I went to the funeral for my best friend’s mother.
Kathy’s from a very small Midwestern town, with less than a thousand residents and four drinking establishments, one of which her family owned. During our college years, we spent many weekends at that small-town tavern. It had old hardwood floors that hadn’t been resurfaced in decades and a handmade bar that had. There were electronic dart games in one corner and sand volleyball courts outside under the lights. Beers were seventy-five cents; shoes were optional. For special occasions, they’d remove a ceiling tile and hand out permanent markers so everyone could sign the tile. The television always played country music videos.
Kathy’s parents lived just a couple blocks from the tavern, in one of those houses where the door were always unlocked because everyone was always welcome. Betty always had cold beer, fresh-baked cookies, and a stack of games ready to play. She also collected chickens. Ceramic chickens, wooden chickens, china chickens, and fabric chickens perched on the shelves and most free space around the kitchen and wandered into the dining room.
A few years ago, Kathy’s beloved dad was diagnosed with cancer. A proud old military guy, he freaked out when they tried putting him in the MRI machine and couldn’t do it. He was devastated with shame, calling himself a chicken.
I sent him an email: “You wouldn’t let them tape your legs together and put you into a tube? You sound like a freakin’ genius to me. Now, no more talk of chickens or Betty’s going to put you in the kitchen.”
Some months after that, he passed away, at home surrounded by his family. Betty died four years later, also from cancer, also at home surrounded by family. We should all be so lucky, and so loved.
One of Kathy’s oldest friends, Kellie, is from an even smaller town, where they’re always “hotter than a whore in church,” or “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra,” or “busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger.” I sat with her at the funeral.
The priest was new — an old guy, for sure, but he hadn’t known the family for long. He had a flair for the over-dramatic, with a deep voice and a habit of being a little too generous with pregnant pauses.
“Thank you all. . .for being here. . .and I know the family. . .thanks you as well. . .we are here. . .to celebrate. . .the life. . .the LIFE, not the death. . .of Elizabeth. . .who has joined the Holy Father. . .for all of eternity. . .eternity. . .eternity. . . .”
I looked up. Our man of the cloth was echoing himself, really driving the point home that Betty was gone for good. I found myself pulled from sadness, rapt with curiosity for what he might say next.
“The children. . .have written. . .what might be considered a eulogy. . .it’s something the children have written. . .and rather than wait. . .until the end. . .which is when we typically. . .read a eulogy. . .I’m going to read it now. . .these are the words of the children..not the word of the Lord. . .I trust there will be no confusion.”
Well, at least not about that.
The eulogy was lovely, warm and funny, and it ended with an anecdote about how just a few days before, when Betty was dying and in so much pain she could barely stand, she got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, then walked across the house to get a blanket just to cover her son who was sleeping on the couch.
When the priest got to his own “message” it went something like this:
“Last week. . .I went to visit with the family. . .and give Elizabeth last rites. . .and at the same time. . .something big was happening. . .somewhere over in Europe. . .I don’t know what it was. . .something with atoms and physics. . .something big. . .they had a machine. . .it was supposed to recreate. . .the Big Bang. . .I’m sure scientists there know more about it. . .but it was big. . .huge. . .very important. . .life-creating. . .I don’t know what it was. . . ”
Kellie leans over and says, “You want to see creation, you should watch puppies being born.”
” . . .and there are wars. . .thirty-seven wars going on in the world today. . .we don’t hear about most of them. . .I don’t know. . .but that’s very important too. . .very important. . .not as important. . .as a woman who opens her house. . .to everyone. . .to make sure no one. . .is alone. . .on Easter. . .or Thanksgiving. . .or Christmas. . .not as important. . .as a mother who gets up in the middle of the night. . .to cover her son. . .with a blanket. . .not as important. All those big things . . .happening in the world..very important. . .very important. Not as important as that.”
I’m getting one of the chickens.