Big Potatoes

"Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one's will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another's misfortune. It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that although mercy is as it were the spontaneous product of charity, yet it is to be reckoned a special virtue adequately distinguishable from this latter. In fact the Scholastics in cataloguing it consider it to be referable to the quality of justice mainly because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons." The Catholic Encyclopedia

It’s mid-May. The rose bushes are blooming and I’m thinking about the school year ending, and about the fact that I never posted in April, and about the things I should be grading tonight. But mostly I’m thinking about mercy.

It’s my Uncle Larry’s fault. Easter morning found me flying out of Albuquerque into the sunrise. I was on my way to Pittsburgh to get home for his funeral. Having held on deep into Holy Week, Uncle Larry had died on Wednesday, and we had to wait for Jesus to rise from the dead on Sunday to bury my uncle. He’s a Catholic priest. Something about flying into the light on Easter morning felt right.

By 1:00 Monday afternoon the family had gathered, filling the 18th-century sitting rooms at Beinhauer’s on West Liberty Avenue in Dormont. My sisters and I were sharing a room at what Judy calls Bereavement Hotel. (People who stay there for other reasons know it as the Crowne Plaza across the street from South Hills Village.) My brother Pat and his wife Pat were standing near a fringed lampshade when we got there, and the rooms were filling quickly with my cousins, their kids, and their kids’ kids. These cousins are the people, my generation, about whom Uncle Larry said last year, “There were twenty-two of you. Five are gone.”

That was at my brother’s funeral, and my uncle’s pain was palpable. “It’s too much,” his body seemed to be saying, while his mouth said “Our Father, who art in heaven” and “When I say ‘Lord have mercy, you say Lord have mercy.'” Today Uncle Larry looks like he is at peace, flanked by the flowers surrounding his open casket.

All day long we meander through these rooms like disorganized extras on a film set. Along with the four sitting rooms, there’s a kitchen stocked with coffee, tea, and, for some reason, cherry slushies. The kitchen opens into a playroom. “That’s where they have the birthday parties!” one of the cousins’ kids’ kids explains.

In Catholic tradition, the corporal works of mercy include such things, among others, as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and “harboring the harborless.” All day long, my uncle’s former parishioners and friends merry-go-round through the funeral home, sharing stories about the times my uncle did these things for them. “Your uncle came to the hospital every day while my wife was dying,” one man says. “Your uncle got me into AA,” a woman whose kids I used to babysit for tells me. “Your uncle opened the rectory on Christmas Eve and made a great Manhattan,” says a man with twinkly eyes. I can vouch for that one.

At some point after we’d been there a little while, Uncle Larry put his glasses on. I didn’t see him do it, but there they were, where they hadn’t been just a few moments before. I don’t question things like this at funeral homes. I know there are funeral directors who take care of these sorts of things, just as I know there is a moment when a doctor can declare a person dead. But I’ve also been there for that last breath, and in those days just before that last breath. I’ve walked through that shimmery space, that opening between what we know and what we can’t imagine.

So I’m glad Uncle Larry put his glasses on to see the room fill with his old friends and parishioners, all those people who called my Uncle Larry Father John. My cousin Tommy, the oldest cousin/acting patriarch, greeted every single person who came through the door.

On our way to St. Bernards that morning, one of those fancy osprey helicopter/jet hybrid thingies flew right over my sisters and me as we drove down Fort Couch Road. It turns out President Obama was in Pittsburgh for a funeral, too. Dan Rooney, long time Steelers patriarch, was put to rest about an hour before my uncle. The Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese sent a letter to my family explaining that he had to be at the Rooney funeral instead of Uncle Larry’s. My uncle would have said something funny about this situation, but I don’t know what it would have been. That’s the thing about people dying.

Even though Bishop Zubik wasn’t there, St. Bernard’s in Mt. Lebanon was full of priests that morning. Thirty or forty of them in solemn robes billowed into the first five pews across the aisle from my family. The priest who gave the sermon was the same priest who had been smiling from the altar since the mass began.

He talked about my uncle’s faith. “We’re sad,” he said, “but don’t begrudge your uncle his joy on this day.” I thought about Uncle Larry’s words at everyone else’s funerals: my sister’s, my brother’s, my father’s, my mother’s. “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” he would say. And I thought about his wry smile in the coffin after he put his glasses on.

The smiling priest reminded us that when Uncle Larry/Father John wanted to get people’s attention, he would say, “This is important–this is big potatoes.” I remembered how Uncle Larry would come up to me, the “caboose” as he once described our shared position among our siblings, at other funerals, and say, “You’re going to say something, aren’t you?”

The first time this happened my sister Meg had died. It was 1990 and I was twenty-six. I don’t remember everything I said, but I remember quoting Dostoevsky from the Brothers Karamozov. “…let us remember how good it was here, when we were all together, united by a good and gentle feeling, which made us all, perhaps, better than we are.”

To bury the dead is another of the corporal works of mercy. On Tuesday, Tommy (who would later snag some yellow roses from a bouquet outside the mausoleum saying “The O’Shea girls should have roses”) said a few serious, gracious words, and the funeral drew to its end. The closed coffin perched beneath the altar, the holy water was sprinkled, and the pall-bearers stood in position. All that was left was to sing one more hymn, process out of the church, stick a black flag on our car, and fall in line behind the hearse on the way to Queen of Heaven cemetery.

And then Bishop Winter went off script. “I want to say one more thing,” he said. “There was a huge snowstorm in Pittsburgh one night.” He paused and looked away for a minute, the way you do when you feel like you might cry but would rather wait until later. “If you had made it home, you were happy,” he said,  “and you stayed home.” He paused.  “I stayed home.” He paused again, and I thought of the way my father couldn’t speak the only time I heard him mention the baby who would have been my fourth sister.  “Not Uncle Larry,” he said,  “I mean Father John.”  We laughed as the man we knew as our uncle merged with the man the Bishop knew as a priest.

The cloistered Passionist nuns, he told us, had quietly tucked in that cold evening when they heard a knock on the door. It was Father John, the Bishop said, braving the blizzard, checking to see that the sisters had everything they needed to weather the storm.  “That’s what I remember,” the Bishop said. Then the organ clanged a chord and they rolled the coffin down the aisle.

We filed out, pew by pew. The church was packed, and the person standing at the end of each row was holding a lit candle.  Tuesday afternoon we followed Uncle Larry, one more time, through the light, into the light.

One of my favorite memories came years ago when my brother Pat had my last two uncles use Skype for the first time. Self-conscious on camera they joked, and then, somehow, my mother’s sister’s husband and my father’s brother decided to sing “As Time Goes By.” Just for fun just now, I looked up the lyrics. Reel Classics begins with these lines I’ve never paid attention to before:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension…

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

In my uncle’s last Christmas card, he wrote, “I don’t like Skype.” He also said, “I love the old phones that had mouthpieces that you spoke into,” but not the distance that had flung my sisters and me across the country. “O well,” he concluded, “times are changing, I’m not. I don’t understand.”

The simple facts of life that cannot be removed are these: Easter morning I flew home to Pittsburgh and Wednesday afternoon I flew back home to Albuquerque. Sunday afternoon at five to twelve I opened Skype, right on schedule, to join my niece’s online baby shower. We broke bread and drank wine and I can’t stop thinking about mercy, about my big and scattered family, how strong the bonds are, how fragile the strands that bind us to this world.

It’s big potatoes.

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