After the guests who came to the wake had been greeted,
after the first sight of my brother in his casket,
after the wine and the spinach dip had been
served while the slide show of Bob's life slid past,
after one of his stepdaughters applauded my version
of his passionate but illicit courting of her mother,
after she declared, "Bob was our knight in shining armor;
He rode in and saved us all,"
and before we all walked from the funeral home
to the Olive Garden next door for the raucous dinner
that must have cleared a big space in the wine cellar
as the families of the five children Mary brought to the marriage
and the daughter she and my brother had together
raised glasses to drink exuberant toasts to Bob,
came the sendoff he would have liked best.
• • •
My younger brother Dave said, "You want to go with me to say a last goodbye?" I didn't really. The body in the mahogany box wasn't my brother.
My brother's hair was always parted on the left and combed to the side, not slicked back from his forehead. A small clump often stuck out where he'd been twirling it — a sign he'd zoned out for a bit thinking about a new idea or wondering about something intriguing or puzzling.
My brother's eyes were usually twinkling, often a sign he was plotting some mischief or ready to tell one of his bawdy jokes.
My brother's nature didn't take to lying down silently. My brother lived life out loud even when it delivered body blows that would have felled a lesser man. Millions made and lost more than once, two sons dead in their 30s, one murdered and the other felled by a sudden stroke. A grandson lost to leukemia in his 20s and finally his beloved Mary disappearing into the hazy world of Alzheimer's. But always he kept going and always with a smile and a wry joke.
As Dave and I quietly opened the door into the small chapel, we saw his daughter Cindy kneeling on the prayer rail in front of the casket, her head bowed. Not wanting to intrude upon her last moments with her father, we held back. As we waited I couldn't help smiling at the Catholic markers around the casket, for to me they weren't so much religious symbols as talismans of Bob's love for Mary. Candles flickering inside red globes atop ornate golden pillars bookended his casket. A silver cross with a gold Jesus hanging from it (blessed by the Pope and placed there by a friend someone told me) stood in the raised satin-lined lid, looking down on my big brother's waxen face, his hair combed in a style he'd never worn and a black rosary he'd probably never used woven between his fingers.
My brother was raised Presbyterian. He converted after Mary's alcoholic ex-husband died so that he could marry Mary in the eyes of the Catholic Church and then one day could lie beside her, the love of his life, in the sanctified ground of the Catholic cemetery. He had buried her there only months before he would join her.
I'm not sure how much of his new religion he practiced. He never talked much about it, although he liked his untraditional priest who inspired him to work with the poor and hungry. I imagined Bob in a confessional box whispering to the priest, "Father, have you heard the one about the priest and the rabbi who walked into a bar . . . ."
Then Cindy turned and beckoned us forward. Although her eyes were red with tears, the smile on her face looked as mischievous as her father's had been. "I was just telling Dad a few more last things and I gave him something."
I didn't see anything different in the casket, no added flower or sentimental memento. The rosary was still woven through his fingers.
"Something of Mom's," she added, her grin widening. "A while back I met Dad for dinner after he'd spent the day cleaning out their condo after Mom died, as he was moving into a retirement home. He walked into the bar where I waited for him and said, 'Look what I found!' loud enough to turn heads. Then he pulled this sexy lace teddy from his pocket and held it up in front of him where everyone could see it. 'Your Mom wore this on our wedding night … the happiest night of my life.' I found it among his things and so . . ."
Cindy carefully reached her hand under the satin quilt covering the lower part of my brother's body and pulled out the scant low-cut teddy and held it up for us to see. We stood together laughing softly while the candles flickered. Then Cindy slid her hand under the quilt and replaced the talisman from the lady who loved the knight in shining armor.
Alison Strickland lives and writes in Seminole. She's a dedicated journal keeper and the author of "Harvesting Your Journals: Writing Tools to Enhance Your Growth and Creativity."