jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

You go to the funeral.

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Leaving Boston
April 2014

I am in a JetBlue plane, somewhere between Massachusetts and Philadelphia, snapping gum, fighting for elbow room, staving off sleep. Every time I cough, the woman next to me flinches. The Jersey shore girl behind me keeps talking about tube tops, which is odd, because it’s barely 40º outside.

I am headed home.

I haven’t been home much since my father died, 17 years ago, although during some of that time I actually lived in Philadelphia. But New Jersey, New Jersey is different.

I am going home to New Jersey for a funeral. My husband made me fly, because he hates the idea of his sleepy wife zipping along the highways and byways of the Northeast. But for me, something about the time it takes to get from here to there in a car allows for the slow immersion, the gentle slide back in time.

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Betsy Ross Bridge to New Jersey
April 2014

My minivan can become a time machine, the roads becoming more familiar, exactly like I remember as I ease from bridge to turnpike to exit to highway to Rte. 130 strip malls, the same six-lane highway I crossed on my three-speed Schwinn bike in search of Baskin Robbins’ bubble-gum-flavored ice cream.

But flying is the sudden jarring upheaval, the Auntie Em gone missing as we lift off in our rarefied air and then touchdown.

When my father died I was living in Rhode Island, at a monastic school. I’d traveled down to Appalachia. It was Kentucky, I think, in a van filled with kids eager to avoid spring breaks with their parents, looking for college essays or perhaps, truly looking to serve. We were going to be building houses.

During an overnight stop on the drive down I called my father, who was in the hospital. I was in a hotel room I shared with a 15 year-old. My Dad told a joke or I told a joke. He sounded sick, but he pretty much always sounded sick. I wish I could remember the joke. I remember the hotel carpet was blue, but not the joke. I said, “Love you,” when I got off the phone, because that’s what you say.

Two days later, the first morning of our stay at the mission house, I was brought to the kitchen. My mother had called. It was an emergency, I was to call back. And after 27 years growing up in a family where at least one family member was likely to die, where every phone message from my mom was prefaced with, “Hi, Jennie. It’s mom. Everything is fine…” I knew that everything was truly not fine.

Standing in the kitchen surrounded by kids making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I slid down the wall, clutching the phone, crying. I remember the boy watching me, not his name, but his face. I don’t remember what my mom said.

A local woman volunteered to drive me to the nearest major airport, four hours away. And as I traveled these roads so unfamiliar, past choking kudzu and mountains, with a woman who I didn’t know, I felt unhinged, off-balance. I lost my boarding pass in the airport, vaguely remember yelling at someone at a service kiosk that my father, at age 60, was dead and this man needed to fix my ticket because today had already been too much.

At my childhood home in New Jersey we gathered, all untethered balloons, only half-filled with helium, sometimes colliding, mostly drifting off to corners with our fraying ribbons dragging behind us. A neighborhood friend took me to the mall to buy a black dress. The first chance I got I ran the two miles to my besty’s house where I knew I could breathe for a minute before returning to be deflated and emptied.

Loss. Lost.

Later we helped to transfer the casket from the gurney to the hearse and it was shockingly heavy for a man who had been so sick for so very long.

I remember my besty being in the back of the church, her husband by her side. She was like a beacon. She was there to comfort only me. For the briefest moment I glided into her to hold on and then away. I filled myself with her, but just for a moment.

But it meant something so large. The people who traveled from New York or western Pennsylvania or just up Rte. 130, they mattered. The on-again, off-again boyfriend who did not come to the funeral, that mattered, too.

Today I am flying home to go to my best friend’s Dad’s funeral. He was 91. He was always very short with me whenever I saw him, “Mother! Get Bean. It’s her friend.” Maybe he knew about the time the car broke down on the Schuylkill Expressway on the way to the James Taylor concert, how we’d had it towed and then acted surprised to find it not starting up the next day. Maybe he knew I’d sometimes make her raid her sweet mother’s stash of frozen Christmas cookies in the basement freezer. Maybe he was just already old and tired, even in 1986.

