Saturday, December 31, 2005

So long, Freddie boy

Death has been chasing my father-in-law, Fred, for years. But each time it got close he's managed to slip its grip just in time. The day after Christmas, when he wasn't paying attention, it finally caught him. He was 87 at the time.

As I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper early on December 26, the phone rang. My mother-in-law, Ruby, was on the line but she wasn't talking to me. She was talking to the paramedics who were preparing to transport Fred to the hospital. She was trying to get them to tell her where they were taking him and insisting they take him to Osceola Memorial Hospital. Then the line went dead. A few minutes later the phone rang again and this time she was talking to me. "I think he's gone," she said. "Y'all better get down here."

What followed was frantic preparations to get everybody packed and ready to go. Ruby called back again and confirmed that Fred had died so then we had to call the NC relatives and tell them the news before hitting the road for Florida. With one thing and another we couldn't get going until almost two and then had to take the long route through Raleigh so our youngest son could get his suit and tie from his apartment.

If you've ever had the misfortune to travel by car to Florida at Christmastime you know what Interstate 95 is like: two (and sometimes three) southbound lanes packed with maniacs trying to go as fast as possible by changing lanes every few seconds. This, of course, results in the whole mess slowing to a crawl or coming to a complete stop for minutes at a time and then, inexplicably, everybody is driving 85 mph again until the next slow down. I won't even mention the Rec Vees cruising blissfully in the left lane at a blistering 45 mph. (OK, so maybe I will)

So anyway, it's well after 2 AM before we make it Kissimmee, unload the car and fall into bed. The next morning early, my mother-in-law, wife and I are at the funeral home - a dingy little pre-Disney remnant from the "good old days" when Central Florida was all orange groves and cattle ranches. Ruby and Fred had made pre-arrangements for this day a couple of years back but there were a lot details that needed attention. One of the details was a burial plot.

If you don't count the strip malls and toll-roads, Central Florida is not blessed with many physical features (remember: it all used to be orange groves and cattle ranches) so the cemetary we visited was pretty bleak by NC standards. The lady selling burial plots was originally from Wisconsin (practically nobody here is actually from Central Florida) so she peddled her expensive little holes in the ground with the flat matter-of-factness that Midwesterners are so famous for. Ruby was hoping for something nice - maybe with a tree or two nearby. The Wisconsin woman drove us out to inspect what she had available and showed us the only plot she had near a tree - a very dead tree - for $200 more than the ones farther away from the dead tree. Ruby wasn't buying it. We settled on a plot next to a Mr. Rogers and signed the papers (and wrote the check). One thing that is certain: death is very expensive and if you can't afford it I would advise you to avoid it.

The next preparations we had to make was for the luncheon after the funeral. Deli trays had to be ordered and beverages, napkins, table clothes etc. had to be purchased. Every few minutes the doorbell rang and soon the house was filling up with floral arrangements both tacky and tasteful. The phone also kept ringing. Relatives were calling to make excuses for why they wouldn't be able to attend the funeral. It was getting depressing.

Fred was not much of a church-goer so the funeral home found the Reverend Dr. Bob to officiate. He seemed like a nice guy on the phone and was willing to go along with whatever we wanted. He was a chaplin for the police department and a Baptist minister which we tried not to hold against him.

The day of the funeral finally arrived and everyone was up early. My oldest son and I headed to the Publix for the deli trays in a fog so dense you could barely see the traffic signals - a typical Central Florida morning. The viewing was not until 11 but Ruby was ready to go to the funeral home a little before ten. She and my wife went ahead while I waited for our two sons to get ready. We made it to the funeral home on schedule and were pleased to see that Fred looked pretty good - although the "blue casket with blue interior" they promised us looked decidedly silver with a gray interior. A few neighbors and Ruby's nephew from Maitland dropped in to pay their respects and we all sat around trying to make conversation (this was complicated by the fact that several neighbors didn't speak English. In Central Florida, English is the second language) After the longest hour of my life we headed to the cemetary.

The service was brief but effective. My wife wrote a nice eulogy which I read for her. The funeral director had forgotten to make arrangements for the military-style funeral arrnagments she'd promised but nobody really seemed to care much about it. Ruby did get a flag from one of the funeral home guys "with thanks from a grateful nation" but no rifle salute or honor guard. Oh well.

Back at the house we laid out the luncheon (way more food than we could eat.) My oldest son's catering experience came in handy as he dressed it up to look professional. A few of the neighbors who came to the funeral and Ruby's nephew also came by for lunch and another set of other distant relatives who had been hopelessly lost in Kissimmee throughout the proceedings found the house.

We ate. We remembered Fred, and finally, everybody went home leaving us with a ton of leftovers. At least we wouldn't starve.

As I was preparing to relax a little, my sons decided that they wanted to drive back to NC so they wouldn't miss New Year's Eve celebrations. I guess life does go on and when you're in your twenties like they are, people are expecting you to party down regardless of the circumstances. It's a burden. I left my grieving wife with my grieving mother-in-law and headed back to NC with the boys. At 3:15 in the morning we hit the driveway in Greensboro.

This was one of those events that will always change, forever, the way you feel about a holiday. For my wife, Christmas will always be the day before her daddy died and his funeral will always be the day before her birthday. So it goes.

So long, Freddie boy. You did good.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

He really did and he was very fond of you (though I don't think I ever heard you call him Freddie boy to his face).

3:47 PM  

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