises as I lagged behind. Still, I had somehow managed to maintain the charade. The start of communion, however, shattered the vestiges of my
confidence. The two priests initiated an esoteric rite involving wine goblets, Wheat Thins, and secret hand gestures. To my horror, one of the priests approached me. I did not know whether I was expected to participate in the ritual or to begin speaking in tongues; I prepared to resort to the Pig Latin I had luckily studied in elementary school. As I readied myself for this miraculous feat, someone from the audience came and stood next to me and accepted the goblet from the priest. Hallelujah, I was saved!
Following communion, Ricky's brother Ron eloquently eulogized his brother's pious life. The next eulogy had been requested by Ron's Baptist minister, an associate of his departed catholic brother. After merely mentioning Ricky in passing, the shameless
minister launched into an unabashed evangelical tirade proselytizing his own agenda. "Jesus Christ is knocking at the door to your heart, but only you can let him in. Open the door! He died for your sins, now we all have a debt to pay!" I may not be religious, but I knew that these were not the comforting words that the mourners had come seeking.
They did not want righteousness and condescension; they wanted to know that Ricky had found eternal peace. Newly inspired, I gladly recited the biblical passage conveying this message to the attentive audience. After the mass, my uncle approached me. "Robby, you did a good job for someone who..." I decided it best to prematurely accept his praise.