Now my best friend is a mom herself, and a wife and teacher. She is the glue that holds things together, she is the helium that fills our collective balloons. She is just one of this man’s amazing children. Her three smart, dear children are just three of his eleven grandchildren. In my book, he lived a wonderfully complete life.

And so,  I return home now to celebrate his life, yes. But I return home more to be near my friend and her family. To be a face she recognizes at the wake, to fill the church at the funeral, to drive to the cemetery for the folding of the flag and the playing of taps. With her full life and the time and effort expected of her right now, I don’t expect to see her for long. When I told her I was coming I said that I just wanted my aura to be closer to her aura. I want her to know that I am near. I am always near.

When my Dad died I called another friend whose dad had died years before. I told her I didn’t know how to be without a father. I wanted guidance from someone who had gone there ahead of me. I don’t remember what she said. I do remember her voice though, and her love streaming over the phone, her empathy.

You show up. You go to the funeral. If you can, you just do it. You go.

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Funeral procession
April 2014

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32 comments on “You go to the funeral.

  1. kellyinrepeat
    April 8, 2014

    Recently my friends dad died and she told me that losing him was like waking up and finding out the sky was gone. So I am glad your aura could be there for your girl … So that it felt like bits of the sky were still in place.
    One of the last times I flew into New Jersey, it was for a funeral. I was pregnant with Luke and a woman had decided to paint her nails on the plane. I threw up on the plane and then on the jersey turnpike. Sigh. What is it about that place?

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Ugh. Throwing up on a plane and the turnpike? Even Bruce Springsteen couldn’t pretty-up that story. Who paints their nails on a plane anyway?! (Oh, wait. New Jersey. R-i-i-i-ght.) I remember right after my father passed away saying I felt like someone had cut off my arm but everyone was acting like I still had both of my arms. Like, “Tie this for me?” and “Could you please hold this huge cat for me?” and you want to say, “What is wrong with you?! Can’t you see I only have one arm?! I can’t do that.” Your comment just made me remember that exact feeling.
      And I’m so lucky that that girl has always been there for me.

  2. Bean
    April 8, 2014

    Thank you for being there for me. Words can not express how much I appreciate having you there. This is a time I will never forget. Thank you to Tim and your beautiful kids for helping to make it happen.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Oh, you again? Yes, YOU! Because you’re the bomb-diggy as they say. And you’ve always been there for me. I’d quote Pretty Woman but my computer will only let me open one screen at a time and I can’t remember any quotes besides, “A name? You need a name? How about Cinda-f@%&($-rella?!” Really, you are just the best. And for the record, no need to thank the riff-raff. I’ve been doing laundry since I got home and I’m only now catching up. Hooligans. (Really it was an honor to be able to be there for you. Sorry I kept coughing during the flag-foldind-ceremony-thingy. Ugh.)

  3. Nadia
    April 8, 2014

    I would hope I have those I love close when the time comes.

    Honest and touching, Jen.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Thank you for that. You sound pretty loved, my fair lady. You’ll have a posse, I know.
      Glad to see you back.

  4. evelyneholingue
    April 8, 2014

    “I told her I didn’t know how to be without a father.”
    This is a heartbreaking sentence and I think the most beautiful in your moving post. No doubt because I lost my dad recently your words touched me a lot.
    I hope you’ve found peace since then.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Now he really is just hanging out on a beach in Cape Cod to me. Which is actually pretty weird. But I guess that’s what we do. No one really dies as long as we can remember them, right?
      And I’m sorry about the loss of your father. Even as we know it’s as things should be, they go before us and all, it’s such a momentous thing, like the sun reversing direction.

  5. Mrs. P
    April 9, 2014

    For some reason, this is a perfect introduction to your blog…I woke up dreaming that my dad had died and I had been there when it happened…as he would have wanted. I held his hand and promised I would take care of my sisters.

