Category Archives: The Four Last Things

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

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IT’S NEVER RIGHT: or, Save the Baby Spinaches

I read somewhere that one of the things Socrates said was, “It’s never right to do wrong.”  Now, thinking about that and the three folks canvassing the country for you and me to help one of them become our next president, I am wondering how that quote applies to me.

Should I vote for one of them?  Should I vote for someone else?  Should I not vote at all?

As a citizen I have the right to vote, to participate with the rest of you who are eligible. Which, these days, simply means that you are alive, old enough, and have registered to do it; neither property, riches, language, religion or intelligence mattering as once they did. (In a way, folks in that frame of mind might reasonably conclude that consciousness is the only thing that counts about being a citizen and “Participating In Democracy.”  I say that with not a little irony and scorn.)

It’s an obligation and a duty to vote we learn from an early age.  Something which is, I guess, along the lines of making your bed, picking up your toys and eating everything on the plate when you are a child; even the yucky stuff like spinach, kale and codfish.  The stuff  Dad said was good for you, and  Mom said would help the starving children in China.  How was forcing myself to gag or puke going to do that?  I still wonder about what good they do and whether my swallowing what I hated saved a single soul across the sea.  And, though I have grown accustomed to kale and actually like spinach, I sometimes muse on the morality of eating “baby spinaches.” Cod, though, is good in chowder and for seagulls in fishing ports.

That’s absurd of course, that baby spinaches malarkey.  Just so, there’s nothing ethically or morally wrong with eating baby sheep or cows, they’re tasty; or harvesting baby seals, their skins keep us warm and look nice on pretty girls; becoming whatever form or thing one decides one really has or is; marrying a tree, or oneself; saving baby whales, there aren’t enough of them; or killing baby humans.  Umm, now where did that thought , the baby human one, come from?

Well, it’s obviously originally from one of those ten things we can no longer put in front of the courthouse carved in stone; those things which nevertheless hang heavily  over our heads like a gathering storm, which loom like ten massive mountains in front of us, a wall of warning we have so far safely ignored.  Those things which with the help of Progress in Science, Economics, Jurisprudence, Medicine and Politics we may all one day soon be able to drive out from under and up and over into a land flowing with, well with whatever we would like it to overflow, solar panels on every rooftop and 500 channels of TV; a workers paradise and a thousand year something or other.

We will be great again!  Have hope!  Achieve, at last, the change we have wanted all along, from that first afternoon with the sun on the meadows and us lolling in the shade of a the apple tree.  We will be the best we can be, if only we listen to one of the three.

It’s a choice, really, between Tweedledum, who will make everything plentiful and free; Just Plain Dumb; who will make us once more great behind our Great Wall; and Dee, the barrel legged beauty from hell, our true mother with what potions and drugs we need to make us well.

It is a choice I do not wish to make, a meal I do not choose to eat, in a place I find oppressive and toxic.  I know how the Socrates quote applies to me.  Avoid the ballot booth in November as if it contained a nest of vipers.

Perhaps I should stand outside the place with a sign that carries the words, “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!”  Few enough of us read English any longer, so it might be a conversation starter.  Folks who know me could ask, passers by, poll watchers “Why are you out here?”  And I could ask them back, “Why are you going in there?  Why do you care?”  When they ask, “What the hell does that sign say?  I could say, “It really doesn’t matter.  We are there already.”.

And on January 20, next year I’ll stand at the right moment, wave my sword in the right direction and proclaim with the rest of us, “Hail, whomever, we who are dead salute you!”


Yes, it is a wild place we have wandered into.  Would that we had a guide through, and up, and out.

Dante’s Inferno

Doughnuts and Beer: A Story of the Golden Age

Here is a story I wrote some time ago, a story about an incident that took place quite a while before I wrote it down.  Every word is true:

DONUTS AND BEER: A STORY OF THE GOLDEN AGE

A long long time ago, me and Dennis and Bobby had finished up at Toolan’s Bar on Broadway under the El (not a Hebrew word for G-d).  The places closed at 3:00am on Sunday mornings as many of you may know only because it was the law in New York City.  The three of us, and quite a few more sons of Sons of Ireland, had been in there getting fluorescent light burns from early the previous evening. talking about this and that, ball games and ball peen hammers, dying Englishmen and dead Irishmen, sirens (police and female) and song, truth and not-so-truth from early the previous evening….and drinking huge amounts of beer.

