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I didn't know exactly what I wanted to say about Susan's funeral, only that I wanted to write about it.

Sunday night
I picked up Gavi at Bradley Airport in Connecticut and returned her to Smith College in Northampton, MA before heading down to Long Island. Once I was headed south, I set my GPS for the church in Valley Stream. I wanted to have a sense of the drive between there and Bill & Mary Burns' home in Hempstead, about 15 minutes away.

After seeing the church, I drove by the funeral home where there were still a few people outside even though the visitation was scheduled to end about 45 minutes earlier. I'd talked with Tricia Raneri on the drive down and learned folks were also hanging out at a bar around the corner from there.

I waved at Susan's adult children, Bart and Rita, each with one or more of their friends. Alison Harvey and I shared a quick, intense hug while Susan's fiancé Ed Young checked quickly with the funeral home staff -- yes, I could go in quickly and pay my respects to Susan. That was totally unanticipated and so, so comforting. Ah, Susan...your face was so still, so calm, so unlike it ever was in life. Her hand was more familiar, especially since it had often been cold these last few months. Still, lifeless. Her body was there; her spirit so clearly gone.

Susan was surrounded by an abundance of flowers -- flowers from family, from Ed, from Sandy Frank (it's the first time I've seen a "Beloved Employee" banner), and from many friends. No one who knows Sandy will be surprised to read his was the largest of all the floral tributes. Not that any of the others were in anyway small. Sandy's was also very tasteful for all that it was ginormous. All of the flowers surrounding Susan were beautiful, as was the velvet dress she wore.

Outside the church, I overheard someone saying goodbye to Ed. He was driving back to Connecticut that night and so wouldn't be at the funeral mass in the morning. I introduced myself, or maybe Ed did the honors. I asked Dan if having a place to stay nearby would make a difference, then quickly called Bill & Mary to confirm bringing another overnight guest their way. (Ed was already staying with them, as was I.)

Ed, Dan, Alison, and I walked to the bar. There might have been someone else with us, too; memory fogs. I think Kip (former CBGB's tech guy) was already there when we arrived. Tricia and others had already headed out; we all had to be up early for the Monday morning funeral.

Dan picked up my pint of Harp in appreciation for the place to stay. I talked a bit with him, with Kip, with Alison, and headed out soon after. The trip to Bill & Mary's was easy as was our conversation once I was there. Ed and Dan followed about 45 minutes later. We were soon all settled in for the night and I, as usual, stayed up too late catching up with things online.

Monday morning
We were up and out early Monday morning -- at 8:30 am there was a small gathering, prayers, and a final, personal moment with Susan before they closed the casket at the funeral home before the 9:30 am Mass at the church. There had been a similar event at Duke Targonski's funeral 15 years ago, so the format didn't surprise me.

Mary was up making coffee and toast for each of us. Key lime marmalade: yum. There was cereal available, too.

I'd talked with Ed while I was still in Massachusetts and we both thought I'd be driving him that day, but when the moment came he wanted drive himself. I gave Dan a ride, and later accordion player Marnie, too, on the short procession to the church and the much longer one to the cemetery.

There were a couple dozen people or so at the funeral home. I understand there had been a standing room only crowd during Sunday's visitation. Ed said the funeral home staff estimated a total of 400-500 people were there over the course of the afternoon and evening!

I was especially glad to see Sandy, a friend from Susan's 7 months at Calvary Hospice. Sandy's son, Lee, died a few months ago of the same brain cancer that took Susan. When Ed made a shiva call, Sandy sent him back to Calvary with boxes and boxes (and bags and boxes) of cookies and pastries they'd received. There were far, far more than any dozen people could consume in months of indulgence. Ed and I had such fun distributing them to the staff in the middle of the night. So often it's the day shift that gets the benefit of such treats. Since Lee's death, Sandy visited Susan every week before the parents' grief group she's attending at Calvary. My stays with Susan coincided with two of her visits and I greatly enjoyed talking with her

Susan's Goddaughter Rachel was also a joy to meet. I then had the added pleasure of learning that Rachel is Barbara's daughter. Barbara -- Susan's friend since high school who I'd only finally met during my stay with Susan the week before.

Monday was such a hard day, the ever-present grief sometimes over-flooding one or more of us. We comforted each other and made it through.

