December 11, 2011
Original post from March 27, 2010
My sister became a widow yesterday, for the second time. Her husband, David, was very shy in person, so I guess this would be a shock to him, to become the subject of a blog a day after passing on.
He really did his best to remain out of sight, though he was extremely talkative over the phone, happy to discuss recipes, slow cooking and his fondness for making art. He was a big man with a big heart, but he had a tiny footprint. In fact, for the last year of his life, he left basically no footprints at all—not in the outside world. Beside his recent trip to St. Vincent’s, where he passed away yesterday morning, he had not set foot outside at all. Not even into the hallway of their fourth floor walk-up in the West Village.
She said he was like the third Collyer brother. Indeed, in the time they were married (17 years) their small apartment filled up with stuff to the point that there were boxes piled on top of other boxes with cookbooks and vintage comic books and two small dogs (beagle and dachshund) competing for a very small amount of available floor space. You might wonder how one average-sized woman and a plus-sized man managed this in a 400 square-foot apartment, but that, I think, is a measure of their modesty and also a skill that some New Yorkers have for living within their means, but many do not. Neither ever called much attention to themselves; they just quietly went about their business, which is something I aspire to do but have yet to achieve.
I called David my brother, because I never had one and he seemed a good candidate. Let me say that I also love my two other living (and now ex) brother-in-laws, but David was different because we were the only family he had. He was an only child, raised poor in Arkansas, who came to New York City, went to Pratt and met my sister in a bar 20 years ago. She was on a date with someone else and thought he was cute. The bartender arranged for them to meet and after they’d chatted a while, she said she had to leave and he gave her his phone number. “He told me I had to call him because he was shy,” she told me yesterday, after we’d been to the hospital so she could say a final goodbye to him. “I told him that I would but that he would have to do the talking, because I was shy, too.”
And so they married, on a Halloween, three years later. I remember pulling up to the UN Chapel in a cab where the ceremony was, and meeting this lovely shy man in a corduroy jacket sweating up a storm, he was so nervous. That afternoon, after the service, my entire family went down to Chinatown for a celebratory dinner. And David told my sister he was happy, because now he had a family. He had her, he had sisters. We had him.
A year ago, when he became home-bound, I told him that I would no longer refer to him as a brother-in-law but as a brother. I called him “bro” and he called me “sis” and it was as corny as you can imagine. I never called my own sisters that, but it was fun to have a brother, even if I never saw him. And this suited him. He had put on a lot of weight, and it embarrassed him. He didn’t want to go out into the world, where he knew people would stare at him. So he prevented that from happening by not going outside at all.
My sister, who has always been outgoing, was forever going out without him. When I would ask what he was doing, she’d say, “oh, he’s home resting and relaxing.” And so he was, until he went to St. Vincent’s four weeks ago with some respiratory ailment that someone more medically inclined could tell you about, but I can’t.
Yesterday, after I left my sister, I walked home through Washington Square and she went home to their apartment. It was a cold day, a typical March, the kind of day with low temperatures and grey skies and the wind relentlessly blowing. But there were people out in the park, sitting on the fountain in the center, listening to a young man play an old upright piano, as if an upright piano with a man playing it in the wind and cold on a Friday afternoon in March was the most natural thing in the world.
He first played the theme song from Schindler’s List, and I stood, watching a toddler approach him, looking up and holding out a hand as the man played, unaware. A plastic bag blew in a circle directly behind him, like leaves in the wind and I caught myself thinking that my bro had missed the beauty of that day by leaving too early in the morning.
He then played a Chopin Nocturne and I felt a strange hollowness, the kind that sets in when something beautiful is happening and you know you’ve lost something irreplaceable and there’s nothing you can do. I thanked him for the music and told him how it was odd to hear something so beautiful when my brother-in-law had just passed on and he thanked me for telling him. And then he played another song.
I went home to fetch my dog for a walk. Afterward, I got food for dinner as my sister was coming over. David had always cooked for her, and I wanted to do that, too. Beforehand, though, I sat at my computer and looked up crematoriums, which is what she’d asked me to do before we parted earlier in the day. She didn’t want flowers. She said no to a funeral. I said, “Are you sure? I helped organize Dad’s and Mary’s with Sally and everyone said how nice they were.” And she responded, “no, that’s OK. Just find a couple of crematoriums. Nothing fancy.”
