My last living uncle died last week. He was my Uncle Arthur, my father’s brother and we were very close. He was a big joker and his favorite thing to do when I was a kid was to pretend he was stretching my arm by pulling down on my wrist and pushing my shirt sleeve up. I was sort of transformed into a real life Stretch Armstrong doll.
My parents along with My Uncle Arthur and Aunt Ruth purchased second homes on the same lake in Upstate New York. Our houses were 2 houses apart and so needless to say, our families were very close. After my parents died, we grew even closer, especially when I had my fourth and fifth child who never had a chance to know their grandparents. My uncle and aunt happily took on the role of surrogate grandparents to them.
My uncle was 91 and a half, he lived a long, full life, but still it was sad to let him go. It was comforting when I learned from my cousin, that my uncle called my father’s name as if he were in the room, a few days before he passed. I imagine my dad was there to lead his younger brother home. We take great comfort that we have such loving angels watching over us.
My uncle’s wake was not a somber one. His son and two grandchildren printed out several, tiny heads of my uncle and placed them strategically on the photo boards lining the room. Then, my cousin encouraged everyone to find the “Little Arthur” heads. My uncle has forever said, he did not want anyone to be sad at his funeral. In fact, he said, he wanted a mechanical coffin that would open and raise him to a sitting position as his arm would swing out with a drink in his hand and his voice would invite everyone to toast to his life.
I should explain that humor and laughter are a big part of our Italian family. My uncle’s only son, claimed the photos were a way to put the fun in funerals just as his father would have wanted. When the Elks Club came to perform a tribute to honor my uncle’s lifetime of service, we actually joked that this was when the mechanical coffin would open. My uncle would have liked that we were laughing and joking, because he would not want us to be sad. As I said, he was always telling jokes. That is why I know what happened the next day, had to be orchestrated by my humorous uncle.
As we left the church the next day to head to the cemetery, my sister and I, who were driving together, asked how far the cemetery was. My one cousin said it was nearby, while another said it was not so close. Not really knowing which was the right answer, we hurried out of the bitter cold into the car and figured we would just follow along in the procession.
We were at least 5 or 6 cars behind the black hearse as we pulled out of the church parking lot. We had to get on to the highway, right after we did, a lane that was merging on caused a few cars to dart in front of us. As this happened, there was a bit of congestion on the road and we started to get nervous that we were going to get lost. I looked ahead and saw the hearse. “We are okay, the hearse is a few cars ahead of us.”, I said.
I did wonder how we got so close to the hearse and thought for a moment that maybe the other cars just went on ahead. We joked for a second about how bad it would be if we were behind the wrong hearse. I reassuringly stated, how unlikely it would be for the same black, Cadillac hearse, to be on the exact same stretch of road, at the exact same time. That seemed to make good sense, and we stayed where we were, following a Chevy Tahoe in the procession.
As we entered the Catholic cemetery, the cars came to a stop. The funeral director got out of the hearse and entered a building on the premises. We wondered why we were stopping, but after a few minutes, the funeral director emerged with someone else who drove ahead to lead the way to the correct plot.
As we started toward the gravesite, I turned to my sister and said,”How did we get so close to the hearse? Where are all the other cars that were in front of us? Where is our cousin Bruce and Aunt Ruth? They should be behind the hearse!”
She looked at me a bit puzzled. As we came to a stop behind the hearse, someone directed some of the cars to come right along side of our car and park. This meant we were completely blocked in. As the people started to get out of their cars, we did not recognize anyone. “Oh wait, isn’t that the lady that was sitting near us in the church?” My sister asked. Before I could answer, she said, “Oh no, that woman is much younger.”
What really shocked me is that no one was waiting for my cousin or aunt before going on to the gravesite and standing around the coffin. My sister and I were concerned, I turned to look toward the last car. It looked like my cousin’s car, phew! “How did he end up all the way back there?” I asked. Then I turned and looked toward the coffin. The white flower spray looked like the one that had been on top of my uncle’s casket in the funeral home, but the casket itself…looked different! “Wasn’t Uncle Arthur’s coffin darker?” I asked my sister, hoping it was just the bright sun making it look so much lighter.
“Oh my gosh, you’re right! His coffin was much darker! That is not Uncle Arthur!”
We both looked frantically at each other and then pondered what we should do. We were completely blocked in. We could not say anything, that would be disrespectful. We quickly texted our oldest brother who is terrible at checking texts in a timely fashion.
When he did not answer, we called our other brother who answered his phone and asked where we were. We explained the situation, and he told us that my uncle’s service at the cemetery was already over and they were en-route to the restaurant. Then he asked if we had seen our aunt’s brother, because he was at the wrong funeral too. That made us feel a little better.
We started thinking about if the people around the casket were looking at us and wondering why we were still in the car talking and texting on our phones. Did they think we did not want to brave the cold, February wind or that we were too busy updating our Facebook statuses to join everyone else gathered around the grave? As we sat in disbelief wondering how this could happen, the graveside service ended, and the people started to walk toward their cars.
As the cars in front of us started to pull away, we could not help but laugh, because we knew that our uncle was pulling one of his best jokes on us from Heaven. We could hear him laughing and imagined he was telling everyone how his nieces, brother-in-law and later as we found out, our other 2 cousins, ended up at the wrong funeral.
Over the course of the next several hours at the restaurant, we laughed again and again at what had happened. It truly was straight out of a sitcom or movie script. I guess we know Uncle Arthur had the last laugh that day and that filled us with a great feeling.
As I write this, looking out on the lake I live on, the same lake my uncle’s and parents’ houses are on, I hear the Cardinals singing. I smile as I know that Heaven is not so far away and angels are all around us. In our case, we have angels with a sense of humor along with great love. Love you Uncle Arthur, never lose your sense of humor!