I was fresh back from Italia, with a few days to prepare the Athenaeum for our upcoming Lightning Bolt show, which was to fill our place with a sweaty throng of four hundred, and message boards with thanks and praises (truly, the sweetest rewards). Complications arose, however. Two or three days before the show, I received a phone call from Melissa Videtta in Rome, who before had received a call from one of our family friends. My grandmother— my father’s mother, the tiny and beloved Granny, Mary Katherine Joyce—- had died. The funeral would be in a few short days.
I had been apprehensive enough about Monday’s onslaught when I thought I was going to be around. Nothing was ready, shit was everywhere, and I had assumed the go-to man position for the show. I didn’t want to return home, from a funeral, to a pile of smoldering embers. Ready or not, half of Philadelphia and South Jersey was going to be packed sardinewise into the Athenaeum, and disaster was very possible. So it was a true moral dilemma, of the classical variety: Granny’s funeral or my commitments and the debatable future of the Athenaeum. Such moral dilemmas— indissoluble choices— are actually rather rare for me. Usually I can scrap together some compromise or clever re-arrangement. This is what I hoped to do…
I phoned my dad to see if there was some wiggle room, a window— maybe a day or two of give— whereby I could attend both. With a flight or bus-trip in between. “The funeral is Tuesday morning and the viewing is Monday night.” The same time, to the hour, as the Lightning Bolt show. I was pinned again by the horns of the dilemma. The funeral had even been Sunday originally, but my parents were themselves just returning to the States. My dad had it moved. Rotten coincidence. “Okay, Dad. I’ll be there.”
From Philadelphia to Jonesville, Virginia. 10 hours by car. I could still attend the funeral— if I left immediately after Lightning Bolt and drove through the night without so much as a wrong turn or donut break. I would arrive exactly on time, bleary-eyed and suitably tenderized for a family funeral. Reckoning the arithmetic and the moral calculus, I called my mom, to talk it over. “I think what is important, is that we’re all together. I think this is what’s important to John.” I was still unsure, unable to see whether any attention to my previous commitments was still callous, a perverse priority. Granny had helped raise me. She had lived with us for five years, to help my parents and to spend time with us young ones, Tyree and I. She taught me arithmetic in kindergarten. Granny was an absolute value.
So I let the “previous commitments” end slide, and decided that if I borrowed Heather’s car, I could soundproof and organize through Monday morning, and still make it to both the viewing and funeral. Again, I phoned dad.
“Dad, I’m going to borrow Heather’s car and drive, instead of flying. To give me a little more time.”
“You sure you can make it, Brandon?”
“Your event on Monday night ends at what time— ten?— and you can make it here by eleven for the funeral?”
He was letting me know that it would be okay to miss the viewing, in order to both uphold my commitments and honor my grandmother. He was giving me a window, amnesty from my moral dilemma. Whether it was the way he said it, or the heartfelt phone conversation that followed, I was reminded of many of the reasons why my father— sworn enemy of empty ritual— was a great man. This greatness came through sharply at the funeral too, as my dad sat graveside in a Looney Tunes tie (given to him by his mom) and a beige blazer as ill-fitting as those worn by his two boys. I call this the “defendant look,” a style I adopt at all official ceremonies. Afterwards, not two minutes after the little ceremony, most of the questions for the priest concerned, not the soul and the body, not our final reunion with the Lord and Savior, but about the mechanics of lowering the coffin into the grave.
“Do you unhook those straps?”
“Yes, but that whole case slides over the coffin,” the priest patiently answers.
“And this lowers down into the ground too?”
“No, that’s just to hold it above the grave.”
“Oooh. Now I get it.”
It was real and healthier because emotions were mixed. Cued sentiment— something which I’ve never been very good with— had no place. It is no small irony that I wrote about this— in fact, experienced much of it in full—- a few months earlier, after a thanatoptic reflection on Eli Winograd’s faux funeral. I said that you could hold a funeral in a moonbounce if the proper sentiment was there. Sure enough, the Joyce family paid only divided attention to the particulars of the ritual— the priest reading off psalms to a bunch of heathens, the flowers, the rites— and sat pensively as Mary Katherine joined her husband, Tom Joyce, in the ground and beyond the dividing line. It could have been, for all we cared, a moonbounce. The frictionless way in which my family dispenses with vanities and empty symbolisms, for genuine sentiment and need, is one the keys to our mutual ease and happiness, undoubtably. At the funeral, this was so prononced that I was moved as much by familial love— embodied by my grandmother—as I was by the loss alone. Funerals are about the continuity among the living, anyway; the strange coincidence of being pooled together with your contemporaries and nobody else. Islands of time.