For the year 2012, my parents and I enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving at home, throwing tradition out the window and eating a linguini and sea food dish instead of turkey-and-dressing! Hey, what you can expect from a bunch of original Italian-Americans? Just to make sure we kept faith with the "American" part, you will be happy to know that we also had some pumpkin pie, pleasantly puffed with whipped cream, to add some spice to the occasion. Oh, and I mustn't forget that we watched a classic Lassie movie, too....making us thankful we had kleenex available for the "crying scenes"!
Sadly, the day after Thanksgiving, we were informed that our long-time family friend, Steve, had passed away after a long struggle with kidney failure. Although he was always in a weakened state, his death was rather unexpected. Unbeknownst to us, he had voluntarily gone off of dialisis and died that very same day. The funeral was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. My dad and I planned on doing a testimonal and I planned on singing a song for him during service held at the funeral parlor. When we arrived, I couldn't help but admire the elegent clothing of the undertakers and the courteous manner in which they handled everything. Some, I thought, were quite young to be doing such a job and seemed so mature for their age.
We were taken to a room where Steve was laid out in an open casket. This was the first time I had ever seen someone dead. For the life of me, I don't understand the concept of open caskets. I certainly wouldn't want to be seen dead, both because it tends to frighten people, and because you're sure to look the worst you ever have! People were sitting on folding chairs on both sides of an aisle with red carpeting, with the podium in front of them and the casket just behind the podium. My dad was called up first among the testimonials. He spoke about his longtime friendship with Steve, the visits, the late-night phone calls, the joint musical endeavors, and last time we saw him on St. Patrick's Day, when he clowned around by putting on "shamrock-bunny ears" and singing "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." Then dad encouraged the attendants to sing it in his honor, then and there. They did so.
I was up next. I walked up the aisle to the right of all the chairs and was ushered to the podium by the pastor. I was very near to the casket now, and I got choked up. I didn't have a prepared speech like dad, so I found myself repeating some of things he had already said with a broken voice and saying what a decent human he was. Then I mentioned Steve's constant support in my musical endeavors, and I said that I too would sing a song in his honor. I sang "Brave Wolfe", the 18th century ballad in honor of British General James Wolfe who was killed at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. The two verses I sang tended to fit Steve's struggle for life and gallant death quite well:
"Come all, you young men, all,
Let nothing fright you;
Nor your objection make,
Nor let it delight you;
Let not your courage
Til after the trial;
Let not your fancy move
At the first denial.
Sad news is come to town,
Sad news is carried;
Some say my love is gone,
And soon to be buried
Sad news is come to town,
I took to weeping
They stole away my love
Whilst I was sleeping."
I saw some people begin to dab their faces with kleenexes. My own resolve was less than strong. I returned to my seat at the back of the room and listened to the other testimonials and the sermon by the pastor. Then, when that part of the service was concluded, a recording of Steve singing and playing the guitar was played. He had lost the use of his hands in his last years, making it impossible to play the music he loved so much. It was a strange sense of surrealness, hearing his voice and seeing his body laid out. I can still hear that voice in my head. I can never believe that such a vibrant soul can be gone for good. I know within my heart he lives; I know that man was made for more than to live for a short time and then crumble into dust.
We went to the graveside and listened to the pastor's final prayers before Steve was laid to rest. Each person placed a rose on his coffin. At the end, as everyone prepared to the head to the reception at the VFW club, one of Steve's cousin's embraced me warmly and told me to keep up with my singing, that Steve would want it that way. We also spoke with Steve's brother, tears visible on his face. We handed him a kleenex. It was painful to watch such pain. At the hall, we spoke more about Steve with Jerry and Judy, his caretakers, as well as with various relations and friends. The food provided (including macaroni caserole and BBQ beef) was intensely spicy, requiring a large quanity of Sprite to douse the flames! Perhaps due to a combination of the hot kick-back, my lack of sleep the night before, and my own unsteady emotions, I felt a wee bit dizzy.
I didn't know it at the time, but that funeral would prove to be a testing ground for me to endure another funeral two months later, but this one would be for the matriarch of the Balestri Family, would take us on a journey to memory-laden place, and would strike the very core of my emotions.
|Rest in peace, Steve.....I'm still singing!|