Monday, February 14, 2005

My first Chicago funeral

When I joined the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus three years ago, I was more than a little overwhelmed by the 150+ faces that greeted me at my first rehearsal. It took a few weeks for all those faces and names to start registering as individual people in my muddled mind, and Larry was one of the first to emerge from the crowd. A chorus member for 15 years at the time, he was clearly one of the group’s spiritual leaders. And he was always surrounded by friends every time I talked to him.

I never got to know Larry very well—we never talked on the phone, and our email correspondence never went much beyond chorus business—but we had many, many delightful conversations at rehearsals and chorus parties. You could tell just by looking at him that his was a decent, loving soul, and I never once heard him utter an unkind word about anyone else or even voice a complaint about the cancer that was slowly robbing him of his ability to enjoy the life he lived so openly, enthusiastically and always with a sense of fun.

Given how limited our friendship had been, I was surprised that the news of his death hit me so hard last week. And I was even more surprised how his funeral affected me on Saturday night. Everywhere I looked there was something that set off my emotions: the tears, the chin quivering up practically into my mouth, the sobs catching in my throat before they burst forth in huge, embarrassing sounds.

Sure, I was sad that a friend had died. And perhaps also that I never made the effort to get to know him better. But I think what affected me the most was what his death—particularly at his funeral—showed me.

For instance, both the pastor and Larry’s partner of 16 years mentioned during the funeral how devoted Larry was to his many nieces and nephews. The first time one of them said it, I immediately noticed a little girl sitting across the aisle from me. She looked almost exactly like my 3-year-old niece: same age, same haircut, same chubby cheeks, same defiant independence whenever someone tried to hold her hand—she was even dressed in a cute little girly-girl sweater with fluffy stuff around the neck, just the way my sister likes to dress my niece. For all I know, this little girl was the daughter of Larry’s neighbor’s gardener, but to me she represented everything my unclehood means to me: a lifetime obligation to love and protect and entertain and support and nurture my niece and nephew. And—above all else—not to die and deprive them of everything our relationship provides today and promises in the future. Larry’s cancer took that away from his nieces and nephews—and, quite possibly, this little girl. But it also gave me a huge jolt of reality: I need to do everything I can to make sure I’m around for a long time—especially given last week’s revelations with my EKG. Everything could be taken away from any of us in an instant, and I don’t want to put my family through the grief and loss of my death until I’m good and old.

The pastor and many of the speakers at the service also mentioned how they’d never seen their church so full—on a Saturday night, no less. I looked around at the people who’d canceled their plans and put on their suits and dresses and sat elbow-to-elbow, gay and straight, black and white and brown and tan, old and young, family and friends … just to honor Larry. I looked at the chorus, which occupied a good fourth of the church and sang so beautifully for him. And I realized what an amazingly remarkable organization we are: how our mission—before music, before entertainment, before social fun—is really about family. Family that shows up en masse in the good times and in neatly pressed suits in the bad. And every time we opened our mouths to sing at the funeral, those goddamned sobs welled up again in my throat and prevented me from making any useful contribution to the service.

I was fine when we all sang out of the hymnal or chanted the liturgy, but when the chorus started in on the music that Larry had sung with us just six months earlier, I couldn’t get beyond the fact that he’d rehearsed his own funeral music with us—and the tears and the quivering and the snotty nose took over and I had to leave the singing to my more emotionally stable brethren. We sang three songs for Larry, and Rick, who knew Larry pretty well, raised the freakin’ ROOF on his solo in “Seasons of Love.” And even though I was able to hold myself together long enough to solo through all four verses of “How Great Thou Art” at my own grandmother’s funeral five years ago, I couldn’t even look Rick in the eye Saturday night to tell him what a beautiful job he did.

Funerals are never fun, but Larry, yours was an amazing experience for me. And though we’re both just specks on the timelines of each other’s lives, I can promise that you made an impression on mine that I’ll never forget. Rest in peace, buddy.


Steve said...

Jake, very touching post; my condolences. A lesson, indeed ... enjoy your loved ones while they're around ... and TELL them how much they mean to you!

RcktMan Rick said...

Jake... thank you so much for the compliment. You didn't have to look me in the eye. I know what it felt like to have that lump in your throat. It was there in mine as well. But somehow it cleared away when it needed to. It was an honor to sing for Larry. He was a dear man. Losing him was hard, but what beautiful lessons we learned from his life. These are things that we will take with us for many years to come.

sammy said...

aww.. so sorry

Will said...

My Fritz is in the same position as you and Larry--when his sister fled an abusive marriage with two young children, He became THE uncle--even the surrogate father. The love he and all his nieces and nephews from all his siblings share is a wonderful thing.

My condolences on Larry's loss--but all of you did him proud at the service.

Brandon said...

Jake - well I finally decided to start one of these here public diary things. Now the problem will be trying to figure out what to write about. Sheesh. bv