Today is Pi Day.
It is the day we celebrate the elusive, mysterious and incalculable mathematical equation known as pi, or the constant ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.
It is also Einstein’s birthday, a curiously divine celestial arrangement.
But to me, March 14th will always be the day my dad gave up his battle with cancer, a year ago. It is fitting. Just as pi is in constant harmony to it’s circumstances, so was my dad. No matter his circumstances, large or small, he was content.
In early December of last year, knowing that the sands of the hour glass were falling fast, I traveled back to Illinois to spend time with him. Other than the fact that he couldn’t get warm, he was doing okay. He napped a lot but he enjoyed visitors, getting out and could walk a short distances. I put up a little Christmas tree for him which he loved to look at from his recliner. I took him to get his hair cut. I took him to Wal-Mart. When he stopped to pet a display of flannel shirts I bought him one and he wore it every day that I was there. But mostly I just sat nearby so that when he woke from a nap he could see me and we would just pick up the conversation right where we had left it and pretend that he hadn’t dozed off.
The day I left he tried to get out of his chair to see me off. I told him to keep his seat and I bent down and kissed the top of his head and promised him that I would see him again. And that’s a promise I intend to keep.
A year later, I am compelled to record the day we returned my father to earth from whence he came, a spot only a few miles from where he lived his whole life. Beyond the fact that it was blindingly sunny and 31 degrees with a lacerating north wind, I want to remember three unexpected things that marked the day for me — the first being the unexpected sight of a crowd of mourners, which I think would have surprised him, particularly given that he had outlived all but one of his lifelong running buddies. I had assumed there would be 15 maybe 20 people at most.
My dad was the kind of guy who didn’t want any sort of fuss made over him. He had pre-planned his funeral years ago to be the simplest of affairs. He didn’t even want his obituary published until it was all said and done. He didn’t want flowers or awkward post-mortem displays of affection. So it was really surprising on that bitter cold day that such a big crowd of people showed up to see him off. In spite of my dad’s best efforts to keep it low-key, word got around.
The second thing that I recall from that day was the unexpected sound of a voice out of place.
My father’s death was not unexpected. I had cried an ocean of tears for him off and on in the preceding 18-months. On the day of the funeral, I was more or less numb and occupied with the details of the day. I was holding it together. Or so I thought.
As people began to gather graveside, I greeted friends and relatives whom I hadn’t seen in years. Then I heard the sound of a familiar voice behind me. I reeled around to see my friend Ruthie who had flown in from Texas to St. Louis and then driven two and half hours north through the cornfields and flatlands to be with me. And I lost it. I just fell into her arms and sobbed, heaving big ugly mascara-melting sobs. It was like when I was little and had hurt myself and I would hold it together until the moment I saw my mom and then I would melt down into a puddle of tears. I will never forget that she came to walk alongside me that day and how hearing her voice released the floodgate of sorrow that I thought I had bridled and what a comfort it was just to have her near.
The third thing was an expected sound with an unexpected reaction.
My father chose to have a simple graveside military funeral. The military chaplain warned us beforehand that they would fire three gun shots. I have attended military funerals before, so I knew that and I thought I was prepared. Yet when the first blast pierced the air, the shock of it forced the air from my lungs in a bellowing gust, like I had been punched in the gut. That awful sound that had come from somewhere deep within me, hung large and heavy in the thin air in the immediate silence that settled over the crowd after the first blast. And then it dropped to the ground and shattered at my feet. When the second and third blast came, I startled and shook, but I did not bellow. There was something about the sound of my breath, the very essence of my life, being expelled from my lungs with such force that made me feel all too mortal and I will never forget the sensation or the sound.
When the funeral was over, the crowd dispersed in a hurry, anxious to get out of the wind and back to the warmth of their cars. But I couldn’t make myself leave, my feet were literally and figuratively frozen. I didn’t want to move forward into a new life without my dad, I wanted to somehow stay in my old life.
I stood by the coffin with my bare hand resting on it, thinking about the handprint I might leave upon it, thinking about the handprint dad had left on my life and Sean’s life and my brother’s lives and most importantly on my mother’s life. I watched people walk away towards their cars and back into their lives and I felt invisible, like I was watching a scene from a movie. I turned my back to the thinning crowd and put my forehead on the coffin and watched my tears turn white as they slid onto the metal.
Finally AD tugged on my arm, telling me it was time to go and gently reminding me that Papa Ed wasn’t there. That I knew, but still, I just didn’t want to go. If I couldn’t stay in my old life, I wanted to at least be the last one standing by him in my old life. After a few minutes, AD tugged on my arm again. It was time. The cemetery staff was standing at a respectful distance, no doubt anxious to do what they do when the family leaves.
I patted the coffin one last time and promised that I would see him again.