Friday, February 11, 2011


I don't remember death being scary to me when I was little.  I remember describing heaven to my parents when I was about four.  We were on their bed and I was telling them how God had wheelchairs and crutches for the people who had died and were in heaven.  They were all pleasant thoughts.  I could see my daddy there.

Sometime after that, Nanny, my father's mom, dragged me all over Yonkers and the Bronx to get to some Italian funeral home.  It was the summer and it was hot; she had me in a dress.  We walked up the steps into the building; I was getting a creepy feeling.  It was too quiet and there was an organ playing soft music.  She was talking to some men in black suits; there weren't that many people there.  They were old and wearing black.

Next thing I knew, I was kneeling on a kneel-er, staring at some old dead guy in a box.  He was waxy-looking and frightening.  Nanny blessed herself with her rosary beads, got me up and then walked out of the building.  She bought me a hot dog from a street vendor and I think we went to visit an older relative;  I don't remember it all but the face of that man was branded in my memory for life.

My family lived in Cortland, NY, population; 25,000.  We attended Catholic school.  With eight children in our family; we didn't go anywhere and we didn't do much of anything as a family outside of our house, our backyard, or the lake.  All of our relatives lived around New York City. We didn't get many invitations to visit.

We weren't related to anyone in town. My parents didn't know too many people beyond the few neighbors that surrounded our house.  Whenever anyone died in the family, my father would go down to the city for the services. When we were older, my parents would take the"little guys" (four youngest) and the "big guys" (four oldest) stayed home under my sister's supervision.  This worked for me because I had no desire to go see more dead people.

At school, there was a funeral home next to the building. My class had front row seats to the pain and suffering of almost every family in Cortland.  The limos and hearse would drive up just outside the windows of the classroom.  We'd watch them go in and we'd watch them go out, all in a day at school.  On special occasions when it was someone who was connected to the school in some way, several classes of students might walk over to the church for the funeral service.

When it was a student or a member of a student's immediate family that died, the whole class would go to the calling hours during school.  I prayed almost daily that no one in my class would die; I was avoiding dead people at all costs.

Two students in my eighth grade class had parents who died during the school year.  Our class was invited to attend the calling hours.  You can be assured those were two days of school I missed, no dead people for me!

I had friends who grew up in town, whose families had lived there for generations; they were all big funeral people.  Not only were they funeral people, they would have to go over to the rectory and get a mass card for the family.  My family didn't know anyone so it wasn't part of what we did but I was amazed to see how well-versed my young friends were in "death".

I managed to make it all the way to the age of 26 without ever laying eyes on another dead person.  My grandmother had really done a number on me.  One month before our wedding, Rick’s grandfather died suddenly at 96.  

I decided that an engaged, twenty-six year old should face her fear and go to the ceremony with Rick's family.  It was an interesting trip.  We arrived and stayed with Rick's, Aunt Mary.  The calling hours were that night at the local funeral home.  We all trudged over and I was doing fine.  Hurray! I could face a dead person and not totally freak out; this was progress for me.  However, I wasn't prepared for what happened next.

My brother in-law, Steve began saying the prayers to close the calling hours and then it was time to leave.  Rick's grandmother, Grammy Gagnon, literally, threw herself on top of her husband in the casket and yelled, "Don't take him from me.  I can't say goodbye to my best friend.  How can I say goodbye?  I don't want you to go," she begged and sobbed.

I was a wreck!  I hadn't bargained for this.  All of a sudden I could see clearly into my mother's pain of losing my father.  Now, I could see clearly into what would happen if Rick died.  I had never felt vulnerable to death. Being engaged, I had everything to lose.  I wasn't prepared for this. I was so focused on not seeing dead bodies; I didn’t see how the real loss of a loved one would affect me.  I couldn't stop crying.

The next day at the funeral, Rick and his brothers were pall bearers.  I drove in the limo with my mother in-law and sister in-law, Suzy.  When we were going into the pew during the procession, I somehow ended up sitting in between my mother in-law and her grieving mother.  I was a basket-case.  I was so overwrought with my emotions;  I was a blubbering idiot.  I couldn't catch my breath and I didn't have enough tissues for the occasion. The fear continued to build in me all the way up to our wedding day and after.

Four months after we were married, Rick had a blocked sinus.  He had numerous sinus infections and a deviated septum; the doctor had decided to operate.  Rick went into surgery and after about three hours the doctor came out to speak to me.  He was doing fine.  They would call me when they were ready to have me bring the car around.

I waited at least three more hours and then the nurse called my name at the desk and asked me to come speak to the nurse on the phone.  She told me that Rick was having a hard time waking up and asked me to come help him get dressed.

I went to the post-op area and they brought me to Rick. There, he lay on the gurney looking like a corpse.  I was totally freaked out.  I started to cry. The nurse said I needed to dress him to get him ready to go home.  Now, the wise woman would have told that nurse she was crazy that he was not going home and needed to be admitted but I was out of my league.   This was my first dealing with someone having surgery.  I didn't know this was wrong.

I managed to get him dressed.  Somehow, they put him in a wheelchair and got him to the car; it was a rough ride.  All the way home, I could see what I couldn't get out of my head;. Rick would be like that when he died.  I was already dreading the day and I didn't want that day to ever come.


  1. Poor Janie! What was grandma thinking? Did she not remember what it felt like to be young and see "the dead". I guess she felt it was her obligation to make you aware that "death happens". I'm sorry.

    I remember the first time I saw a dead person. It was Grand Pop. As sad as I was to lose him, I was twice that terrified to see him dead. And then I had to kiss him and tell him "good-bye". My Grand Mom made all of us grandchildren go up to the coffin and do the same thing. We went as a group. There was comfort in a group of scared kids. I understand our actions were more for her than for us. But still the feeling of dread comes over me every time I visit a funeral home. I have to go over and see the dead body. It's all rooted in the belief that seeing and touching the dead will help you move on with life.

  2. OMG! What a story! You poor dear, this was too much for a young un to carry. Big applause for handling it so well. I'm verrrry happy Rick was okay. Hugs!

    Anyway, I'm dropping in from the Friday hop and am your newest follower. I'm at:

  3. Wow. I can't wait to hear the next part of this story. Growing up as a preacher's kid I can't remember the first funeral I went to. It was quite "natural" to me. I look forward to seeing how you have grown through all of these epxeriences.

  4. Your writing is extremely compelling. You are one fine writer. I noticed your blog on the blog hop and was intrigued by the title. Take care and i'll return. I'm a new follower.
    Wanna buy a duck

  5. Wow, that is so sad...

    My grandfather was the first dead body I ever saw- I was 17 years old, but I swear I saw him move!

    Anyhoo...visiting from Never Growing Old...

    I have a few blogs:

    Blogging Biz Mom

    Working at home advice

    Come on home

    Have a great weekend!

    BTW- I'm in Oswego County, NY!

  6. @Susan. My grandmother grew up in Ireland where death is a closer part of life; People are laid out at home and neighbors come to visit. I don't think she gave it a second thought, just dragged me along. I was the spending a week with her and she wanted to pay her respects.

  7. @ Kittie. I'm your newest follower. I enjoyed your blog. Please stop in again.

  8. @ Sheila, I'm glad you stopped by; come again.

  9. @ Carolee, Yay, Upstate NY! Are you in Clay? You made me laugh with seeing your grandfather move. It's an unforgettable first experience, at least for me. I hope you'll stop in again.

  10. @ Manzanita Thank you so much for your kind words. I read several of your posts tonight about your friend, Marilyn. What an amazing person you are to have taken that step for a stranger. I'll be back and I hope you'll do the same.