My Father’s Wake
By Wendy Hayes
I was sitting in the downstairs lounge of Collins Clarke Funeral Home, leafing through an old edition of Reader’s Digest that had been lying on the table beside me. I don’t make a habit of visiting funeral homes but I was there waiting for 3:00pm when my father’s wake would begin. A few minutes earlier, one of the funeral home’s personnel had popped in through the double door, next to the lounge, to see my mother and I. He had his hands clasped together, in a perfect imitation of Uriah Heep, and said to us, “Would you like to see him, and spend some time with him before visitation starts.” I said, “No thank you, that won’t be necessary.” My mother said she would go in. The man turned to me and said, “Are you really sure? I did such a lovely job on him.” I couldn’t believe my ears. He wanted me to go in and admire his handiwork. “I think not.” I replied coldly. The idea of visiting a corpse, father or not, made no sense to me. What was in the coffin wasn’t a man but the shell of the person that was.
The funeral home employee had no sooner said, “Fine, fine.” and disappeared behind another door when my mother stuck her head out of the door she had entered minutes before. She said in a loud whisper, “Wendy, get in here!” “There is really no need for me…” I didn’t finish my sentence as she interrupted me with, “It's not him!” I got out of my chair and went over to where she stood. “He’s not going to look like the person you knew. He’s been pumped with formaldehyde and they’ve put makeup on him.” I said soothingly, at which point she grabbed my arm and pulled me through the doors and towards the casket. “It’s not him!!” she repeated vehemently.
I took my Mom’s hand and walked with her towards the open casket. I looked down at the body. I stared for a minute or two. I could feel a giggle starting. I tried to suppress it. After all, I was looking at a dead body. But not a body I recognized. By the time my giggle reached my mouth it was a full on laugh. “Oh, that’s priceless,” I managed to say. “Wendy Louise, this is no laughing matter!” “Oh but it is,”
Let me tell you about my father. I understand that the man my mother married was nothing like the man I grew up with. He had been an outdoorsman, especially fond of fishing. He loved baseball. My parents had actually met when my mother was playing baseball and he was her coach. My father had also been creative, into woodworking and photography. Some of his furniture dotted our apartment. Apparently he had been quite a ladies man in his youth and he was always the life of the party. He was a catch. This was the man my mother fell in love with and the man I never knew.
The man I knew was an alcoholic who, when at home, seemed to spend his entire time sitting in “his” kitchen chair living in the past and bemoaning his present. When drunk he was known to scream at the neighborhood kids or the paperboy.
anyone who was smaller and younger than he was. I remember when I was in grade school he liked to help me with my school projects and I can recall times when he was fun to be around. But by the time I hit my teens that had changed. I did not find him very likeable. We agreed on nothing and often had rip roaring arguments about women’s rights (we had all the rights we needed) and civil rights. He had a special name for every minority group and was especially down on blacks. In short, my father was an alcoholic, misogynist, bigot.
So why was I laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. Because the man, lying in the coffin I had picked out for my father, was a black man. “Mom, tell me you can’t see the irony in this?” “Maybe later, but not at the moment,” she replied. She glanced at her watch. “People will be arriving in a matter of minutes.” “It can be sorted out, don’t worry.” I looked at the name card on the stand next to the casket. It had my father’s name on it. “They’ve probably just mixed up the name cards. Let’s find that employee. I’m sure it can be sorted out in a matter of minutes.” The gentleman in question was found and when we explained the problem, he very helpfully said, “Oh my!” I suggested that perhaps the name cards had been inadvertently switched with someone else's to which he replied, “I don’t think so. This is the only wake we are having this afternoon. Oh my, oh my, I don’t know how this could have happened.” Then he looked at me and said, “Who made the funeral arrangements?” “I did.” “So you identified the body when it was brought to the funeral home?”
“Oh my Lord,” my mother said. “You didn’t, did you.” I hadn’t.
When I went to Collins Clark the day after my father’s death, I picked out the coffin and then was asked to view the body before signing some papers. I remember asking the director why that was necessary to which he replied, “There have been incidents in the States where someone’s loved one went, er, missing. So it was decided that we would require our clients to make an identification before we would proceed with preparing the body.” My father’s wake and service were to be held at the funeral home so I couldn’t see how he could possibly get lost. So I said, “How many times has that happened here?” “Oh never!” He exclaimed. “How many bodies are currently in the building?” He paused before saying, “Three, I believe.” “In that case, I will not be going downstairs to look at the day-old dead body of my father….and I think you’re a ghoul for suggesting that I do!” My father’s illness had been hard and protracted, for him, and for my mother and I. To say that I was stressed would be an understatement. “I can’t be the only client who has refused to make this identification. Write up a waiver!” He opened his desk drawer and produced a prepared waiver. I could have leapt over the desk and strangled him. Instead I signed it and left.
