The Unexpected Call
“Hello, may I help you?” I had just moved into my new office at the hospital and was still getting myself situated. “This is Glenda.” How are you? I asked, not really wanting to talk at the moment. “ I need you to do me a really big favor”. The voice sounded so weak and fragile over the phone my initial reaction was. Uh Oh. “What can I do for you?” I said, thinking at the same time what am I getting myself into?
Back in May Glenda was referred to me by someone about a possible job connection at the hospital. Hiring nor firing are in my job description but we set up a meeting a few days afterwards to meet. There are so few people of color who are professionals here in town so I wanted to at least reach out to her and perhaps be of some kind of service if I could.
Glenda is an African American woman, late 50ish, with a perfectly shaped skull and close cropped hair, with a deep chocolate brown complextion. She wears thick black rimmed glasses and has the look of a scholar. She is very well educated and is careful to pronounce her sentences with near perfect diction. Her mental energy is formidable, and her smile lights up her face like the way light blinds one when one first awakens from a deep sleep. There is a very pleasant aura about her.
We’ve only spoken two or three times since we met back in May and so I’m thinking this is a bit early to begin asking for “big favors.” I am also a wee bit embarrassed and ashamed by my thought process.
“My dad died over the weekend and I was wondering if you would say a few words for him. He’s going to be cremated and it’s very informal.” Her voice was cracking as she spoke. ‘What time are we talking?” Around 1pm was the reply. I had a meeting until 1:30 pm but she said she would work around my schedule. We agreed to meet in front of the hospital at 2pm as her daughter would be accompanying her as well. She had traveled from Washington, DC.
I was so glad Glenda picked me up as I would never have found the funeral parlor. The lapis blue PT Cruiser pulled up in front of the hospital and fortunately I had grabbed my Unitarian Christian Book of Common Prayer ( I used this book back in my UU Christian days and never got rid of it) thinking surely something will be appropriate in this book for the occasion. I would later discover that I would not need it. I also called Glenda back to inquire if her dad was indeed a Christian. Her reply was yes he is.
I gathered brief snippets of information about her father and she provided them readily. His name was Martin. Awkwardly I explained why I inquired earlier during the ride over about his religious beliefs. I explained that I simply wanted to have the appropriate religious material on hand and she assured me that she had understood. I inquired how he died and she just said his heart gave out. Glenda also confessed that her father was more “spiritual than religious.” This statement somehow gave me a feeling of relief. Although I am not a Christian I would have use whatever material she requested that would make she and her daughter comfortable. For more orthodox Christians this type of phrasing of religion and spirituality can seem harsh and biting, but there are times when there is a difference between the two perspectives. Religion can at times become religiousity and spirituality can become just another way of not dealing with life and feeling superior to more traditional religious beliefs. But this was not the case and I understood her perfectly, for she was describing myself as well.
Her father was a musician who had learned to play the trumpet as a young man and felt that piano playing was a bit too sissy. Even with geniuses like Basie and Ellington around at the time?, I asked. Yes, she replied. Martin was from Eastern North Carolina. He loved jazz, enjoyed reading the daily newspaper, loved to talk politics, served in our nation’s armed forces during the 2nd world war, and loved his daughter and grand-daughter.
Glenda did not go into too much detail when I initially inquired if she and her father had been close. She said that they were but she had some “forgiving” to do. Ah, family dynamics and relationships I thought. Difficult and trying at best. Toxic at worst. The pain in her voice was palpable though she smiled in spite of herself. She stated frankly that her dad never really believed he was loved. Ever. I could not help but think, and I recall that I had even made the remark that if one cannot except love one cannot really give it. Was that too forward? The sentence was already out of my mouth. She briefly nodded and mumbled, “yeah”.
During the car ride, her daughter, Inetta, was quiet. We introduced ourselves earlier and we noted that at one time she was also a Diversity and Inclusion Officer for an institution. This is the same position I now hold at the hospital. Inetta’s facial features reminded me of producer, director, Spike Lee, only much more feminine looking. She had her hair in one medium size braid that reached just beyond the crown of her head with a very pronounced widows peak. Her eyes were sharp and she had the same intellectual energy that I felt from her mom with eyes that gazed out from heavy looking eye lids which gave one the impression either that she was ready for sleep or had just woke up . She wore the same 1950’s looking thick black framed glasses as did her mom, and she was extremely thin, with a long flowing sky blue skirt, a blue denim wrangler jacket, with a silk paisley scarf around her neck which accentuated her skin which was more the color of caramel chocolate. I have always loved the colors of my people.
I made small talk while I tried to recall two poems for the occasion. One poem entitled, Dear Lovely Death, by Langston Hughes, and another called, If I should Go While You’re Still Here. They are both personal favorites of mine. I jotted them both down on a piece of scrap paper as we drove along.
After awhile we arrived at the funeral/cremation parlor. The air is crisp, cloudy, and cool. The leaves were orange, yellow, brown, and red, and they shimmied as the breeze rustled through the trees. I love this time of year in these mountains. There is something about an overcast sky in the autumn that holds me in awe when I gaze upward.
We enter the building which is sparsely decorated as far as furniture goes, and say hello a three times but no one answers. Glenda excuses herself to go to the ladies room while Inetta and I look around. I begin to peruse the literature about cremation. I have talked with my wife about my being cremated instead of having a large funeral (and yes, it is a bit presumptuous of me to assume that my funeral would be well attended) which would only create an even bigger expense for her when I died. That is to say if I go while she’s still here. When I mentioned the idea to my mother about my possibly being cremated when my time comes she may it quite clear that she found the idea distasteful.
