Four people are sitting side by side on a church pew, swaying together to the immortal words of Roger Miller; “Walking in the Sunshine, sing a little sunshine song. Put a Smile upon your face, as if there’s nothing wrong…”
We are the ‘primary’ mourners at a funeral – myself, my mother and my two sons. The Memory Box witnesses our melodic movement and singing.
The church is overflowing with people and it is as hot as the fires of hell. Maybe my father orchestrated this irony.
The funeral service endeavours to pull together the multifaceted threads which drew my father’s life tapestry. On their own, many of these random threads may have surprised, puzzled, amused and even mystified those who knew him less.
From farming memories of being urinated on by livestock, to a horse which came to a sudden stop at a competition jump, preferring my father to clear the jump without him, as a human projectile.
Woven through the eulogies and tributes, are hymns which express my father’s spirituality and faith. And there are symbolic treasures too.
My father came into my kitchen one day, relatively early during his cancer journey, bearing 2 golf clubs and a football scarf. My mother wasn’t home. “Now if things don’t go as planned” Dad said to me matter-of-factly, laying the items on my kitchen bench, “I want the boys to be a part of the service”. The boys he referred to were my sons.
“Okay…” I said hesitantly “what do you want them to do exactly? Where do you want them to put these things?” The voice in my head was yelling – not in the box!! He replied “just get the boys to put them somewhere near me. I just want them to be an active part of the day, so that they will be okay”.
Months later, his grandsons lay the clubs and scarf on a table beside him and they are prompted to bow towards their grandfather. One of my sons bows so low that he almost topples over.
Now their favourite song is playing and for a couple of minutes my sons walk in the sunshine again with their Poppy.
My sons were more runners than walkers. When my parents were in their sixties, I bought them bicycles for their Christmas present so that they could keep up with their grandsons. “Next year it could be roller skates” I answered their expressions.
As my sons became a little older my father was able to convince them to ride around their favourite local school ground while he watched and assumed a supervisor role. Cricket and tennis had a longer lifespan and remained an all in participatory sport for both grandsons and grandparents.
My sons haven’t asked to return to the local school ground to do “riding and exercises”. It is an empty stage now.
“Don’t lie to them” the school psychologist advised me, when I asked how to explain my dad’s illness to my sons. “Instead of saying that you don’t know when Poppy is going to get better, it is more truthful to use the word IF. So if the worse happens then you have not lost their trust”.
“Hi Love” my mum rang me when I was on my way to the hospital with my sons. “It is probably not a good idea to visit this afternoon – dad is having a blood transfusion”. “Don’t worry mum” I replied “that is actually a good thing!” For my sons now had a visual explanation in front of them; they could see the good healthy blood going into Poppy’s arm to fight the bad blood inside his arm and body.
But the bad blood was winning the battle.
I spoke to the teachers about how to explain the impending death of their grandfather. I wrote a script, a simple story about how dying and death would be explained to my sons by the key people in their lives. The teacher added pictures to illustrate the story.
The day their story was completed, I was advised to bring my sons in for their final visit with their Poppy. When we came home I read the story to my sons. It helped them to understand as best as they could. It helped them to ask questions.
“How do I explain the funeral to them?” I asked the school psychologist. I had been truthful to my sons up until now and true to my own beliefs. The truth had worked up to this point so I was advised to continue with it.
But would I be lying if I bent or omitted a reality or two? I thought about the things which I fear as an adult – small, tight spaces and being without my loved ones…..
So my mother and I resolved to repackage the funeral experience for my sons – just as my father had planned during earlier days.
I prepared my sons for Poppy’s funeral party…Even though Poppy couldn’t be at this celebration of his life, we would still talk about him, remember him and love him. It was okay to be sad because we missed him. But it was also okay to remember all of the happy times we had together and to smile, laugh and sing!
During the service, I invite people to channel their “inner Frank”, by participating in singing the song ‘My Way’. “My Dad would get such a laugh from this” I encourage them. “Laughter is not disrespectful” I add.
To do so would be to honour my dad’s own enduring sense of humour – and his wish that we would be okay.
So the four of us sway and sing together in the front pew and imagine our memories, smiles and sadness flying out of us and into the wooden Memory Box at the front of the church.
Here they will stay safe so that we will never forget.