My mother and I have always joked that our family is good at death. My husband maintains that rather than being good at it, we are obsessed with it. To someone from Los Angeles who grew up without religion it probably does seem that way. I reply that his family is our obverse. They are a wedding family: extremely good at celebrating the joy in life and completely at a loss when it comes to death. I'd say that each could probably take a page from the other. But it doesn't really work that way.
We are undeniably good at funerals. As small a family as we are, for a long time we were top heavy with oldsters, and every year there was a great-uncle or a great-aunt or a grandparent to mourn. We still observe the rituals of an earlier time. There is no black crape over the door and we don't wear mourning clothes for a year, but we mostly follow the script that our ancestors did. We do things the way they have always been done. We have visitations at Pearson's. We have church funerals at St. Andrews, we sing "For All the Saints". We bury our dead at Cave Hill, and then afterward we have wakes at home and serve melon balls and country ham sandwiches and cheesecake brownies.
I know how to behave at a funeral in Louisville, Kentucky. I know what to wear (although my mother did complain that my black Banana Republic sweater was too low-cut for my aunt Ellen's funeral). I know how to sit on a brocade sofa with someone who is no longer able to stand for long and listen to an incomprehensible tale about something that happened in 1936. I know how to subsume my emotions, whatever they are, into the task at hand. I know how to dole out tears like hand soap; just a little bit and at the appropriate time.
Balthazar died in a foreign country; that is, he died in Portland, Oregon. I had never been the primary mourner before, only a supporting character. My job had always been to look nice and be polite and represent the family. I had never organized a funeral, and I didn't know what to do when it was a baby and not an eighty-seven year-old with organ failure. There was no reporter from the Courier-Journal on the phone. The only family I was representing was the family that had almost been four.
I called Holman's Funeral Home on Hawthorne because they handled the arrangements when my friend Gwen's father died and she said they were good. I arranged for a memorial service at Westminster Presbyterian because I couldn't bear the thought of doing nothing. But we didn't invite family to fly in, though there was time. We didn't invite anyone, feeling strange about asking people to come when they didn't know him. We were the only ones who knew him.
I told Laurie, the minister, that I didn't want "For All the Saints". That hymn is for my grandfather, someone resting from his long years of earthly labor, not for Balthazar, who never got to do anything. I asked for Our God Our Help in Ages Past, but I warned Laurie I wouldn't be able to sing, which was a good thing since the words would ring pretty false. I asked for O Waly Waly, which I once heard Judy Collins sing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I asked for Ashoken Farewell and the minister found a soloist to play it on the violin. My father and I had had our first dance at my wedding to that song. At the time I wondered why the band had picked it. Was he really supposed to be that sad that I was married and leaving him? That was not the kind of dad I had at all. But for the funeral of a baby, evoking as it did all of the mothers who had lost sons in the Civil War, it was perfect.
I chose a Wendell Berry poem from a book the minister had sent. You'd think I'd be better at picking poems than I am. My mental storehouse is somehow better at collecting and remembering music. I knew Auden's "Funeral Blues" was wrong. A poem for an adult, not a child. I thought Wendell Berry was right, the way Ashoken Farewell was right. I had wrapped the child in a Churchill Weavers blanket and I would make his funeral as redolent of Kentucky as I could. Jonathan wanted the Walt Whitman, so that went into the program too.
I wore a black dress I'd bought in the fall to wear to give a talk at a book group luncheon, black tights, black suede ballet flats, and an old green cardigan sweater with a missing button. Most of my clothes still didn't fit. The minister asked if we wanted to have a coffee afterward, but since we didn't invite anyone that seemed unnecessary.
We sat there, the three of us, Jasper in the middle, Balthazar's ashes on a dais, still in the little cardboard box. I'd been on the internet at 3 in the morning for several days, looking, without success, for an attractive extra small urn.
I feel manipulative writing about extra small urns, like Ernest Hemingway with his six word short story: "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn." I can't think of anything sadder than trying to choose an extra small urn. But it's the truth. It's what I did. All the time thinking, this is ridiculous. I couldn't make this stuff up.
I hated all the urns. The ones for kids were so cheesy, with teddy bears and Mary Engelbreit-looking angels on them. Then I started feeling guilty for having such thoughts. Was I really considering a matter of taste with regard to my dead baby? But yes. My dead baby would not be a cheesy one. He would be dead in the style I preferred. I ordered a Ukrainian wooden box from Etsy, but it didn't arrive in time.
Gwen's husband had cut some lilacs from their garden and arranged them in a simple glass vase, which stood on the dais next to the ashes. I was glad I'd thought to bring them. All the funerals I'd gone to, the church had been filled with flowers, but the day before the service it occurred to me that it was because people had sent them, and then other people had transported them to the church. The flowers people had sent us three weeks before were already droopy. But a single vase of fresh lilacs was more appropriate anyway.
There were a few other people there, members of the church. Someone I'd been on a committee with. An older couple I recognized but didn't really know. The education director. The music was played and the poems read, and the minister spoke of Balthazar's journey being done. Jonathan and I both cried unceasingly. Jasper patted one of us, then the other. My grandmother would have called them 'love taps'. For three weeks Jonathan and I had been taking turns losing it and I worried what Jasper would feel, seeing both of his parents utterly incapacitated at the same time, but there was nothing to be done. Then Jasper cried, too, and we patted him. I kept my arm tightly around him. For him or for me? I don't know.
Balthazar was cremated, not buried. My first thought had been to bury him at Lone Fir Cemetery on Stark Street, but Jonathan wanted him cremated. My mother asked if I wanted to bury his ashes at Cave Hill.
"She's saying that he is a part of her family," my therapist said. It was a powerful symbolic gesture, offering him a coveted place in the family section, but I said no. I said that his home was here, and that I couldn't bear it for him to be so far away from me. I thought that eventually we would take his ashes up Top Spur, maybe scatter them at McNeil Point on Mt. Hood, but neither of us had the heart to do it this summer. We may never have the heart to do it.
The way people live is always changing, but death hasn't changed. The emotions of grief and loss have not changed. In the midst of life we are in death, and it must be acknowledged. Balthazar had a nice memorial service, as right and appropriate as any funeral in my family. Even if when my mom and I said we were good at death we didn't know what the hell we were talking about.