Back to the present. “Are you suggesting that this mixup is my fault?” I said through clenched teeth. “Oh no, Miss! It’s just that this has never happened to me before.” “Nor I!” I practically screamed, at which point the poor man grabbed the rail of the casket stand and began wheeling it away. “We’ll sort this out, I promise. Everything will be okay.” And off he went pushing my father ahead of him. Fifteen minutes before the wake was due to start.
“Do they serve liquor here?” I turned to stare at my mother. “Oh not for me, Wendy. I thought you could use a drop of something.” “What if they have bloody well lost him, Mom?” “Well,” she said thoughtfully, “all they would have to do is keep the casket closed and no one would be the wiser. That would give them more time to figure it out once everybody leaves.” My mother has always been a pragmatic person and I never truly appreciated that until this moment. “You’re right.” I said, giving her a hug. Ten minutes to go.
We went back to the downstairs lounge and sat down until showtime. “He probably did this on purpose” “Who?,” I asked my Mom. “Your father, of course.” She had a slight grin on her face. “It would be just like him to bugger up his own funeral,” she said as she stood up. “Time to go.”
We walked upstairs and into the viewing room. The casket stood at the head of the room with a few arrangements of flowers around it. I have to say that I was pleased to see that there were more than the ones my mother and I had bought. I was an only child. My father was the last of his family, save for a sister in law and some nieces and nephews. Nobody had arrived yet so Mom and I went over and looked at the cards on the flowers. My mother’s sister in New Brunswick had sent an arrangement as had my friend, Jane. There was one from my father’s boss.
I walked over to the casket, looked around to make sure that Mom and I were still the only ones in the room, and gave the top a rap with my knuckle. “What are you doing?” my mother asked, quizzically. “Checking to see if it’s hollow, if there’s a body inside.” “Rather than reprimand me she asked, “Is it?” “I can’t tell,” I answered and gave it another tap. At that moment some friends of my father’s, from work, arrived and we walked over to greet them. It was while we were talking to them that the Hayes family arrived. The histrionics were about to begin.
My Aunt Mary, supported on either side by her sons Peter and Tom, walked past us and towards the casket. My aunt was too absorbed in her performance to notice my mother or I but we excused ourselves from my father’s boss to trail behind my aunt and cousins. “Ralph, my poor, poor Ralph!” Mary wailed as she literally draped herself over the coffin. I wanted to gag. You see, my aunt hadn’t had any contact with my father in five years, since her own husband’s funeral. She didn’t like my father but she did like funerals. “Oh Ralph,” she continued, “I’ll never see your face again.”
I tapped her on the shoulder. She turned and glared at me, I’d interrupted the show. Then she realized that I was Ralph’s grieving daughter at which point she flung herself into my arms. “Oh Wendy, I am so sorry”. Then, noticing my mother standing beside me, flung herself at her. “Oh Joyce, we are both widows now. We will have to lean on each other.” Then her tone changed slightly and she said, “Why isn’t the casket open? I want to see Ralph one last time.” But her face said you are not doing this wake the right way. The Hayes always have open caskets. I suppose you didn’t even put a bottle of whisky inside. My mother calmly replied, “That was my husband’s wish.” Mary looked from my mother to me. I shrugged and said, “Well, you know my father was the black sheep of the family.”
A choking sound escaped from my mother’s mouth and she doubled over. She continued to make that strange sound, she began squeezing her legs together. I quickly put my arms around her shoulders and began leading her out of the room. “It’s been a very trying time for Mom,” I said over my shoulder to my aunt and cousins, who were looking rather perplexed. “She’s been very brave so far. I kind of expected she might break down today.” I quickly led her out of the room.
Once we were on the stairs she looked up at me and through her tears she said, “You little devil! I almost peed my pants.” That always happened when Mom started to laugh. “Black sheep,” she chortled, “Where’s the bathroom?” We made it to the washroom on time and once there we both had a good laugh. What a day!
After calming ourselves and washing our faces, we proceeded back up the stairs looking, I hoped, very sober. At the top, we were met by the funeral director. He apologized for causing us any undue stress and assured us that “the matter” had been resolved.
The rest of the wake and funeral passed without incident. The Hayes family, dismayed that we wouldn’t be going back to the house to get rip roaring drunk, left very disgruntled. My mother walked them to the lobby of the funeral home leaving me alone in the room with the casket. I put my fingers under the lip of the casket and decided no, whoever was in this was already in a better place.