Monday, July 1, 2013

As Big as the Sky

Teddy absolutely hates when he thinks that something is gone forever. This tendency makes golfing really hard, because any lost ball is a mini-tragedy. Uncle Sean, his frequent golf partner, has been working on this with him, trying to teach him that it’s OK to lose a golf ball. Sean said he’s made some progress, but I can tell Teddy’s got a long way to go. Part of me thinks that we should buy some of those biodegradable golf balls and drive a bunch of them into the ocean; that maybe he could be purged of his anxiety. Then again, maybe we would have planted the seed of a terrible nightmare. Yeah, forget that idea.

On Saturday, after Mary’s funeral, Sean had just come off a 3-hour video game binge with Teddy when we got to talking about the Aaron Hernandez jersey swap. I told Sean that we were going to take the Patriots Pro Shop up on their offer to exchange Teddy’s jersey. The #81 replica was one of Teddy’s big gifts last Christmas; an effort to ease his pain over the injury to his favorite player (Rob Gronkowski).

When Teddy overheard Sean and I talking about the jersey swap, he lost it. I don’t want you to take my Aaron Hernandez jersey, he wailed in hysterical tears. To calm him down, I told him I wouldn’t, that we would talk about it. I knew that was just a temporary fix, however, and that in the end, if he pushed, I'd have to explain to him that he'd never be able to wear that jersey ever again.

* * *

I didn't think a lot about Mary's funeral until I was on my way there Saturday morning. I would have prepared myself on the run I had planned a few hours before, but once I had my sneakers on, Annabel begged me not to go. Obviously, I didn't. Instead, around 7am, I took her for a short walk around the neighborhood in her umbrella stroller (I've given up on the jogger with its persistant flat tires and vicious pull to the right). Annabel alerted me to every "bow-d" or "skwa-wel" she saw and I tried to keep up my level of enthusiasm. We strolled down the main road for just a few minutes of our loop, and when Annabel asked me why there were no "caws," I explained to her that she should sleep later.

Mary was a devout Catholic. In fact, part of why she moved to the United States was because Catholicism was not well tolerated by the communist government in Vietnam. I'm not Catholic, although lots of my family and friends are. Through them, I’ve been to several Catholic weddings, funerals, and way back in high school, even a Christmas Eve mass.

I have to admit that Catholic churches intimidate me a bit. When I’m there, I feel some fluctuating combination of foreign, curious, uneducated, and rude, especially when people recite prayers that I don't know, when I botch a peace-be-with-you handshake, or when almost everyone but me touches their face with their thumb in response to a cue I have never figured out. But when it's time to listen to what the priest is preaching, I listen. It’s as if I’m a hungry, though very picky eater—every sentence that is tossed out to me is food for me to dissect and inspect; to digest if I decide it's something that I want to be a part of me.

Nina, her brother (who I will call “Ty”), and their father, were all at the back of the church when I entered Saturday morning. I was able to hug them and give them my sympathies before I took my seat. Ty’s hug was strong, kind of what I’d expect from a teenage boy who just lost his mother and was trying so hard to be a man about it. Nina’s embrace, on the other hand, was so desperately weak, as if she needed someone to hold her up. She probably did.

The service was almost an hour and a half long, which made it the longest mass I have ever attended. Except for a two-minute Thank You from Mary’s uncle, it was entirely in Vietnamese.

I’ve heard before that when a person loses a sense, his or her other senses sharpen, as if to try to compensate. At Mary's funeral, I came to believe that that may actually be true.

For the first few minutes of the tribute to Mary, I wished for one of those little ear pieces that they use at the U.N., or even some kind person to whisper the main ideas in my ear. I’d have paid money for subtitles, but I realized quickly that I wasn't going to understand a word of Mary's funeral.

I’d be giving myself way too much credit if I claimed that I consciously decided to “make the best of it” because I wasn’t really in the mood for that. Rather, I so desperately wanted to hear how the priest tried to explain this tragedy to a church full of grieving people. I wanted to understand how he could make sense of the fact that Mary’s beautiful photo sat atop a small wooden box, her body so wounded by cancer that an open casket was not even an option. I wanted some food to fill my starving stomach and some comfort to ease my aching heart. I know, it sounds so selfish of me. I could pretend that I watched Mary’s family the whole time to see how they were doing from their inner circle. But I didn’t. Instead, I mostly stared at Mary’s gorgeous smile in a big gold frame.

Still, I listened, just not to words. As the choir sang, I thought to myself that I have never heard music more beautiful. It wasn't solemn, even though it had every right to be. It was bold and humble; reverent and strong; sympathetic and hopeful. It was, well, just like Mary.

I watched the priest pace at the front of the stage, trying to comfort people that he seemed to know. His tone fluctuated from one posing delicate questions to one posing possible answers. After I gave up wondering what those answers may have been, I merely felt comfort in watching this man who seemed, so sincerely, to want to help.

And I saw cameras—two video cameras and one digital zoom. The Vietnamese cameramen recorded everything as I have only seen done by wedding photographers. I was so fascinated by this; by a culture that would, in a way, embrace a funeral as a life experience. I wondered who would ever go back and watch that video, and why they would do so. I had so much respect for a family that would choose to memorialize a significant event despite how tragic it felt to them. The act of doing so felt so very honest.

In the end, Mary's funeral was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. I can't even rightfully explain it, but there was something surreal and awesomely powerful about those few hours of Vietnamese prayer and song in the midst of an otherwise totally regular and fun-filled weekend.

On the way home, I clicked past a radio station that was talking about the Aaron Hernandez jersey swap; about how the ex-football star was essentially being erased. All of the sudden, what had felt so tragically unfair to me a few days before felt so very different—not necessarily right, but somewhat more just.  

I realized that I will erase my son's memory of Aaron Hernandez by getting rid of an over-priced shirt. But my kids will always know about Mary. One day, I'm sure they'll understand that most of the world's greatest heros never got a jersey with their name on the back. They just had kids. And they loved those kids more than anything, or, as I now tell Teddy and Annabel, they loved them as big as the sky....all the way up to Heaven.

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