A few years ago, my grandfather passed away.
It wasn’t unexpected. He’d had emphysema for about fifteen years, and had been walking around with about 10% of one lung for the last five, but he was a great man and a good guy and we were pretty busted up over it, as you always are in these cases, no matter how long you’ve seen the handwriting on the wall.
The subject of his funeral had been a big bone of contention in our family prior to his death. In order to save money (and, I suspected, the unseemly pagentry of an Irish Catholic funeral) he’d wanted to be cremated. However, my grandmother wanted to be buried, and you can’t go half and half in a military cemetary: either you both go in the flower pot, or neither of you do. In the end, we all agreed that he’d be buried, but that there wouldn’t be any big to do, and we’d keep it as simple as possible.
“And any more out of you,” He said to my aunt, waving the pen with which he’d been writing down the details of his own final arrangements. “And I’ll hire a rabbi and we’ll do the whole thing in Hebrew, and don’t think I’m kidding.”
My grandfather being the sort of guy he was — Brooklyn boy, Marine Top Sargent, whiskey man, survivor of Guadal Canal, the Great Depression and a house full of daughters — no one thought he was. A year or two later, he passed away, and all his careful funeral plans fell apart. To start with, there was an open casket, which required him to wear makeup — just like one of “those fancy fellers”, as he would have put it. There was also a minister, or a priest, I forget which — either would have annoyed the pants off of him, given that he quit all religion once he wriggled out of the nuns’ grasp at his eighth grade graduation. The details of how all this happened are murky, but anyone who has an extended and close-knit family already knows how this goes. The biggest problem by far, though, was what to do about my cousin Molly.
These days, Molly’s pretty much okay. She’s fourteen. She plays sports and does well in school, and she’s pretty and has a boyfriend and lots of friends. Back then, though, she was about nine, and suffering from something akin to autism. She still has it, of course: its called Sensory Integration Disorder, and what it means is that the sufferer doesn’t really get a lot of the finer points of social interaction. My aunt debated long and hard over whether to have Molly to the funeral. If she went, it might upset her; if she didn’t, she might not understand that Bumpa was gone. In the end, she decided to bring Molly, and to be prepared to make a quick getaway if necessary.
Molly surprised us all at first. She was always good with routine. The whole speak-listen-standup-sitdown-sing-listen-speak sequence of the funeral appealed to her sense of order. Everything went fine until the time came to go up to the front and say goodbye to our grandfather.
“You’ll come with me, though, right?” She said, taking my hand in her unnaturally strong grip.
I’d like to say that I had a sense of forboding, but I think I’m making that up. Anyway, we shuffled to the front, and knelt down by the casket, and Molly went through all the prayers she’d learned so far in school, and I folded my hands and tried to look pious, and everything was fine, until Molly stood up, and leaned over, and kissed Bumpa on the forehead. I gaped at her.
“Now you have to kiss him,” she said.
“YOU HAVE TO KISS HIM YOU HAVE TO KISS HIM YOU HAVE TO KISS HIM. KISS HIM. KISS HIM KISS HIM–”
“Okay, okay.” I looked at my grandfather, or what had been my grandfather. In truth, he resembled the man I knew just about as much as my grandfather’s suitcase, or the hat he wore to putter around the yard. His face was covered with orange makeup, and a little bit of wax protruded from the corner of his mouth, where they’d sealed his lips together. I leaned over, and kissed his forehead, and felt, horribly, how his cold, powdery skin didn’t yield at all to the pressure.
“He feels just like chicken out of the fridge,” Molly said, nodding wisely.
I patted her hand, and then rubbed compulsively for a moment at my lips. “Let’s not tell your mother that,” I said.
Just then my Great Uncle Don came up behind me, leaned over my shoulder and said to my grandfather’s body, “God knows I loved ya, Jimmy. But I ain’t kissing ya.”