Category Archives: Life, Death, Heaven, Baseball

Dead and Dying: Something for Lent

This is about two things; what used to happen and what I think is happening.

I was very young when I attended my first wake; young enough so that all I remember of it is that I was in a forest of legs, legs with faces somewhere up there in the distance, and voices flying overhead.  They were making words, I knew, but I couldn’t make sense of them.  It seemed as if everyone was simply saying, “Noise!”  Everyone, that is except old ladies on chairs with sad and tired faces who were saying soft things in whispers as they moved the beads through their hands.  I looked at them with the open and intense stare of the young child, the child who hasn’t yet learned discretion and dissembling.  They looked at me in the same way; their eyes unshielded by age.

Perhaps my most specific memory of that evening is of seeing a massive pair of shoes at the bottom of a staircase.  They were the shoes of my Grand Uncle Bill Fanning, brother of my grandmother, my father’s mother Catherine Fanning Gallaher from Leighlin Bridge, Carlow, Ireland.

At some point during that evening of legs and loud talk, everything grew quiet, and all over the place people got shorter in the legs.  They were on their knees, and saying words I knew were prayers because I had heard them from all the other people, the older ones I lived with.  We prayed for an eternity, following the lead of the man in front, Father Someone.  And, when the prayers were over, we left and went home on the subway.  I slept. It was quieter.

I do not know whose wake I was at.  I only remember legs, big shoes and noise.  It may have been Uncle Bill’s, since I never saw him after that, and Grandma, who was given to prayer several times a day, became more involved in her “office”.  She wanted her brother in heaven, and it was the best of things to do; to pray him all the help she thought he needed.  Never giving up

She never did.  Besides her brother,  she had a big family back across the water, and a sister here, too with five sons, and they all needed praying for.

Several years after that incident I attended my first Funeral Mass.  My mother’s mother, whom I loved, had died.  I knew she was sick because I’d overheard conversations at night in the kitchen, and my mother on the phone to her sister.  Then I was told to dress one cold gray morning for Mass. Nanny was being buried.  I rode in the back of the long black car between my mother and my aunt.  My sister may have been in the car with me, or she may have been staying at home with our neighbors.  I cannot remember.  My brother was there.

I cried.

The only thing I remember about the Mass beyond my first feelings of loss and sadness was the silence, broken occasionally by mournful music, as if the organ was weeping too; and the people singing sad songs for me and my family and my grandmother in the coffin in the front.  Everyone was in black, and everyone was sad, too.  Everyone prayed.  I even saw rosary beads in the hands of the men who moved then one at a time as they slowly went through the silent mysteries, silently.  What I remember most is the deep echoing silence in the church.  I used to think that church was huge, and that when silent the whole world was silent, too. Like that day.  My mother told me to pray for my grandmother, and always to remember her when I prayed.

I have no memories beyond the silence and sadness, being urged to pray for Nanny to help her to heaven, and my tears.

Georgie Masters mother hung herself one afternoon and died tied to the curtain rod in their bathroom.  Georgie and his sister Eileen stayed with us for three days.  Then on the third day, their father came to get them to take them to St. John’s, the big church, for the funeral.  We rode along with them behind the hearse carrying a lady I didn’t know much about. Because it was the way of it, I prayed for her silently in the silent car, and in the silent church where a pin drop would sound like a cannon’s roar, I thought.  Silent except for the quiet whispers of prayers being said for Mrs. Masters, that her Purgatory not be long, and that God be good to her.

We walked back from that Mass to our house.  Mr. Masters held my hand when we crossed Broadway underneath the El.  His hand was warm, and bigger than my father’s.  He had a long black overcoat one and wore a black hat.  We got back home and George and Eileen left with their father.  I could take you today, with my eyes closed, to the spot where I stood in the hallway of our apartment as they left the house.  I still pray for Mrs. Masters, but I suspect the prayers are put in someone else’s account.  She was a woman in pain.

I have been to perhaps a dozen funerals of men, police officers and federal agents, who have died in the line of duty, and one or two priests, too, called home after long years of work in the vineyard.  In the former cases, hundreds, at times thousands of their brothers lined the streets outside, and stood silently until the funeral ended.  In the latter, the loudest noise at the beginning and end was the tolling of a single bell.  A single bell.  A reminder to pray, to remember, to pray.