Such work can cause in one a huge appetite.  It was in the knowledge of this fact of biology that Arthur had established his diner in the midst of a nest of many such places as Toolan’s Bar on Broadway, within which would gather of a night many of the same kind of yours trulys.  The lights dimmed inside, last call had long ago disappeared into our waiting beer swollen bellies and we, perhaps a bit unsteadily, went into the dark outside; the silent pre-dawn streets, the setting of many of film-noir.  As overhead trains rumbled by overhead, carrying the earliest or the latest to their destinations, from out the other places came small groups of kin, all headed for Arthur’s and a hearty breakfast, a worker’s breakfast, a drinking worker’s breakfast.

Now, it is a law of the universe, as fixed as the law of gravity, or any of Newton’s axioms of thermodynamics, that after three drinks everything is a great idea.  All of us were more than ready to propound greatness, then, by orders of magnitude; to advance humanity any number of steps on its path to glory, or whatever.  And all of us were ready, well oiled as it were, for adventure. I cannot remember who of us said it, but all of us saw the simple, and thus beautiful, symmetry in exchanging, not money, but doughnuts, with Arthur for our breakfast.  In a moment we would repay him in kind for the many good things his amazingly talented short order cook, and his tough but beautiful waitresses would prepare and serve us.  And, we would provide our friends and neighbors with the grease and fat their alcohol soaked systems craved at this time of the morning; and the sugar fueled energy to see them home to waiting mothers and fathers, or wives and daughters.  This was an Irish crowd, may I remind you, and damn near celibate where its drinking life was concerned.

It came to us, this equation of mathematical beauty, because God, in His infinite wisdom, had ordained from eternity that across the street, and just a bit north of Arthur’s now brightly lit and crowded diner there should be an A&P supermarket.  Furthermore, He had so ordered the universe, and arranged its constituent molecules, atoms and sub atomic particles that, at the very time we were conceiving this great idea, a delivery truck was being emptied of its cargo of delicious Ann Page donuts in a plethora of styles and flavors.  Large skids piled with trays containing dozens of boxes of dozens of freshly baked donuts were being placed before us only mere yards away.

Dennis, who toiled as a clerk in some many windowed office building far to our south in Manhattan, and had a head for such figures, quickly calculated that one of those skids held trays containing five hundred dozen donuts.  Bobby, a scholar, was able to compute further that five hundred dozen donuts would be a very even exchange for three of Arthur’s special breakfasts of bacon, eggs, delicious home fries,  juice, coffee and toasted english muffins.  Bobby would go on to make a lot of money in the commodities market I believe.  I was able to see that the truck driver was pulling away and leaving at least twenty of these skids on the street…by themselves.

With catlike grace and cunning, and with equal amounts of charity and hunger motivating us, we approached the outlying skids and culled the nearest one to push to our destination. It was so easy.  And that only confirmed us in our purpose.  Had it been more difficult, it would not have seemed God’s own work we thought at the time.  Simplicity, symmetry and beauty obtained.  It was, as we were well used to hearing in liturgical rhythm, “..right and proper, and helpful for our salvation…”

Such a good feeling to be fostering a cure for hunger prevailed among us that none of us noticed our company as we pushed the nearly six foot high skid down Broadway and across the street toward Arthur’s diner, and the now gathering crowd of, no doubt, doughnut hungry and appreciative late drinkers/early eaters.  “Excuse me, lads, where are you going with that?”  The question could only have come from someone so uninspired as to be sober at this time of day.  Or to be what in fact he was, a cop.  Dennis, ever helpful, answered truthfully, “We’re taking them to Arthur’s and exchanging them for breakfast.”

The prowl car stopped.  We had already stopped pushing our cargo.  The policeman, and his partner driving, looked at us.  “Get in the car,” said the officer, reaching behind him and opening the door.  We were good boys.  We were Catholic youth.  More to the point, we were Irish-Catholic youth and this was an Irish-Catholic cop speaking to us.  It might as well have been God.  As a matter of fact there was no discernible difference.

We got in.

