The Day After
I woke early on Thursday morning with an urgency I hadn’t felt for a long time. I realized as I sat on the edge of the bed, there was a lot to be done in a very short time, and there was no one else to do it but me. It was seven o’clock, and the house was quiet. Bailey and Brandy were looking at me wondering if I was going to feed them, and I decided it was time to get moving. I took care of them, made a pot of coffee and sat down for a cigarette. The bed was still there where it was when I went to bed. I guess I didn’t think it would be gone, but the sight was still something I didn’t want to see right then.
I had calls to make. I had already called her sister Ann and her brother Richard, and my son, Ryan, and Joanie’s sister Ginny, and so family calls were all done. One call this morning, was to Ed Schafer to bring him the news. That call was followed by one to then Gov. John Hoeven, and Lt. Gov. Jack Dalyrmple, who both agreed to be pall bearers. Former Gov. Al Olson had already agreed to being a pall bearer as well. The list was now complete with Wayne Tanous, Tom Woodmansee and Orell Schmitz who had all committed before. That they all agreed, was testimony to how much Joanie meant to each one of them, and it meant a lot to me.
I set up meetings for the afternoon with Bob Eastgate at the funeral home, along with Pastor Sathre so we could go over details of the service. I had already outlined the service I wanted. It would be brief, and it would be, in the spirit of what we have come to call funerals now, a “Celebration of a life well lived.”
The music was all secular, both the music piped in before the service and three songs during the service. It came from the CD’s that Joanie and I loved, and included music from Chuck Mangione, Harry Chapin, James Taylor, Dave Grusin, Chris Botti and with a nod to her Irish heritage, some proper Irish music. The processional, for back of a better word would be one by Chris Botti, “Time to Say Goodbye.” It seemed appropriate to me.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this, but for some reason it seems important. The music was all part of what we had together, and would have no more. I think I just wanted to show people a part of who she was, and a part of who we were together all of those years. Maybe, that’s what writing this story is all about, the memory of what once was.
I told Pastor Sathre, there would only be two speakers. Cathy Rydell would deliver a eulogy, and I would make some comments, and that would be it. That along with the normal activity, and the three songs, should bring the service to an end in just under 30 minutes in good Lutheran form. I thought Joanie would approve.
Late that morning, they came for the bed and the oxygenator we had used. I signed the papers, and then, somehow the living room seemed bigger, but more empty than it had before. It is funny how things go through you mind at times like this. I can’t say that everyone goes though the same thing, but that is how it was for me that day.
My sister Jane showed up early afternoon, and quickly set about picking up supplies she knew we would need in the coming days. Things like paper cups, large soda cups, paper plates, plastic spoons, knives and forks, and plenty of paper towels and dinner napkins. They would all be used, and helped keep the dishwashing to a minimum. There would be a lot of people stopping by, and by Sunday evening, when it was time for the first part of this ritual, the hour at the funeral home where people could gather, view the photographs, and the three videos I had put together. I had a closed caskett, and it was the same for the day of the funeral. I had never believed in an open caskett service, preferring to remember the person in a different light. I found out later, a lot of people agreed with me on that issue.
The one task that I had to get to work on right away that Thursday was writing the obituary. That was my job, and there was no one else to do it. That was hard, but I got it done, and I even got all of the names and facts correct. Unlike the videos I had worked on in the weeks leading up to this time, I hadn’t started working on an obit until this Thursday.
One of the things I learned during this process, and it might be something familiar to some, and for others, it might be something you will experience in the future, and that is there will be moments during the time you are attending to details, family gatherings and the commotion that comes along with that you will find you need to take breaks and get some time alone.
The house at 1205 N. Mandan was small, but would get really small when my family, meaning my sisters Jane and Joni along with their kids and Jane’s grandkids, my son Ryan, and people who stopped by would all be there, and when that happened, it could get chaotic with noisy laughter and craziness abounding. I loved them all, but I found myself from time to time just grabbing a beer and a smoke and walking outside by myself. My brother Jerry could even raise the level of craziness, but he was unable to make it. Jane had told me she had talked to him, and he hadn’t been able to find a cheap airline ticket on such short notice, and so I called him and told him it was okay if he couldn’t make it. I said, “You have my permission to not come.” I said, if it were me and I was in the same situation, I would be facing the same decision, so it was okay with me.
One of the odd things about this funeral was the fact we were burying her mother’s ashes along with her.
Her parent’s, Bud and Phyliss Wigen had bought plots for each other a long time ago, and when Bud died in 1987, he was buried on the one side, with the other side being reserved for Phyliss. Phyliss had been remarried, and living in Arizona when she died, and she was cremated and her ashes were at an institution in Sun City West. Joanie had insisted, when her mother’s husband died, that her ashes be returned to Bismarck. So, one wintry day in 2007, FedEx shows up at the door with a box containing her mom’s ashes. I put it on a shelf in one of the closets we had in the garage.
Now then, Joanie was supposed to be buried in the plot next to her dad. When I went to see Bob Eastgate that afternoon to make some arrangements, I told him I had a situation. I smiled and said, “I’ve got Joanie’s mother’s ashes in a FedEx box in my garage, and I’m not quite sure what to do with them now.”
Bob thought for a moment, and then asked me if there would be a problem if they buried her mom’s ashes on top of Joanie’s casket. I said, “You can do that?” He told me they could, and I told him that was to be the plan. It seemed kind of poetic to me to have them all three together. So, that’s what they did.
The next day, I got a call from Bob, and he informed me that because of a new law, her mom’s ashes would have to be enclosed in a vault, and that was to cost $300. I was amazed, and started to laugh because I couldn’t believe it. I’m thinking, “For Christ’s sake, these are ashes, and they need vault?” But I said go ahead. When I told her brother Richard about it, he told me to send him the bill for that. I wanted to tell Bob, “Why don’t they just sprinkle the ashes over the casket when no one is looking?” Then it came to me that the vault makers must have had a pretty good lobbying effort to get a law like that passed.
How much these details of the day after matter, I don’t know, except to show the dynamics of the situation I was dealing with as we prepared to say goodbye to Joanie in the formal ritual we call a funeral. In some ways, I guess it is a way of putting a period at the end of a sentence. It is after all, the closing of the circle which is as natural as the rain, or the snow on the city street you never cared about because you were in love.
I fear this post has gone on quite long, and I had meant to include Cathy Rydell’s eulogy, but maybe, I’ll do another one that will include her eloquent remarks at Joanie’s funeral. Seems to me her words will be a proper way to end this narrative that began so long ago.
But before I close out this post, I will leave with these words: I sent an email out on that Thursday morning to the whole list I had, giving everyone the details on where, what and when, so they could make their own arrangements.
I didn’t say much else, but I did close the email with these words: “She was my wife, my lover and my best friend, and I will miss her greatly.”
It wasn’t to much later that day, when I got an email from an old Army buddy of mine who quoted my line, and he added, “You have had it all my friend.”