The funeral itself
The Funeral Mass was lovely. Susan's preferred priest, Father Rob, did a fine job. There were 75 or more people in the congregation, again, more than were expected given the time and location. Those of us who came in with the small procession from the funeral home were the last into the church. I was surprised to see that people most people were sitting on the left, the traditional bride's side of the aisle. One of the ushers asked me to make sure family members received the last few copies of the program. They were down to only 4 copies with a dozen or so people still arriving. Although there were plenty of friends I could have easily sat with in the crowd on the left, I ended up slipping into an empty pew just 3 rows back, behind John DeSalvo, Alison Harvey, and Alison's mother.

Ed spoke at length about the miracles of his and Susan's relationship. He was followed by heartfelt, perfect words from Tricia and, unexpectedly, from Cheap Perfume's drummer Brenda. The male organist sang 3 of the 4 songs and Marnie sang "Ave Maria" during Communion. Beautiful. The other three songs were "Be Not Afraid," "Amazing Grace," and "On Eagle's Wings" ("And He Will Raise You Up on Eagle's Wings").

I hope Susan would be laughing as much as I am over the bizarre experience that followed Communion. I've known the Catholic Church has closed communion since I first attended Mass with my friend Ken Coviak in 1973. Not being Catholic, I've of course never taken Communion there. I attended Mass with Susan at Mount Sinai, and every time it was possible at Calvary. Thanks to the daily Mass at Calvary, I've been far more times in the last 11 months than I had been in the previous 37 years.

To my surprise, Father Rob gave non-Catholics a way to come up for a blessing during Communion. He explained how we should cross our arms on our chest with fists closed when we came up while the Catholics receiving Communion held their hands out for the Host. He invited those of us who wanted to come up in Susan's honor, in Susan's memory, to do so. I gladly went up, crossing my arms as he instructed, gratefully received his blessing and returned to my seat. That's when things got bizarre, at least to this non-Catholic's eyes.

I shed tears several times during the service. One of those times happened as I sat back in my pew, listening to Marnie's beautiful voice. I had silent sobs, with shoulders shaking but no sound emerging. A moment later, I felt a soft hand on my left arm, then heard Father Rob quietly asking if I'd consumed the Host.

"What? No."

If I hadn't consumed the Host, he needed it back. There couldn't be any leftover pieces. Did I have it?

"No!"

He asked once again, and I told him I'd crossed my arms, repeating the gesture as I sat there, thoroughly bewildered that the Priest was really there, quietly, urgently explaining I had to return to him a Host I'd never had, that I never would have taken.

"But didn't I put it in your hand?" he persisted.

"No!"

I don't think I actually said "And I wouldn't have taken it if you had," but I was certainly thinking that.

I'd done everything he instructed, just as he said, yet here he was, stopping the funeral service and kneeling beside me, urgently trying to solve a very real problem I had nothing to do with. It was thoroughly surreal.

The reason became clear on the steps outside the church. Father Rob had mistaken me for Alison, who had indeed walked away with the Host in her palm before consuming it when she sat down. Being mistaken for each other added to our amusement. It had happened so many times at Mount Sinai and Calvary, it's really no surprise it happened at Susan's funeral, too. But I don't know if I'll ever be able to bring myself to go up for another priest's blessing if invited to do so again! The incident really does belong in a movie somewhere.

To the cemetery
About 50 people from the church formed the 18-mile funeral procession to the cemetery. Thanks to Marnie, it turned out to be my personal best funeral procession ever. Ed wanted "Ordinary Girls" sung at Susan's gravesite after everyone else left and Marnie practiced on her accordion during the drive to East Farmingdale. Live music in my home is among my very favorite of things. Singing "Ordinary Girls" along with Marnie and Dan on the way to Saint Charles Cemetery was awesomely good and comforting.

I had a chance to speak briefly with Susan's daughter Rita at the cemetery, assuring her it was okay that she didn't want to go near her mother's casket. I was pleased and reassured Rita was surrounded by supportive friends then as she was at the church and the night before.

At the Palermo gravesite, we each received a flower to put on the casket. A different priest led the prayers, then we slowly, slowly filed up one by one, placed our flowers, then backtracked our steps so the next person could do the same. The science fiction convention runners reading this won't be in the least bit surprised that one of the fans present quietly pointed out to me that it would be ever so much more efficient if they'd had the exit at the far edge of the burial platform. I think that was Bill Wagner, though it easily could have been Moshe.