Their names, now, I can’t remember. What is with me still, though, are the days and places, the long blue lines outside, the robed priests about the altar inside and the silence, reverent, respectful silence.  These, like works in a gallery, frame my prayers, some of whom I knew well, some not at all.  But all I keep in my prayers, years on, like my grandmother at her beads.

We provide the music at funerals in one of the parishes here in town.  Some of the people, not a few in fact, who find out what we do recoil at knowing that’s how we spend some of our time.  “Eeewww!  Funerals!”  “How does that make you feel?”  “It must be dreadful.”   These are the kind of things we often hear from folks we tell about our work.

Well, sometimes…  But, then, there are other things.

Not too long ago we worked at the funeral of a person, a woman who I am told was a nice lady.  Well, no one wants to speak ill..  And I will not, myself.

As with most funerals we attend and provide music for, so was this one peopled with a number of people who appeared to me as if they had just wandered in off the street, or had indeed come to a funeral, but had no idea at all what exactly that meant, or why it was taking place.

I mean, in the latter case those folks might have been thinking  something like this about that: “Duh, Jimmy, she’s dead isn’t she; a bunch of ash in the little gray pot Uncle Bilge just brought in?  What’s the point?”  And indeed it may have been,and probably is,the prevailing frame of mind for some who “happen by” these things; little more than a quiet place to check for messages; or to catch up with someone not seen since the last party.

“Yeah, I feel sad Uncle Bob is dead.  But, look, I ain’t worked since I got the news he was dying last week.  I was gonna visit but, like, I was too busy.  Besides, we were comped at the new casino in Revere for two days.  Yeah, outta sight!.  Don’t matter, really.  He’s dead now.  Just a minute, I gotta check this message.  By the way, you going out with me and Davey on Friday, The Rotten Tomatoes are playing at The Scalded Duck.  They got this new beer they’re promoting that tastes like sour apples with a pickle nose and burnt shirt finish.”

Most of them, the bereaved we used to call them, on this morning stood at the front, at the foot of the altar in a sloppy group talking loudly while we sang some prologues before Mass. (Yes it is still a Mass, folks, though it is more often referred to as a service, as if what was inside the box or the coffin was a device to be worked on by the Gook Squad or a car needing a tune up.)

They chattered the things one chatters before a funeral these days: About how long it has been since they’ve seen each other.  About, whether or not Auntie May is as crazy as she dresses these days.  “Did you see that thing she’s wearing?”  About how the Red Sox or the Bruins or the Patriots are doing.  New cars.  Old cars.  Vacations and, recently, tattoos, or “ink” or “tats” as they seem now to be called.  There were some in evidence on the legs and bare arms of the younger women who attended; though none were on their faces…yet.

Not long after that, we were called to provide music for a young man who had died suddenly.  He left two or three young children behind, I do not remember the total number, along with his girlfriend, as she was styled in the obituary.  He was lauded as a wonderful father to the children, who played with them, and was always good for a laugh, leaving them happy they had seen him.

His mourners included a number of fellows who appeared in their “colors”, filling two rows at the back of the church, and reminding me of bears in a cage.

A few weeks before this, maybe a month, I heard, his brother had died.  Suddenly, as the saying goes.

Yesterday we were present for the final rites of an old woman, mother, grandmother and, I think great-grandmother, and several days ago it was another old man.  Dark clothes filled the pews, and quiet.  Only one or two children were among each congregation of mourners gathered to say farewell.

This morning another old man who died quietly at home, followed by a bundle of relatives, dark and quiet, was wheeled in his casket to the altar for the final rites.

I find myself wondering about the things I see from my post up in the choir loft, and what is happening, and I cannot really think that what is happening is good.

Myself?  I am I know no better than anyone below me, probably worse off than most.  But, being present at twenty or thirty of these “celebrations” each year has not convinced me that I am.

And, is that a bad thing? At least, I find it “wonderfully focuses the mind.”   We of course have life.  We forget the other three things.

In Paradisum

We Went Out To The Ballgame Last Night, Hearts Filled With Hope

 

It’s raining this morning.  Raining cats and dogs.  Earlier it was raining refrigerators, boxcars and horse drawn wagons; with horses attached.  But, none of that stuff happened last night.  Last night it rained home runs, big cheers and great joy!  Great joy after deep gloom; the best kind to have.  That’s the story of baseball, one of mankind’s greatest achievements along with a cold mug of suds and a fat sandwich, and kids who play the game with heart, so guys like me never have to grow old.

