I'm back, dear friends, and Happy New Year to you all.
I'm still en France, and plan to kick off this year with a story for you all. A true one, as it happens, but one that mixes sadness and laughter in my attempt to deal with something that just happened here.
Which reminds me, what would one of my stories be without a disclaimer?! So here it is: if death is holy to you, and the deceased are sacred, if you believe that our loved ones who've passed on cannot be around laughter, or can no longer be objects of amusement, delight, and ridicule (just as they were, and we all are, in life) then I salute you and respect your position completely.
I would also caution you not to read this post.
You see, in the early hours of . . . yesterday, I suppose, my father died. That was the reason for my trip here, to help my mother care for him and to say good bye. He's had cancer for ten years and lived five more than they said he would, so his death is not a shock in that sense. But the end itself came faster than expected, and my sister and brother arrived a few hours after he'd shuffled from this mortal coil.
Naturally there have been tears, but to understand the gamut of our emotions you have to know my dad. He was highly intelligent. He was the most unjudgmental person I have ever met. He was a solitary figure, invariably preferring the company of trees and animals to human beings, but one of the delights of life for him was a good, deep conversation with a bright friend or stranger about politics, technology, or social issues. He enjoyed good champagne and provided his family with the best port of the previous century, as well as the good taste to appreciate it.
Now, despite being a quiet man, he had one foible that risked making him the center of attention at the wrong time: he would get the giggles. Not just a few of them, but a barrowful that would set his shoulders to shaking and his eyes watering, pulling the breath from him for minutes at a time. My sister and I inherited the gene and my greatest memories are of us sitting at the dinner table quivering with laughter at some minor amusement (any true Giggler will tell you that they require no ignition, they are laughter's version of spontaneous human combustion).
One other thing: there is no more practical man in the world than my dad. In the sense that he resurrected this barn of a mountain home, clearing out door-mice (while never killing one of them) and remaking ceilings, stairs, the water system, the patio, etc etc. Practical, too, in the sense that he detested unnecessary extravagance. Silliness, yes, extravagance, no.
This is dad a few years ago, during a three-year volunteer project in Namibia. Taking a wild guess, I'd say around Christmas time (I'm pretty sure those are his Christmas trousers. . . ).
So he died late Friday night, this humble, honest, antlered man, with my mum and me holding his hands, telling him how much we loved him. She and I stayed up the rest of the night, we lit a fire and made tea, and finally we dozed off in our chairs towards dawn.
And then the fun really began. Because, you see, this is France. And in France there are a few certain truths: (1) the bread is better, (2) everything requires paperwork, and (3) the bread requires paperwork.
First of all, the nurses who'd cared for him the past few months immediately drove up to our mountain home, at 2:30 A.M., to clean and dress his body. We left him in the bedroom so my brother and sister could visit and say good bye. We all spent the day coming and going, finding ourselves talking to him, sticking our heads into the room to see if he needed anything, that sort of impractical, self-comforting nonsense he'd roll his eyes at.
What he wanted, of course, was for us to find a nice tree, wrap him in a sheet and tuck him into the soil facing the mountains. Not surprisingly, the French don't permit that. Can't blame them. So cremation (my sister has begun calling it "his transmogrification") is the next best thing, but that requires a coffin. I half-believe the old man would have made his own, but he works with nice oak and I'm guessing didn't want to waste it on a box that would be buried in wet soil. So, very unashamedly, we ordered the cheapest there is. No silks, no cushions, no frills or finery at all.
Our options as far as funeral homes were twofold: the professional, practiced company who'd take care of things in a hushed reverence, or the local chappie from the village. Only problem with him, being a sole proprietor he'd need help carrying dad out of the house, though he said his wife could come up and lend a hand if need be. Given the price difference, and our terror of hushed reverence (what if one of us got the giggles?!), we of course opted for the local chappie.
He duly showed up last night and halfway through the conversation, we all realized there'd been a misunderstanding (easy when you're speaking a foreign language over the phone, and using go-betweens). We were by the fire in the kitchen and he suddenly looked puzzled and jerked his thumb towards the ceiling.
Chappie: "You mean, he's here? In the house?"
Mum: "Yes. You didn't know that?"
Chappie: "No, I thought he'd died in the hospital."
Mum: "He died here. He's still here, dressed and ready to go."
Chappie: "Ah, that's a problem. I didn't bring the casket."
Mum: "Oh dear. Well, if the van's refrigerated, maybe. . . "
Chappie: "No, no, I brought my car, it's too small."
Me: "You have a front seat and a seat-belt, don't you?"
Chappie, nervous laughter: "Yes, but. . . "
Mum: "Can you go get it?"
Chappie: "No. I need permission. Paperwork from the mayor and the police, it's required to transport the body."
Mum: "What about tomorrow?"
Chappie: "Tomorrow is Sunday."
Me: "People don't usually die on Sundays?"
Chappie: "Yes, but . . . then they wait."
You get the idea. The end result is that while he works on getting the papers signed, he'll drop off a casket (I'm writing this as I wait) and, with the help of my brother and me, we'll load our dear old dad inside and keep him as a piece of furniture in the front room, or the cellar if it proves to be a warm day, until the signatures and permissions have been gathered.
The problem with keeping him in the main room is that we'll keep talking to him and, if yesterday is any guide, getting the giggles. Not that he'd mind, of course.
The problem with putting him in the cellar is, well, he'll be blocking access to the port. That, I am certain, he'd mind a lot more.
We will miss you, dear dad, but more than anything we will remain grateful. For everything you did, and everything you were.