This is the third in a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent remembering and lamenting is what’s happening here. Onward.]
Preparing for a funeral is an odd business, especially in the COVID era. There are no vaccines yet, and we have no idea how any of this is going to go. Mark’s funeral has to be outside, and it can’t have very many attendees, and there will be no modern screen on which to stream photos, and scheduling it takes some time. But that is all in other people’s hands. The only thing I can add is empty whimsy. I do this by putting together a couple foam-board photo displays and ordering flowers.
The photo foam-boards are very low-rez, low-tech, and low-skill. Before we leave Wisconsin, I rifle through my physical photos and grab a random assortment of old Mark pics. I spend a bit of time on my computer and print some more recent pics onto regular paper, because that’s all I’ve got. I throw that all into an envelope and the envelope disappears into the cavernous rented minivan. In Stockton, I buy a couple poster-size foam boards and I use a glue stick to stick photos on them. I hand-write some words – birth date, death date, brother, friend, son, that sort of thing.
I get Mark’s birthday wrong but no one even notices until after the funeral.
It’s not well done, but it’s done well enough. Mark would appreciate the effort and laugh, I think.
Many many years ago, while I was still practicing law and experiencing unholy levels of stress and anxiety, I did a lot of knitting. It was neurotic and intense, of course. I made original-design Irish fisherman sweaters covered in extreme cabling for Anthony and lace blankets for various babies, working from a couple encyclopedic book collections of stitches. Once I made Anthony a sweater out of a gorgeous nubby grey-brown wool, but the dimensions didn’t come out quite right for him. I took it with me to California that Christmas and offered it to Mark.He put it on. The sweater didn’t reach the top of his pants, and the arms went halfway down his hands. But he claimed he loved it. I sort of believed him.
Eventually, Mark admitted to me that he wore the sweater occasionally as a novelty. He would put it on when friends were over. He demonstrated for me.
“Do you like this sweater? My sister knitted it.”
<A perfectly timed pause as he looks down and takes in the overlong arms and short torso:>
“She’s a lawyer.”
In addition to the photo posters, I remember to order funeral flowers. I go to FTD.com and look through the funeral wreaths. I want to get one of those big ones that sit on an easel. But as I stare at the bleached-out white-flower samples, I just can’t. It’s all so blank and cold. Through the computer screen I can practically smell the stink of lilies, the stench of death rites. If I get one of these wreaths, I’ll feel it grimly judging Mark and me and all of us. Mark deserves something more joyful and glorious to send him off. He doesn’t need to be judged anymore.
Back in 2001, there were a lot of flowers at my dad’s funeral, and a lot of flowers were delivered to mom’s house as well.
I didn’t understand the scope of it until Anthony and I went over to Mark’s house a couple days after the funeral. We walked into a sort of wonderland. Mark had taken home as many of the funeral flowers as he could. He disassembled them and filled every vase, bowl, and glass, every flower-capable vessel in his house, with his own re-arrangements of flowers, large and small. Every table and shelf was covered in flowers, hundreds of flowers, no exaggeration.
I don’t think Mark was using crank at that point in his life, but he might as well have been. He was buzzing, mentally and physically, like a bee in the heart of summer. He pottered about the rooms in a nervous fuss, describing what he was thinking about with the arrangements, adjusting flowers, moving containers from here to there, checking the water, describing to us his artistic thinking and decisions. This flower here because its color goes with that flower; this blue arrangement, this yellow arrangement, these tall, those short.
I thought it was a very beautiful and very, very strange way to cope with the grief of watching his father die.
The flowers for Mark’s funeral have become weirdly important to me too. After spending unreasonable amounts of time making a decision, I order a multi-colored easel wreath through FTD.com, to be delivered to the cemetery.
When I get to the funeral site, under a small tent on the lawn at the cemetery, the wreath has already been delivered. It’s huge and fantastic and colorful. There it sits, monolithic and perfect next to my sorry-ass foam board photo displays.
The humans at the funeral look at each other meaningfully and cringe through the awkward moments and touch each other for support and cry and hug and breath. The wreath does not care.
After the funeral, the wreath heads on to Mom’s house, where it gets set up poolside. I finally take a closer look at it and see there’s a card. I open the card.
It’s not my wreath.
This enormous, gorgeous, rainbow wreath has been sent by a thoughtful cousin who lives in Seattle. My $300 wreath has not arrived. Damn. But apparently, I’m not the only one who understood we shouldn’t say good bye to Mark in all-white flora. So that’s good.
I call the local florist and there’s been a mixup. She thought the funeral was tomorrow. There is sadness in her voice. I know what Mark would do, and it’s the same as what I do: I tell her to send the wreath over to Mom’s house. We can enjoy it poolside along with the cousin’s wreath.
My wreath arrives on its easel a few hours later. It’s beautiful and colorful and all the right things, inane and whimsical and I don’t know why we do so much with flowers when a person dies. Why? Why cut a bunch of beautiful living things off from their mother plant and send them to people grieving for a death, just so we can watch more things wilt and die? Why can’t we do something more permanent, more… alive?
A couple weeks ago, for about 20 seconds Mark was still alive. Sometimes this happens with me, and then I have to say goodbye to him anew. This is how I remember the most recent round, through the hurricane haze of emotions:
I was going somewhere or coming from somewhere, in the car. I pulled into wherever I was landing. I was thinking about all sorts of things in my racing-thoughts way and a thing came into my mind that made me chuckle and roll my eyes. I reached for my phone, thinking, “oh this’ll make Mark laugh, I think I’ll give him a call.”
I had the phone in my hand before I realized there is no longer a Mark I can call. I experienced it physically, just exactly like I’d been punched lightly in the gut. My shoulders hunched and I bent forward a little, and my breath left me in a small puff. I put the phone back down and tried to re-arrange my mind to reality. When I succeeded, I wept for a little while and then carried on.