Let me say arranging funerals is not my specialty, although perhaps I may have more of a future there than as a copywriter. For my dad, I helped arrange for a large Presbyterian church, appropriate organ music, numerous speakers (two from London), people from all over the US and multiple obits written for the newspaper. As a final touch, there was even a Naval Honor Guard. For our middle sister’s service, Sally and I found a small chapel in Saratoga Springs and a Buddhist priest and made arrangements afterward for a reception at our home on Lake George. So I was ready to offer my services for David, but my older sister said they would not be needed. “And I don’t want any kind of service when I go, either,” she said. “Just everyone go out to dinner and have a good time.”
Sitting at my computer, I did a Google search and came upon a resource that seemed so absurd I had to laugh: “Crematorium Finder.” I’d found my dog through “Pet Finder” and here I was on “Crematorium Finder,” thinking about how the former was cute and the latter was not and that this had been a strange day.
I called three places and within 15 minutes two had called me back and I learned that cremating someone isn’t quite as simple as Crematorium Finder makes it sound. First of all, you can get someone cremated for $350, which I thought sounded pretty cheap, but then you pay a lot to a funeral home to go and pick up the body and deliver it to the crematorium and that costs about $1000.
I thought this was a lot for a trip that is essentially one-way and reflected on a friend, whose boyfriend had been a WWF wrestler who had wrestled in a cowboy outfit in, of all places, Japan. She had told me that he had passed away there some years ago and, because he was so tall, there wasn’t a crematorium that could handle him. And so, he had to be shipped back to the states, to be cremated here.
“My brother in law was a big man,” I told the funeral director, not wanting to have any unpleasant surprises when they went to pick him up.
“What did he weigh?” he asked. “Because some of them have a limit of 400 pounds.”
“He was about that,” I said. At which point the funeral director upped the estimate by $150.
I asked him, “Why the expensive car ride?” Not being familiar with these things, I figured they were just out to gouge us because we were in mourning and that’s what funeral homes do. But he set me straight: “Only a funeral director can pick up a body,” he said. I’m pretty much a do-it-yourself person, but I also knew we couldn’t get him there in a taxi, so I said, “Of course.”
“And you’re also paying for the paperwork,” he added.
“The death certificate.”
“There are no funeral home services tacked on to that?” I asked.
There weren’t. After hanging up, I decided to complete my investigation by looking at urns online. My sister had said she didn’t want anything fancy, so I looked for unfancy, but it was hard to find. There were marble urns, and porcelain urns and also some very executive-looking wood container called “The Statesman” that I guess you could keep in the library or in the halls of Congress or someplace of that stature.
I called up my sister Sally to get her input and for fun, we made up some other absurd titles for urns depicting the life that the unlucky deceased had left behind. We liked “The Bon Vivant,” “The Slut” and, also “The Snob.” We also briefly tossed around the idea of getting into the “un-funeral” business because we happened to be so good at putting them together, and then I realized that my sister, the new widow, would be arriving in 15 minutes and I still hadn’t started cooking the chicken.
She arrived at 7 and I served her a glass of wine from a bottle I’d bought for the occasion. May I add that it had a screw top, but it still cost $14, and she seemed to like it. I then briefly sat her down at my computer with her wine glass and I said, “What do you think of the Statesman?” and she said, “Oh, I don’t know. Can’t we just get some simple container like the paint can that they put Dad into?”
We then had a little discussion about our mother, who had also been cremated, and how when our time came, we all wanted to be scattered up on our property at Lake George. We talked about scattering our Aunt’s ashes several years ago over Bear Mountain and I asked her what David’s favorite places to be scattered might be and she said, “Oh that’s easy. William Sonoma and Dean and DeLuca.”
And I said, “I think that’s illegal.”
We both confessed to keeping a small baggie of our mother’s ashes in our homes and I also told her I’d kept a lock of my dad’s hair. And then I refilled her glass and served her the best meal I’d ever prepared. And we made a toast to David.
We have not made any further plans. We did go out for coffee today at Amy’s on Bleecker and sat next to Sofia Coppola and split a cupcake and my sister said, “I just can’t believe he’s not here.” And I said, “I know. And even if you try to stop thinking about him, you won’t be able to, because he is here in some way and he always will be.” And then I went home to walk my dog and look at more urns that might suit the man that David was.
As an aside, let me say that if you ever see me and my sister in William Sonoma holding a paint can, please don’t say anything. But do say a prayer for David, my bro, the large man who lived small. Leave a message below, if you’re so inclined. And let’s all wish him well on his journey. We, your sisters, will miss you. Amen.
March 27, 2010