It was a *gorgeous* day. Sunny, warm, blue skies, breezy.

Most of us stayed for a very long time after all the flowers were placed and the formalities were over. Susan's immediate family didn't want any music, so we quietly abandoned Ed's plan for "Ordinary Girls." Marnie caught a ride to the nearest train station with another friend. I mentioned...to Alison, I think...that the part I've hated most about the graveside gatherings I've been to is that they typically don't lower the casket until after everyone's left. I totally abhor walking away from a casket still sitting above ground; I'm much more one to help shovel the dirt in. All of the dirt. I think I got that bit of "finish the job" sensibility from my father.

As it turned out, we ended up hanging around long enough that they lowered the casket while I was helping Marnie get her bag out of my car. Another comfort for me, and probably hard for at least some of the others. By this time, only a dozen or so remained. Ed knelt at the edge of the platform. His flower had fallen off the casket and he spent a hard moment parting with it once more. I walked over to the tall mound of dirt covered with a tarp next to the grave, picked up a handful of dirt, and tossed it in. Sandy observed I might as well be Jewish. Ed thanked me for thinking of that, and followed with a handful of his own, as did Alison, I think. Hey, I was at least well-mannered enough that I didn't return to my car, pull out the coal shovel I carry during winter travel, and start truly filling the hole. That single handful of dirt was symbolic enough, far more than the symbolic flower will ever be.

I have this theory about death and grief. When a loved one dies, it's like there's a black hole of neediness. We all need the great big thing we simply can't have; our loved one is going, is gone, not alive and healthy like we need them to be. In the face of that black hole, a rush of other needs all take on far more importance and urgency than they ordinarily do. And sometimes (often) those needs clash. Susan's family needed no music, Ed needed music. Susan's friends needed music. There was more music than the family needed or wanted at the visitation, less than Ed needed on Monday. And oh, so many other small details, details that would ordinarily roll off our shoulders, but this wasn't an ordinary time; Susan wasn't an Ordinary Girl.

Yet we somehow made it through. We can expect and demand no more at such times.

Getting out of the cemetery was non-obvious. It's huge and there wasn't an easy procession to follow as there had been earlier. My GPS didn't have the interior roads for Saint Charles (it does for some cemeteries), so Dan and I followed our noses and did our best to avoid other processions still in progress. I was croggingly entertained by the last one we passed. In addition to the hearse, there were two flatbed trucks with flowers mounded high on them. An enormous slot machine made of flowers towered above the flowers in the first flatbed. Three red 7s were lined up in the payout window, all made of flowers just as the rest of the rest of the slot machine was, large handle and all. I can't help but wonder if they left the floral slot machine at that gravesite as we did with the selected flowers the funeral home brought out along with Susan.

Back to Bill and Mary's
Ed, Dan, and I all left our luggage and such at Bill & Mary's. They invited Bill Wagner, Hank Davis, Moshe Feder, and Lise Eisenberg back and ordered pizza for all of us. We watched part of an Imax film at the International Space Station on Bill & Mary's 55" 3-D TV. Wow. I now get what in-home 3D TV is all about.

Mary took Moshe, Hank, and Lise to catch the 3:17 train; Bill, Ed, and I all left around 4. Joe and Edie's home was on my way north. I stopped to say hi and ended up staying for sushi with them before driving home, sweet home that night. I talked with elaine_brennan

Onward
I hope to return to New York to be there for Danny Liberman's birthday dim sum this coming Sunday and the memorial concert for Susan at Otto's Shrunken Head tiki lounge & bar that night. I'm very clearly still processing the funeral itself and the 11 months that proceeded it. It was an honor to help out and to keep a few dozen of Susan's friends updated as I could throughout the long, long 11 months since I learned of her hospitalization and GBM diagnosis. Her friendship was such a blessing in my life, and I'm glad to know mine was in hers as well.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
batwrangler
Dec. 1st, 2011 01:11 am (UTC)
*hugs*
vgqn
Dec. 1st, 2011 05:25 am (UTC)
It sounds like it was a beautiful, if sometime surreal, experience. *hugs*
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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