I went to my third funeral last week. It was a co-worker -- 62 years old, never went to the doctor, never knew he developed hypertension, was taken by surprise by a stroke. He was getting better, the youngest guy in the ward, but these things aren't fixed on rails. He passed on a Friday and his funeral was the next Tuesday.
I attended with my co-workers. Co-worker relationships are always strange things. You don't have to bond or even have any sort of common ground, so in some cases tehse can be relationships of totally pleasant and uneventful politeness. I didn't know Tom that well. I had heard a few stories of his family, I knew where he lived, I knew his work ethic and his intelligence, but I didn't know much else about him. I didn't know his passions -- he seemed to have a general expertise on everything. I didn't know his favorite art, or the big events in his life. He was a co-worker, and one far, far above me in the hierarchy at that.
Still, he was a daily presence, and his absence was felt. What's more strange is that I was a daily presence in his. As I sat in a middle pew at his funeral, I was surrounded by people to whom he meant the world, but hadn't seen him that often. These people were pillars of his life, and it was strange that I had come in near the end -- a final season recurring character.
But death is weird how it approaches in uneven and unfair circumstances. Because I had only known Tom for a little less than a year, most of my emotional reaction was one of pity and empathy. "Poor fucking guy," I said to myself, several times in the days after I found out. He was a stubborn dude, that I knew, and he would've hated to go out that way. He would've hated being bedridden, how out of the blue it was, how unprepared he must've been. He seemed like he would've been angry if he knew it would end like that. Poor fucking guy.
I am generally unaware of what it's like to live with death. I have lost two grandparents and one distant high school friend in 27 years. Death has always been a dark shadow that creeps in from the edges. The black fade keeps edging closer and closer, and I'm frequently worried about the time it will finally hit my immediate circle. I don't know how I'll react. I don't know how I'll cope. Mostly I just hope I never find out.
This was the closest death my boss has ever had to deal with. She talked with Tom for hours every day. But she's never lost a grandparent or a close friend or anything like that. It's a big leap for her, and I don't know how people get over it once the illusion that everyone in your circle is going to be around forever. Maybe you just rebuild it.
When I saw the open casket, I could only stand in front of it with a furrowed brow. It didn't look like him, and for some reason that made me feel even more pity. In all the wakes I've been to, the deceased never looks like themselves; it's an artist's rendering of what they think they probably looked like in life. I'm not mad at them -- I know it's practically impossible and getting dead bodies to be peacefully presentable is tough. But in the few moments I had before the casket, I couldn't stop thinking about what a damn shame it was. An unexpected, unfair end and then you don't even get to look like yourself. Poor fucking guy.
Next to the casket they had one of those poster boards full of old pictures. I had never seen him in these contexts -- as a young man, at a family party, with his wife. But it made sense, it looked natural. I noticed he had always had big teeth, and in his young age it looked exactly as you would expect. It looked right. It looked better.