Here’s how it happened.

A BRIEF CAUTIONARY NOTE:  The reader will be aware, I hope, all half dozen of you, that what I shall tell below is a story, not factually perfect.  I took no notes, and I work from an overtaxed memory.  But it’s a true story, believe me.

It all started a few days ago when the home town team, The Nashua Silver Knights, was scheduled to play The I Mavericks from Portsmouth, NH, in a three game series to see who would go up against the Western Division’s team for the 2016 Champeenship  of the FCBL (Futures Collegiate Baseball League).  We’ve had season tickets for several years now, and a season’s worth of ball games in the open air, with attendant beer drinking and hot dog eating and screaming at the umps, cheering for the good guys, costs about as much as a night down in Bean Town or a day at Fenway , is closer to home and better for the soul.

Anyway, our guys lost the first game.  Actually it was stolen from them.  But, like Mom always said, “There’s no use…”, right?  And besides winning or losing, we knew we were better than “them”.  So, like everyone in Brooklyn long, long ago, we headed for the next game, last night’s, up in Portsmouth at what I was led to believe was a nice place for a game, Leary Field; our hearts topped off with hope and swagger.  We bought our own chairs with us, and I thought, “This is real!” as, after paying only three bucks, we wandered across the field with our folding seats, and jackets just in case.  It was a beautiful night for baseball, a game of which makes every night more beautiful.  But, nature had put on the Ritz for the game: clear sky, high clouds, a neat little park across from the library with church steeples and old houses and tree lined streets ringing the place, and a quarter moon crooning brightly in the light of the setting sun.  I kept looking for Norman and his easel.

The game was late getting started, and I can’t remember thinking it was because of the crush of the crowd.  Fewer than a hundred people were in the stands, or spread out along the chain link fence on the visitors’ side.   I remember thinking that the ball park was a hitter’s paradise.  It looked like a place for high school ball; no fence further than about 350′, and none higher than 7′.  Compared to ours in Nashua, where Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella played, it was an orange crate to a mahogany chest.

Anyway, I couldn’t help remarking to one of their players, as we passed them by on the way in, “Good game last night.”  He looked up from his stretches and said, “Thanks.”  “You got lucky, ” I answered and walked on.  It was going to be a serious night of ball.


The first three innings were a hitless, scoreless pitchers’ duel, lots of strikeouts, but, also something else.  There were lots of terrible calls from the home plate umpire.  By the end of the third inning, it was more than obvious that the bad calls on the other side were for balls instead of strikes, and on our side he called them the other way ’round.  I know it’s not a good thing to hate anyone, but this fellow was the one exception where hatred was a virtue.  Well, not “the one” exception.  But, you know what I mean.

Striking everyone as odd, the first thing he did when coming out to the field was rearrange the batter box boundaries, a thing no one had ever seen before.

And so it went.  We scored two runs on one hit in the fourth, and it seemed to me, and every other one of the folks with us that the ump was definitely favoring the other side.  Yet even with a tenth player on their side, they couldn’t score.  Our coach was visibly angry with the guy, and our own players were getting upset.  One of our pitchers, the starter, came out in the middle of the fifth because he was too visibly upset to continue.  The umps tactics had gotten to him.

The relief fared no better, and by the 7th inning the score had been tied.  Then, they broke out in front, scoring three more runs on a double by their big first baseman with the bases loaded; bases that were loaded on three walks in succession delivered to them courtesy of the ump, and another pitching change for us due to the same cause.  The kid who came in took the mound, and I could see that the terrible conditions behind home plate had already had an effect on him.  His behavior was full of contradictory signs, all doing with trying to work under tough conditions.  It’s hard building a castle when it gets knocked down before you can get a wall up.  Bad metaphor, I know. Nevertheless the whole team was by this time affected.

We fans, we few on the right side, were catching the virus, too, feeling powerless.  About all we could do is commiserate with the team, and curse the ump, while watching bad call after bad call, and our hopes drain away.  Strangely enough, there was a deafening silence from the fans on the other side; as if they were, somehow, ashamed.


