This is a story of two mistakes with eternal consequences. They happened almost exactly three years ago, but I’ve never written about them publicly.
There are a lot of things that happen when somebody dies. You’re asked questions you don’t want to answer. You’re tasked with decisions that seem wrong no matter which side you take. You’re asked to pick out eternal resting places when you can barely imagine how to get through the rest of the day.
This is how my family, led by the strongest woman I’ve ever known, came to be looking out over a hilly cemetery trying to decide where my dad would want his earthly remains to…well, remain for the rest of time.
There was a place my mom deemed right or as right as anything could be at that moment. So it was that the funeral director buried my father in that spot three years ago this week.
There is nothing particularly happy about such an occasion, but there is a sense of finality, a promise that—for whatever hell you may have to see someday—at least you won’t ever have to see that again.
That promise lasted all of a few days. That’s when the funeral director called and said, “There has been a mistake.”
Eternity is a long time, or so we’re told. Eternal resting places? Not so much.
There is no polite or easy way to say this: they buried my dad in the wrong hole. Or, better put, they buried him in the right hole, but it was somebody else’s hole.
Lo, just a few days after the funeral director buried my father, someone visited the cemetery to discover that her eternal resting place had become my dad’s eternal resting place. There had been what was dubbed “a clerical error” in the sales files. There was no choice but to “move” my dad.
Yes, the funeral director put it in the most delicate terms he could. They were words shrouded in apology shrouded in even more reverence. Still, they all meant the one thing I couldn’t bear to think: it’s not over. There was never anything final about it.
I’m not particularly proud of how I acted when this happened. I experienced a kind of anger I’d not know before and haven’t known since. I was going to sue everybody. I was going to investigate the entire deathcare industry and write the most damning profile of its abuses as I could. I was going to yell a lot. And lest you think that this all happened in an hour-long red-faced bluster and then I was finished, there was actually an attorney, there were actual secret recordings, and there was more than a lot of yelling.
My brother was the one who talked me down. He has always been the more level-headed, and when he eventually said, “What do you think Dad would’ve done here?” the answer was clear: Dad would’ve just taken care of it and then made sure everybody else was taken care of. Sure, he would’ve gotten mad first, but in the end, he would’ve taken care of business.
So, on a quiet day some time later, the funeral home corrected its mistake. That eternity lasted less than a month, and then it resumed again a few feet toward the tree line.
In the days before the eternal and infernal real estate battle, my mom had another job to finish before the funeral could proceed. She had to pick a song to play at the graveside.
My dad loved music. When he wasn’t playing it or listening to it, he was rewriting lyrics and singing them a cappella in the hallway. I don’t know how many versions of “Mack the Knife” he wrote, but I know I didn’t know the correct version until well into my adulthood.
My mom labored over this decision, insisting there be no funeral dirge, making sure that whatever song got played on the little CD player beside the casket had happy notes in it. First step: get rid of all minor chords. Second step, find something happy.
Somewhere along the way as we trudged through ridiculous minutiae, someone plopped all of our kids in front of the movie Shark Tale. As my mom walked by, she heard Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and her eyes lit up.
Odd choice for a funeral? Probably. Odd choice for a Willis family funeral? Not at all.
And so began the mad hunt for a CD version of the timeless Bob Marley song. I don’t know why the funeral home wasn’t capable of handling a digital version and an iPod, but seeing as how the solemn geniuses couldn’t keep track of which cemetery plots they’d sold, it probably should not have been a big surprise that they were still spinning plastic in a Sony boom box. So, we needed a CD.
Jill, a lifelong family friend took on the task. Before I had time to worry about it, Jill had found the same copy of Legend that just about every college kid I’ve ever known owned at one point or another.
The day of the graveside service was chilly. I was distracted by the weather and the kind of grief I still can’t believe exists. I was assured everything was going to be fine. I showed up at the appointed time, walked with my family to our seats in front of the casket, and listened the eulogy. I knew what was coming, and I knew it would be perfect. Everyone would expect “Amazing Grace,” or “How Great Thou Art,” or whatever else the corporate funeral home had cued up that day. Instead, the collected mourners would get a cute reggae tribute to a man who always made sure every little thing was going to be alright.
The time came, somebody hit the play button, and the music came out. The only thing louder than the music was the sound of me…laughing aloud with barely any control.
I wasn’t laughing because the music wasn’t what people expected. I wasn’t laughing because the song was perfect. I was laughing because the song coming out of the speakers wasn’t “Three Little Birds.”
No, instead, it was the next song on the Legend compilation… “Buffalo Soldier.” And Marley and the Wailers were wailing it over my dad’s casket.
Buffalo solider…Dreadlock Rasta…
Yep, as we laid my father to rest, we did so to a song about black U.S. Calvary soldiers in the 1800s.
At some point, somebody cued up the right song, but I don’t remember hearing it. Even when I stopped laughing at my own father’s funeral, I was still hearing Marley wail “woy, yoy, yoy” in my own head. I still am three years later on the anniversary of Dad’s death.
That day, the day that was supposed to be the perfect remembrance of the most important man in my life? It was ridiculously imperfect and wrecked with mistakes. Today, on this day before Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for that.
In the three years that have passed since then, I’ve not handled my dad’s death as well as I would’ve liked. I’ve made mistakes along the way, some directly related and some that are just part of being the exceptionally flawed person I am. Sometimes those mistakes form a kind of recursive loop in which dwelling on those mistakes and imperfections results in more mistakes.
There are a lot of ways I could remember my dad’s funeral. In fact, there are lots of ways I wished I didn’t remember it. But there are ways that still make me smile.
The people who showed up from every corner of my life to stand beside me while I grieved.
The people who called at all hours.
The people who have made sure to pick me up when I’ve fallen in the years since.
They all remind me of that imperfect day three years ago. On a day I might have remembered for my mom’s tears, or my kids wondering what happened to Pop, or the too-firm look on my brother’s face, I remember Dreadlock Rasta. I remember the Buffalo Soldier.
When I woke up this morning (not quite with the rising sun), there was a cold, stupid rain coming out of the sky.
“Fitting,” I thought. I put on a warm sweater and sat down to write.
Now, as I finish, the sky has turned blue, two (not three, unfortunately) little finches are playing on the branch outside my office window, and my wife is throwing a ball to our dogs in the yard.
And I’m grateful. I’m grateful for those mistakes that happened three years ago and the mistakes that have happened since. When we get caught up in trying to make things perfect, we can miss how close they actually come to achieving it.
My old man wasn’t perfect, but what he made of his life came as close as I’ve found yet. Still, I didn’t just learn from his many successes. I’ve learned from his mistakes.
See, I’ve found that even when you’re dealing with matters of eternity, mistakes don’t always last forever. They often last as long as we let them.
Gratitude happens right now, it can happen tomorrow, and it can happen forever if we do it right. It, too, lasts as long as we let it.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, and may your mistake-filled week bring you as much gratitude as possible. Woy, yoy, yoy.