It had all the necessary ingredients for turning into a disastrous affair - ex-husband and wife rubbing shoulders for first time in nearly three years, mentally ill daughter on day release, unforgiving in-laws, granddaughter with a flare for the dramatic. To be honest I was dreading it, and if the last funerals I attended were anything to go by, with good reason.
Take my father-in-law's affair. Old and new families sat in strained silence on opposite sides of the funeral chapel, one nursing memories of an angry, violent man, the other recalling a kindly soul who loved dancing and always remembered their birthdays. The two extremes of experience were revealed in heartfelt eulogies and the tension was palpable. As we stood around the grave and threw down the obligatory flower my heart ached for the losses of the first family - the loving relationships that had never been and now never could be. It was painful, awkward and all together tragic.
Then there was the funeral Frank and I attended almost a year ago for the son of church friends. He had committed suicide following the breakdown of his marriage. Six young children sat fatherless and crying, yet all his friends could offer to one another by way of comfort were memories of a hard drinking man who loved a good party. Despite the best efforts of the minister it was a bleak affair that matched the grey sky and blustery wind outside, devoid of hope and comfort. He was gone and I could not shake the sense of it all being a tragic waste.
Finally in May, there was the funeral for our young neighbour who drank himself into an early grave. As his two year old daughter danced around the coffin, oblivious to her loss and the sadness of those around her I felt overwhelmed. Another life thrown away, another soul unable to cope with life's pain, lost forever.
It is probably not too surprising then that the thought of another funeral was less than inspiring. Never mind that he was my grandfather, that he had lived a long, full life and made it to 95 - the potential for uncomfortable family confrontation overshadowed all else in my thinking. Of course, me being the granddaughter with a flare for the dramatic, I rather played up the possibility of disaster for the sake of a good story. Nevertheless, the potential was real. My mother decided to travel from Adelaide to say her goodbyes despite her recent divorce from my father. I do have an aunt with schizophrenia and I don't like to predict how she might have responded. My other aunt and another uncle have had no contact with my mother since the divorce and the aunt once deliberately told me not to visit before cutting me off in her letter writing. Who knew how the relationships might all play out in one room together?
As it was I am glad I went. I do not feel overly sad Grandpa is gone. Throughout much of my life we lived far apart and I never really knew him. (What was it like in World War II? What did he think about my parents divorce and my father's consequent remarriage?! What wisdom from such a long life could he pass on to me as I make my own way through the world?) During brief childhood visits I remember the unmistakable smell of their home, but my memory is of an austere man intent on disciplining rather than enjoying his grandchildren. Later, as an adult I visited whenever I was in Melbourne and wrote from time to time. Grandpa always replied immediately to my letters and assured me of his love and prayers before tucking in a little snippet of encouragement from a church newsletter or magazine. He had mellowed in his old age into a gentle man who loved nothing better than to talk about his latest readings on God.
It was impossible not to notice Grandpa's increasing frailty - between broken hips, skin disorders and problems with his gastrointestinal tract he felt his age and was ready to go. For some time he had been voicing his desire to join Jesus and my grandmother in the next world. Death was a release. I feel the loss of his love and prayers for my well being, but I am happy Grandpa is now where he wanted to be, no longer struggling with an old body that could barely do what he wanted it to.
And the funeral? Mum and Dad were perfectly civil and polite and I enjoyed spending time with them and one of my brothers on the drive across the city. My mentally ill aunt did not attend. Due to my need to return to Tasmania for an evening appointment, I missed seeing the other aunt. My uncle struggled to look at or speak to me or my mother, but that is his burden to bear. I loved catching up with my other aunt - and my cousins who I have not seen for more than ten years were delightful company.
Despite all my misgivings it was a good day - a fitting tribute to my grandfather from whom we all came.