The quality of a man’s life can be measured by the diversity of the people who attend his funeral. Not in the number who pay respects but in the wide breadth of places and experiences the gathering represents. At Dad’s funeral, the church was full of people from every walk of life. Simple cabinetmakers sat next to business executives, and senior citizens sat side-by-side with children in the long Mahogany pews. All looked up to him as a leader, a mentor, a man of substance.
As we walked up the aisle with the casket, I looked around at the faces in the crowd. Most I knew well, for many were family friends and had spent years working with Dad as cabinetmakers or tradesmen. Like a goldfish in bowl, I looked out blankly at the blurred images surrounding me. They stared back, and I could sense that all wanted to reach out and somehow soothe the pain visible on our faces. They could not because of an invisible barrier of sorrow between them and us.
I don’t remember much of what the pastor said from the pulpit that day. I was too intent on maintaining my own composure. I do not remember what our friends and relatives said in passing along their condolences. I only remember faces. Blurry, contorted faces, something like a goldfish would see staring back out at all the people looking into its strange little world. Death creates a little world of sorrow. And only time, passing excruciatingly slowly, can break down the walls that hold people prisoner inside that world.
The funeral marked a point of transition, from the end of one life, safe and secure in its stability, to the beginning of another. Where do we go from here? It was the question we were asking ourselves through the day and deep into the night. The unspoken tragedy of Dad’s death was how it sent the family scattering in different directions. At the funeral we began looking for a point of reference to help us find our way into a new and uncertain world.
Carole became a Parslow. She was already a mother, but now that title completed her, and as such she was the one who served her mother as the greatest source of support. Though we all had our moments, it was Carole who was there for Mom the most. She was the one whom Mom turned to, for no other reason but that she was always there and always willing. Sheila and I were not always so able to provide that support. That was simply the way the family evolved, and no amount of struggle or conflict would change that path. Christina and I turned inward and began the struggle of making a family home together.
We did not get much help.
No one could afford to give us much help, so our efforts turned toward our own lives. Christina tried to cope with a husband who was suffering but would not break down and admit it; I was trying to sort it who I was and where I belonged. Sheila did not have that problem. She already knew who she was and for what purpose she served. The compass in her life had already switched to her daughter, Danielle, and Dad’s death gave her the release she needed to become less a sister and more Danielle’s mother. Sheila became a tower of strength and dignity even I looked to with respect. She became the essence of what Dad was all about.
Like me, Mom turned inward, and accepted anger as her source of inspiration. It could be no other way–she had lost her life partner, the only one with whom she had shared the joys and sorrows of life. As a consequence, she was left to feel hurt and betrayed, and the little world of death and mourning closed in around her. Where once we turned to the same steady, sure hand, we all turned to different methods to make it through. That was the biggest tragedy of all. Before Dad’s passing, we were always first and foremost part of a proud, extended family. Now, in the rubble of his death we became only a part of our own.
Life travels in circles. Once, long ago, Mom and Dad had severed the family ties and left England to come to America. The consequences were that we had to become our own family, with distant relatives we rarely ever met.
Those relative were there and waiting for us when our family began to drift away. We found the connection in the same Liverpool neighborhoods Mom and Dad had left it more than 30 years ago. This where our unbreakable link was handed from generation to generation. I didn’t realize how strong the connection had remained until we went back home.
There is the place you call home and there is your home, and the two are not always the same. For me, going to Liverpool was about going to my father’s home and finding out that there was a part of me that felt at home there as well. Liverpool is a dark, depressing place, full of foul weather, poverty and distressed buildings. But there are few spots where I feel as comfortable. This is the land of my people. My roots come to life before my eyes.
“Honey, wake up. Welcome to England.” Christina had, true to form, slept the entire journey, waking only for meals and an occasional drink. We had flown in together, Mom and I glaring at Christina as she peacefully snoozed her way across the country and to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The three of us had come here for different reasons. True, all of us needed to get away, but for reason not altogether similar. Mom needed to begin to close a chapter in her life and begin the process of opening another. She needed to go home to her family and cry on the shoulders of sisters and brothers.
Chris needed to discover the people and places of her husband’s beginnings. She wanted to put pictures to the stories of cousins and aunts and uncles, to meet the people and visit the homes she had only ever heard about in conversation. I needed to get to know my family–to really get to know them, as an adult and as friends. It was a very insightful experience. We did a lot of listening, Christina and I, to the stories about my mother and father when they weren’t my parents. Just Sheila and Richie on their own–a happy go-lucky couple who enjoyed the hell out of every day and each other, who were never afraid to take a chance, whether it was a new home, career or family.
I learned a lot about Dad, and as a result, about myself. I saw who missed him–the aunts and uncles who were shattered most of all by his loss. My father’s brother-in-laws, Uncle Terry and Uncle Desi, were the ones who had the clear and fresh memories, the stories full of laughter over pints of lager and fish and chips.
It was Dad’s youngest brother from whom I learned the most. And of all places, at a Liverpool football match. Uncle George had planned to take me to a game the moment he heard we were coming out to Liverpool. It was what he did when a male relative visited during football season, and seeing as the last time he had been to a game was with Dad, it was even more appropriate for me to be the next guest of honor.
It didn’t take long to understand the reason for Dad’s lifelong passion for this club. It wasn’t players, or the success–but the identity of a unifying group, purely Liverpudlian and purely out to love life. As I stood in the stands among a crowd of 30,000 Scousers singing and swaying together, I felt I did not belong–as if I did not even have a right to be there. Sure, I had been a fan of this team since birth, cheering from the other side of the world. But that did not stand for anything. The people in the crowd had passion for their lives, for silly things like football games. Real passion–the kind of spirit that sings songs, stands and shouts, wears red and links arms with total strangers. The kind that does not need success to be justified–just the thought of being alive and experiencing something great and exciting.
I have never felt that much passion for anything.
It was all very strange without Dad there. It would have made for a great father-son moment. But here I am, shoulder to shoulder with people I have never seen before and will never see again, taking my Dad’s place among the crowd. Without him, I feel a little nervous and self-conscious at first. After all, if I open my mouth, I give myself away as a Yank, and I do not want a crowd of fans staring at me and asking questions. With each sway and song, however, and with each shout and cheer from the crowd, I grow more comfortable. Before it’s over I am part of the crowd, painting the old stadium a brilliant red and announcing the action with a large and loud shout.
As we trudged out after the match, the man next to me–a balding, ruddy-faced giant who said nothing during the entire game–turned to me, broke into one of the biggest, toothless grins I’ve ever seen and said “Well, what did ya think of that, Yank?”
I thought it was bloody great.