At this time we are still waiting for someone, anyone to assist us, when as if on cue a bald white gentleman enters the room. He is wearing the solemn, weary look of someone who has been doing this kind of work for centuries. His face appeared pinched almost as though he had caught himself in his zipper while in the bathroom. Despite this look, Inetta and I shake his hands, and at that moment Glenda comes out of the ladies room , smiles, and shakes his hands as well, explaining that hers were not quite dry.
There is some personal business that they need to talk over regarding money and G.I.Benefits and so I offer to wait while they go into his office to talk. It’s been awhile since I have been in funeral parlor. In a previous life I had been a chaplain (for the same hospital before I became Mr. Diversity, as my Masters Degree is in Divinity Studies) I routinely escorted families to see their deceased loved ones in a room provided by the hospital for such a time as this. Yet the last time I was in a funeral parlor was when my brother was murdered 16 years ago.
I also began to acknowledge the seeming randomness of life and how events can take shape. Just a few hours ago I was sitting in my new office wondering about what the next phase of my job would entail and I get a call from someone I had not spoken to in months, requesting that me of all people, would be the one to speak at her dad’s funeral. Needless, to say I was honored and I even told Glenda so. One just never knows where the journey will take you. My whole day had change because of this unexpected call.
The door opened and Glenda, Inetta, and the parlor director exited and made a bee line to another room where the body was lying in state. The room was typical of these types of viewing rooms, with rows of wooden folding chairs lined up and an isle down the middle. Old time Baptist hymn music was piped in and I could not help humming and then singing along as these were the hymns I had grown up with as a child. As I an adult I have long since moved on from the theology these songs express and yet even after all these years they were so comforting to hear.
I held back as Glenda and Inett approached the coffin. Glenda had already begun to cry. I gently placed my hand in the small of her back as she gazed down at her father lying there as I gently whispered for her to let it out. My heart went out to her. Yes it is the natural order of things (most of the time)for a child to out the parent. I say most of the time for my brother was murdered back in 1995 and my parents live every day with that wound. I watched as Inett made the sign of the cross and would not look up from her father’s serene expression.
He was dressed in a dark blue suit and his hair and beard were a lovely silver. The corners of his mouth were turned down and their appeared in my view a certain sadness in the expression, as if a burden reluctantly yet out of necessity has been laid to rest.
As I was gazing at the body in the coffin, Glenda reached into the huge shoulder bag and began pulling out photographs, a newspaper, some yellow tulips that I had forgotten she had brought along, and various personal items belonging to her dad. She placed them all in the coffin with him, touchingly telling what she was leaving with him and why. It was like witnessing ancient Egyptian custom of bringing articles for the deceased to take with them on their journey to the afterlife, which is in fact exactly what it was. I exchanged rings with my brother before they closed the coffin on him at his funeral.
There were family photos, photos of him in Europe with an all African American unit during the war, photos of Glenda and Inette when they were all younger with bright smiles beaming from ear to ear. I noticed that there was only one picture of Martin and his wife. I did not feel that it was may place to bring this up and so I just kept my mouth shut, yet I was curious. Why wasn’t his wife here?
After Glenda explained why she had brought the last item for him to take on his journey it just felt like the time for me to begin my homily. I just jumped into the silence but so as not to be intrusive and this felt like the right time. I spoke about the brevity and ironies of life. The courage ti took to live it and the love of family and friends.
I recited both poems and wished Martin well on his journey. Afterwards I sat down while they stayed for a few moments at the coffin. Glenda told her dad that she was leaving now and gave him one long kiss on his forehead. The tears were really flowing now and then Glenda and Inette turned and walked away as if ready to leave. I asked Glenda if she was really ready to go, if she wanted to give him one last kiss and say goodbye. She replied, “I don’t think I can do it again”. I suggested that she try one more time and she did go over and kiss him again and said “goodbye daddy, I love you”.
As we said goodbye to the funeral director Glenda and Inette invited me to lunch. I initially refused but did give in to the offer and the lunch was indeed tasty. We had cornbread, collard greens, cabbage, smoked potato salad , smoked pork, smoked chicken, and spare ribs. This is not a part of my regular diet but once in awhile it sure hits the spot. My companions chose the sweet tea with jokes about getting diabetes from the beverage. We all laughed as I chose a glass of water.
On the way to the car I did build up the courage to inquire of Glenda why her father’s wife did not come. She told me that her step mother did not want to come as she felt he would be better off being buried in Washington D.C. because afterall, that is where they lived.But Glenda had the body sent here so he could be buried at “home” which she says was what he wanted in the first place. Family dynamics again.
Afterwards, as goodbyes were being said, Glenda handed me an envelope and told me not to say anything but just except it. She told me that she knew I was the one to do this and that she knew that I would be available. I thanked her again as she dropped me off back at work and we hugged and said that we would be in touch soon.
When I arrived back to my office I opened the envelope and discovered that Glenda had already written a thank you to me which emphasized to me that she did indeed know that I would be available today to answer her request. Talk about faith in claiming what you need. She wrote;
I’ve always said that sometimes the reason that you meet someone isn’t for the reason that you think. Thank you so much for helping my daughter and I to say our final goodbyes to our father/grandfather. It really means so very much to us. Had you met my father while he was alive I think that the two of you would have become fast friends. I am sorry that you won’t have the opportunity. Yet, I do believe that his spirit will be smiling among us.”
With deepest appreciation,
Glenda, and Inetta
I smiledto myself as I glanced at the business card I had taken from the funeral parlor.