WAS THERE a crowd at the game?" I asked my father. "Not to speak of," he answered.
It was one of my father's favorite answers. It served as response to such diverse questions as: "Is it raining?" "Any Jello left?" "Did the Red Sox play today?" "Not to speak of." Ironically, it implied that important things are spoken.
My father and I never spoke of what we felt about each other. "Not to speak of" was our response to that persistently nagging father-son question, "Do you love me?"
My father died two years ago at age 80 without having said to me, "I love you." And I never said it to him. He could talk to anyone just about anywhere about anything. So can I. We reserved our shyness for one another. Are immortal longings born of unspoken feelings? Not to speak of.
There was one time when I told him what I felt. It was too late. But I told him.
When my father was ill, a friend of mine told me about the Jewish custom of sons preparing the father's body for burial. My father died before I looked into this ritual. Somehow the idea of spending time alone with my father's body seemed right to me. Maybe I could say to him now what I had never said while he lived. I decided to dress his body for burial even though I did not know what this involved.
Life in Vermont offers all the assets and liabilities of living in a small community. Most of the natives have cousins in each of the five major cities; if not, you probably visited your neighbor's cousins three consecutive summers or played ball against his brother or neighbor. My father was waked at the Reidy Funeral Home, one of the two "Catholic" parlors in Burlington. We were Reidy people.
Once chosen, like your dentist, your undertaker was someone you stayed with for generations. I went to school with Bill Reidy, son of George, who was a friend of my father. The Reidys had recently bought a new parlor, a house formerly owned by the estate of Jerry Flynn, the man at whose home, almost 70 years earlier, my father had learned his profession of railroad telegrapher at age 14.
Only in Vermont are people interested in these connections. If they bore you, you weren't born in Vermont. They also serve to make remembering easier. Those connections offer a history and a degree of personal warmth that you cannot find in most cities. I am not sure they helped when I called Reidy to ask to dress the body.
"Bill, this is Ray Lovett. I wanted to ask you something." . . . Thanks, Bill. My sister and I will be over to pick out the casket. . . . Pause. "I wanted to dress my father's body for the wake. . . . I have the clothes here. . . . Will that be all right? I want to do it anyway. It's a Jewish custom." Long pause. . . . "That will be okay."
I had passed by this farmhouse-turned-funeral-parlor four times each day for eight years on my one-mile walk to and from grade school, half the time cutting through the pasture when I grew old enough to brave the cows. From outside it was a familiar house. Being inside would be strange, but this strangeness paled compared to the idea of visiting with my dead father.
My breath stopped as I rang the bell and let myself in. Bill Reidy appeared immediately from nowhere, floatng silently over the four-inch funeral parlor carpet dressed in his tuxedo, fresh from a burial. He had the matching traits of a funeral man: handsome, reticent to shyness, understated and calm to imperturbable and even grave. Perhaps there is an inherited doleful manner, I thought, as I marveled at his resemblance to his father in looks and manner.
He shook my hand silently. I tried to smile. He said, "Down the stairs, first door on the right. Take your time.
I bounced down the stairs, hoping my energy would calm my fear. I had not told my mother or my sisters of my plan and had kept most of my feelings about it from my wife. I wanted this meeting to be between him and me alone. For once, alone.
There are moments that change your life. Seeing my son's head pushed from his mother's birth canal, shakily speaking my marriage vows from my heart had wiped away my skepticism about such moments. As in those situations, so now, it was all the previous contacts that gave this brief moment its lasting value. I sensed the importance of what I was about.
The room was huge, bright with natural light from four large windows, made brighter by yellow paint. A clean tile floor slightly declined toward a drain. An anesthetically clean smell pervaded. There were four aluminum-covered tables in a row.
My eyes passed over the form on the second table. The accumulated denial of death and the accompanying fear of the embalming process gave way to the reality around me. Hoses, buckets and pumps were there. I wanted to run far away from death, from embalming and the talk with my dead father.
I walked to his table. He looked asleep. His graying red hair combed, bare-chested, hands folded resting on his slightly overweight stomach. He wore thick rubber Bermuda-length shorts. Bare legs, freckled with his varicose veins, prominent even in death. He did not look dead. Peaceful. I touched his hand, triggering my grief. Tears overcame me, gushing forth from way down. I cried hard. Relieved to be alone, away from the tear-stopping shame, my tears became sobs. I spoke aloud. "There you are," "There you are." "There you are." Mnemonically sobbing and repeating this phrase, I let the long-repressed anguish gush.
"You never say me cry. Oh, no. You never did. I hid that from you as well as from me. Can you see me now, dad? See me. I'm crying because I love you. See me," I pleaded. I put my head on his autopsy-scarred chest and cried freely for a long time.
Kafka once wrote of his father: "My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast."
My father and I acted as if we knew very little about bemoaning, together or alone. I was making up for lost crying.
My father's exposed body looked so strange. I had seen him nude but once and see his bare chest only a few times. When I was a boy he wore white cotton underwear tops, like the tank tops of today. He kept his body as covered as his heart. Now he and I were finally undefended: his exposed body, my exposed soul coming together at last.
I took the white shirt out of a bag. It was his shirt, shrunk some, flawed at the collar, no longer white. I remember how reluctant he was to wear new shirts. A shirt given to him on his birthday would stay in its box for one or two years. "The old me is good enough."
This reluctance was a piece of his cultivated attachment to his Irish peasantry. Usually proud, at times ashambed of his head-hanging demeanor, he thought he would lose his charm, if he forgot he was a peasant. He managed to pass this struggle on to me without ever having discussed the matter.
"It's your own shirt, you know. You wouldn't want a new one. Would you?" I lifted his arm. Its weight and coldness so startled me I dropped it. It fell to the side of the table. Dead is dead. I thought. It is too late.
It was difficult to get the shirt around his large frame, that body so closely resembling my own in shape. I felt proud of my body and his, prouder yet that my young sons had their grandfather's rugged shape.
"You'll live on. You will." I continued to speak in a loud voice, an effort to make up for the long silence he and I had endured during our time together.
The shirt wasn't right, but I didn't care. I took out the beaten tie. It was an old man's tie, all right, dark, dull and plain. I put it around his neck and a surge of sadness gripped me.
"You taught me to do this. Remember?"
And it came back to me.
"Keep the wide end long, down to here, wrap around twice, up underneath, down through the second loop. Tighten." Large fingers, poor fine motor skills and left-handed, always in a hurry. I tried. Failed. He'd repeat, I decided to look at him instead of the mirror. Try again. Two loops, underneath. Down the wrong loop in front.
"Slow down. No fire. Watch. Now try again."
I got it after a while, but never quite right, even now. They always looked too big or too sloppy.
"Teach me to tie a Windsor."
"Windsors are not for you. Tie like you're doing."
"All the guys are wearing Windsors."
"Windsors are for sissies."
He never showed me. I learned on my own. Then and now, each tie I've worn has never looked quite right.
As I tied his tie, it struck me: He did not know how to tie a Windsor knot. And I remembered. He had no father. His father had died when he was 4. And there with my dead father, I wondered out loud.
"Who taught you to tie your tie?" And it was then, and it is now, the saddest of questions.
I spoke a little more with him and cried a long time. It was time to leave.
"Goodbye, Raymond. You will be with me a long time. I want you to know this. I am telling my sons all the things you taught me to feel."