Everybody deals with death differently. My brothers and I tend to find levity in serious situations and this can be a comfort to us but discomfiting to others. And, of course, my mother tends to be one of those people we are always unintentionally offending.
She did not appreciate our sincere suggestions to dress my dad in one of his favorite Guy Harvey pocket t-shirts, khaki shorts, and boat shoes, the 'uniform' he wore nearly every day since retiring some twenty-odd years ago. The idea to use one of his hideous but treasured Garo Yepremian neck ties, since we had to go formal, was seen as a mockery. She pursed her lips at my brother's suggestion to print on the bottom of the prayer card, "Brought to you by [his company's name]" as an excuse to write it off as a business expense. Heads would have rolled if she had noticed the script printed on the ribbon of the floral spray, "Love the Grandchildrens", purchased from a local ethnic florist. But my dad would have laughed.
When assembling photos for a slide show to play in the funeral parlor lobby, the best photos, and the bulk of the ones I contributed, showed my dad hamming it up with the grandkids. My mother thought many of them disrespectful, but we gently reminded her that we too had lost someone and this is who he was to us.
The night before he died, the priest had been called. After privately taking my dad's last confession, Elle, Grice, and I, being the only ones present besides my parents, were invited in for prayers. Elle flat-out refused, Grice and I bristled but conceded. We rotely spouted the Hail Mary and the Our Father for my dad's sake, all the while I was hearing the prayers in a new way, wondering that I had never doubted the lunacy of them before. We then had to go around the very small circle and tell my dad what we loved about him and what we were grateful for. I thanked him for always sticking up for me, remembering in particular a high school situation when I got into enough trouble to be threatened with expulsion before final exams and he convinced my mom it was only a minor indiscretion, peer pressure, bad judgment, nothing to worry about, and another occasion where on the spur of the moment he jumped in a car to drive cross-country and rescue me from an abusive relationship. I thanked him for my wanderlust and then inwardly smirked that I'd praised at least one deadly sin in the presence of the priest.
The next night my brother was trying to fill the funeral Mass roles designated by Father Everyone-Must-Participate. I was chosen to do the second reading. I knew now, after performing a wedding, that I could do it if I focused intently on the material, ignored the audience, and occasionally inhaled. I could read Psalms, they were literary, poetic, I reasoned. Instead something from John had been selected, and regardless of the choice, it would have to be concluded with the line I worried I might actually choke on, This is the Word of the Lord...
My dad knew about my atheism. He was very angry about it. He publicly criticized and insulted me for it. And I still would have done the reading out of respect for him, though the majority of the people present would know of my apostasy and know I found the whole thing disgusting and some might even think me hypocritical, except that the memory of that episode, dredged up from almost exactly one year before, when he most certainly did not stick up for me, suddenly overwrote all the good memories. I could not do it. I did not want to have that memory of my father at the top of my mind. I called my brother to explain and could hardly speak for the sobbing.
As my dad was taking his last breaths, my niece reached over and put a homemade SpongeBob on his chest. Papa loved to watch SpongeBob with (and without) his granddaughters and the girls had all made him one for his birthday years ago. It sat in a place of honor on his desk. In an effort to make the scene more solemn, my mother reached over and put the crucifix they had received as a wedding gift on his chest as well. From my place at the foot of the bed I commented that it looked a little sacrilegious, SpongeBob and Jesus holding hands... We all cracked up. And that's the memory I prefer to hold on to: the sound of laughter, and the view of SpongeBob and Jesus escorting my dad out.