There are certain days that don’t feel real.
We woke up on Saturday and I never felt quite settled. I couldn’t get comfortable in whatever chair I was sitting in and I felt compelled to pace around the house more than usual.
The hour for the funeral was approaching and the weight of its inevitability and meaning pressed into my chest.
I wanted time to slow down. I wanted it to pause and hold me in its arms for a while longer.
My father-in-law, Tommy, should have been half-jokingly saying, “I ain’t waiting on you all day!” while we attempted to scramble out the door in time. He should have been sitting in his green-striped recliner plucking a few notes on his banjo while waiting on us.
I shouldn’t be going to his memorial service.
That morning I walked into the kitchen to get some breakfast. The coffee pot was on and gurgling brightly.
Tommy and I always drank coffee together. When the four of us were camping at a music festival in central Illinois, he made coffee for the two of us every morning. When I was visiting family in Dallas a few years back for Thanksgiving he brought a French press and a bag of Community Coffee because he knew I’d want some. Every morning at work I pour myself coffee into a commemorative mug from Cornerstone festival, which he bought me every summer we went.
After he first got sick, Tommy couldn’t have any more coffee. He tried decaf for a while, but after so many years of drinking regular, decaf just didn’t cut it and he ended up giving it up altogether. He made me coffee once or twice after that, but eventually the smell was just too tempting for him.
So even though the brewing coffee in the kitchen that Saturday morning was everything I needed and it was going to help me get through the next few days of grieving, it was just another symbol of his absence.
It seemed like an eternity before we could get ourselves in the car. While we stood in the driveway, a mild breeze brushed our faces. My uncle Bill looked up and said, “I am so glad the sun is shining today.”
We arrived at the church. It was a small southern Christian church nestled in a tiny town square. A sanctuary with pews, white columns and arches framed the stage, and squishy flooring that was either green or red. (I don’t remember.)
There were several white boards near the stage covered in photographs of Tommy. There were displays of CDs, instruments he made by hand, and other artifacts from his life on tables surrounded by flowers. Tommy’s bluegrass CD played over the speakers, his voice and plucked banjo notes floating in the air above our heads.
Tommy’s laughter wasn’t a booming one, but rather one that would catch you off guard. After delivering the perfect sarcastic remark or dead-pan joke you’d look over at him and his nose was crinkled, eyes lit up and he was holding his belly in a delighted snickering.
Steve said to me, “I knew he liked you when we got to Cornerstone and within five minutes you two had teamed up and were making fun of me.”
The service was beautiful. It was almost three hours of music and friends talking about his impact on them. One of my favorite parts was at the beginning of the service when Tommy’s best friend, Dan, played “Amazing Grace” on the saw. (Yes, like a tree-cutting saw.)
Dan put the saw in his lap, pulled a violin bow across the edge and bent the saw just so to play the individual notes.1 The sound reminded me of what a ghost or a flower might sound like if it tried to sing. Its whistling, timid voice sang into our cracked hearts. The simple and familiar notes of “Amazing Grace” were more potent than usual.
This was the only church, the only afternoon. We were alone and that saw was at the center of the universe. Time passed on behind us while we remained in a cocoon between loss and some kind of adjusted, new life.
1. It sounded something like this.
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