The “scouting report” on our opponents from one of the fellows who was with us said that they were weak in pitching.  Who needed good pitching when one was able to count the ump as a player. Nevertheless, there were some things the guy had to call balls, and out bats still worked.  So, despite the handicap, the fellows managed to even the score. And it was tied at five runs apiece.

But in the eighth inning one of our guys hit a solo home run, a shot clearing the fence way out in center field; too far, I thought with a grim satisfaction, to be ruled foul by anyone so inclined to try.  And, that ignited everyone!  The celebration lasted through the next two at bats by our lads, I think.  Some folks were literally dancing with glee.  I know I was.  It was Christmas and the Fourth of July and VE Day!  I picked the latter to remind everyone, you special seven readers, that work had still to be done.

The bottom of the eighth didn’t change a thing for them, and we went into the ninth ahead by one run.  I have to say the other side tried everything  they could in a long time at bat; but their best efforts still left things as they were.  And, as they were was definitely  not to safe a position to hold on to.  One run against a team that had beaten us by five just two days before was no cushion to rest on.  It was a sharp rock in your back!  Everyone knew it, and knew we needed to build a bigger lead. A combination of worry and determination and purpose built like a coming storm on us, on everyone, I think.  The “game” took one a meaning more than play.  The on deck “circle”, a stretch of gravel next to the ugly squat cinder block shelter that was the dugout, was a busy place with sometimes three players stretching, squatting, practice swinging, loosening up….waiting, and trying not to wait.  The dugout itself was quiet.  The fans, when we weren’t biting our nails, and looking for rabbit’s feet were doing what fans ordinarily do; our best to build a little hope, give a little support.


Have you ever been in a position where you get in inkling that the weather is about to change, feel a cool breeze on a hot sweaty day, a lightening of the heart, a change in attitude about someone or something?  I had sat quietly for some time during the last inning really worrying about our thin lead, and, I guess, praying that we could build on it, to ensure the win I hoped was coming.  And as the first batter walked to the plate, I thought I felt that breeze.  This is no hindsight working on me now.  I simply had a premonition that things were going to be OK.  Only, I didn’t yet know how OK they were going to be.

So, I stayed to see.

I mentioned that pitching was our strength.  Well your can go for the ride of your life on a pitcher’s arm, and we certainly had a stable full of thoroughbreds.  On the other side of the field, they were no judges of horse flesh.  I guess that is why they relied so much on the kindness of umpires.  In this instance it failed them.  The fellow on the mound, God bless him, could give the ump no help, because he kept throwing things so low only an ant could hit them.  And what wasn’t low, was west of Chicago.  Oh, there were a few pitches that weren’t ankle high, and one of them, perhaps more, became hits.  He may even have walked one of them, despite the umps’s best efforts for the team.  The bases filled, then, and another single sent another run in.

The sun had arisen on a beautiful day and the birds were all in marvelous voice.  As a matter of fact everything sounded great, including the prolonged madness of our celebratory screaming.  We filled the bases again with, I seem to recall a miserly hit to shallow right field.  And that inkling I had had was growin’ fast, beyond intuition, beyond certainty and coming up on fact.  By that time several among us behind the chain link fence may have been frothing at the mouth.  I know at least two who certainly sounded that way.

The next fellow up, one of the steady producers, but not the biggest weapon by far in the arsenal, cleared the bases with a grand slam.  And while it was all over in a few dozen seconds, it seems to me now that it took several hours while tragedy and triumph mingled on the plains of battle, and the opposition’s dugout became a mortuary.

And then, our last at bat grounded out. And, as if all it was was  Dad and his pals leaving the factory after the whistle blew, our few fellows on deck turned and walked off the field.  And I felt as if civilization had just been saved.

I listened to the sound of Verdi’s “Dies Irae”  in my brain as the other guys trudged up to the plate, and I asked God for one or two small favors, three mercifully quick outs or perhaps a couple of runs, sort of as a comforting sip of water, a mercy before the just end.  That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?  And it was God’s pleasure to remain where He was and let unfold what had been ordained before the worlds were made, before the stars in all their solemn majesty were set on high above.  There was no long tragic march into Valhalla, no Wagnerian  parade across the bridge into Valhalla.  The end was a brutal fact. Merciless and swift and sure, as the lion suffocates the helpless zebra.  And silence.  For a split second before we all,players and spectators erupted in one triumphant rush and roar.

He had granted my first prayer…the one I really, really wanted.