We got in and arranged ourselves in the back seat, Dennis whispering, “Shut up!  Don’t tell them a thing.”  I’d have none of that, I thought.  So, to the first query of, “Just where the hell were you going?”, I answered, “Down to Arthur’s to trade some donuts for breakfast, as my good friend said.”  At about that time we were passing in front of the very same place on our way to the 50th Precinct, then a quiet little Station House in the North Bronx, a refuge for burn-outs from more active houses; a “rubber gun” squad as the term of art had it.

The two in front passed the rest of the trip in silence.  The three in back, now that the truth was out, were busy plotting defenses.  We all figured that 500 dozen donuts was, as they say in drug law enforcement circles, felony weight. What we had in our favor was the good we intended to do with them; a fact pointed out by Dennis.  That, and the fact that no one of us yet had been arrested was a cold comfort, though

Arriving at the Precinct, we were escorted out of the car past a very bored Desk Sergeant  into a large room with a long table, not unlike a corporate conference room, and told to sit tight.  Our captors both left.  Immediately, Bobby suggested an escape. I said it would be just the thing they were waiting for.  They were probably just outside the door waiting for one of us to crack it open and try a “run” for it.  I was having none of it.  Nor was Dennis.  He, suddenly filled with legal knowledge and eloquence, said that our chances “looked good” for an early release…whatever that was.  He intended to tell the officers that they had arrested us falsely and were in great danger of a civil law suit, if not arrest and imprisonment themselves.  (It was the early 60’s and a lot of that stuff was beginning to be heard.)  I prayed he wouldn’t.

Shortly, one of the officers returned. He said that they had contacted the A&P store manager, and he had sent out someone from the store to retrieve the skid on which our unexchanged “breakfast” was. We had left it on the sidewalk upon being invited to drive up to the precinct house with the officers.

Dawn was breaking now, the sky turning rosy pink over the Bronx High School of Science on the other side of the Kingsbridge Reservoir from us. Dennis was demanding that he be read his rights, and Bobby was refusing to say anything, to anybody.  He was infuriated at having his escape attempt thwarted.  I was thanking God that it was early on a Sunday morning, the cops were tired and didn’t seem to want to take anyone down to the County Courthouse.  I kissed a little butt and said that in the dawning light and growing sobriety what we had done was a pretty stupid thing to do.

That seemed to make everybody happy, everybody on the “other” side that is. My buddies looked at me like I was a quisling.  The officers left the room, and I tried to explain myself, my craven behavior.  No use.

Returning with the Desk Sergeant in tow now, we were subjected to a short lecture on how close we had come, and how lucky we were.  He was right, really.  I think that fact began to dawn on both Dennis and Bobby, who were returning to sobriety a bit more slowly than I was.

I expected then that, as the Sergeant got angrier, he’d give us a smack. He was a big guy, and I didn’t fancy one of those ham sized fists bouncing off the side of my now aching head.   But no, our luck held.  “Get them outta here,” he ordered, and the other two officers gathered us up and took us back out to the car.

Now, this was a change. I was no stranger to the 50th Precinct.  On previous such occasions I had been, more or less politely, shown the door. “Now the beating comes,” I thought.  I figured Dennis and Bobby were thinking the same thing as the door was held open and we sat in the back seat once again, silent as the car started back down the hill towards Broadway and Arthur’s and the A&P.  Perhaps we were going to be taken back to the scene and made to apologize to the store manager.  Strangely enough I even thought that maybe the cops were going to make us buy them breakfast?

We rode on in silence.  Past Broadway and up 231st Street going west  for two blocks to the next traffic light.  We made a left and proceeded slowly down the street for about a hundred yards.  We stopped in front of St. John’s Church.  The officer in front of me on the passenger side got out and opened the door.  It was nearly 6:00am and the first Mass would soon begin.

The three of us got out of the prowl car and walked to the curb.  We turned and looked at the two cops, now back in the car and looking back at us.  Nothing was said as the one nearest us waved slightly and smiled.  We knew what we had to do.

All three of us made it to confession before Mass began.

Several years after Special Agent Frank Shannon, a former NYPD Detective was doing my background for my entry into the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  He asked me if I had ever been arrested and I told him the Great Donut Robbery story.  Frank smiled, then he laughed softly and said, ” You’re lucky.  It probably wouldn’t happen now.  There’s too many judges today. They need the work.”

Frank is dead now.  The other two cops may be dead also.  Every once in a while I remember them and say a prayer that God is as merciful to them as they were to three jerks one Sunday morning in the Bronx about forty years ago.

PEG
3/17/01