    Your recollection, especially sliding in and out of your besty…I would have done the same…and hearing your words was comforting and peaceful. I am glad you could be there for Bean.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      What a lovely comment. Thank you for that. We’re never prepared for any of this, no matter what. But I think that’s just many of the reasons we crave friends. They become the safety net (and the much needed helium.)
      I’m so glad I could be there, too.

  6. Deborah
    April 9, 2014

    You are truly an incredible writer.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Aw, listen to you! Thank you.
      (How well you know those sepia-tinted streets. And it’s crazy how nothing has changed! Except the playground equipment and the cars in people’s driveways…)

  7. Sasha
    April 9, 2014

    Heartfelt and honest, thanks for sharing this.

  8. Kelly L McKenzie
    April 9, 2014

    So true. You go. You show up. You just do it. One of the very first fumerals I remember going to was for my friend’s mom. My late dad took me. I was young and reluctant to go but he said “She’s just lost her mom and needs you.” He was right. As are you.

    Bean is blessed – and she knows it.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Ah, Bean is the best. So lucky to have the friends I have in this life.
      What a lesson to learn so young, to go to the funeral. But it’s at the crux of what’s important in life, to do the harder thing in order to comfort or help someone else in a time of need.

  9. dvb415
    April 9, 2014

    “The hotel carpet was blue but not the joke.” Great writing, kid. and, you’re right. You go.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      It’s amazing how we learn these things. Who teaches us them, right? Although I guess my kids know now. You go home for the funeral, even if you have to find a babysitter who can drive a minivan and doesn’t mind working for 12 hours.
      Thank you.

  10. Anna Spanos
    April 9, 2014

    This is just beautiful. I always love your posts, but the writing in this one particularly wonderful this week. Thanks for letting me live in this language a little bit today.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Just so you know, I carried this little compliment around with me all day. Thank you.
      It’s amazing what you can write on a JetBlue airplane. Must be the blue potato chips.

  11. Burns the Fire
    April 9, 2014

    I just found this beautiful post, oh our aching hearts.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      And this one was the extended dance remix of Homecoming. Aching hearts is right, although filled hearts is thankfully true, too.

      • Burns the Fire
        April 12, 2014

        Ha! and I feel your full heart spill over into mine every time I read you.

  12. Perfection Pending
    April 9, 2014

    What a good friend you are. And, what a special feeling to be able to return the favor.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Ah, my Bean is a gift. really. You’d get the flight, too, I know.

  13. Kim
    April 11, 2014

    Beautiful writing Jen! You amaze.

    • jgroeber
      April 14, 2014

      Thank you for reading, busy Mama Mia. You amaze me, too. Sew me something awesome? 😉

  14. Margie S
    April 12, 2014

    This is so sad and touching. Our current experiences are such an amalgamation of past and present. On a separate note, I love how you describe your reentry into your childhood neighborhood.

    • jgroeber
      April 14, 2014

      Yes, exactly. You’ve said it so well. An amalgamation of our past and present…

  15. stilllearning2b
    April 15, 2014

    Matt from Must Be This Tall to Ride sent me your link today with glowing praise. He was right. You have a way of writing so that the heart listens. Thank you for sharing your gift:)

    And, this childless by choice woman is totally amazed and overwhelmed at the thought of four kids. Much respect.

    • jgroeber
      April 15, 2014

      Thanks for checking out the site. And thanks to Matt from Must Be This Tall to Ride for passing on the word. He’s one hell of a writer.
      And if you ever doubt your childless-by-choice for even a second, about five minutes at my house will have you joyfully hugging a chubby rugrat and then heading happily for the door for more productive pursuits. Someone’s gotta raise some kids, but while we’re knee-deep in crap, it’s good to know there are some smart people out there keeping their eye on the greater good.

  16. Pingback: Going Home for the Funeral | jen groeber: mama art

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