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I’m really not sure what the purpose of funerals are. I suppose to religious people, the funeral is a necessary ritual to send a loved one’s soul off to wherever, according to the rules of their faith. And I’m sure there are all sorts of sociological answers about closure and community and whatnot. I suppose there are a thousand different reasons dependent on individuals and circumstances, but I just feel confused about it all. I went to a funeral this weekend, got mad, stayed mad, cried, and left mad. I suppose it served a purpose, because I think I wouldn’t have dealt this this death otherwise; I would’ve tried to ignore it and bury it, like putting a hat on a headwound. But pardon me for being befuddled just the same.
While Naomi and I had drifted quite a bit, back in college she was easily the most important person in my life. Elegant yet messy, bratty but tender, defiant yet fuzzy. A creative, intellectual indie-pop grrrl with goth tendencies. From the moment we first met, there was a deep connection, the type which I’ve rarely had with others, where communication is almost… automatic. There was this level of comfort knowing that whatever I was trying to express, she was going to get it, whether I did a good job explaining myself or not.
I can’t point to many specifics, but Naomi had more influence on making me the person I am today than anyone outside the family who raised me. Anybody out there who knows me and likes me now, you owe her thanks. I don’t think she “taught” me many things, it was just the experiences we shared, her points of view, and the ways that I reacted and changed because of all that.
More than anything, Naomi was about sharing and independence. She shared everything and inspired the same in return, sometimes in odd, provocative or uncouth ways. Maybe she’d eat food off your plate, use you for a pillow, or invite you under the covers to stay warm. And her independence wasn’t fist in the air rebellion, it was casually making her own rules with little notice of what other people did or thought. Wearing pajama pants under a skirt, for example, or deciding that gestures of affection meant care and not flirtation. Rules are flexible, rules are negotiable, and we have considerable control over that.
Knowing Naomi also broke down a bunch of my preconceived gender stereotypes, as I met more manly women and feminine men than I ever had before or since. Made me throw my hands in the air and say that I don’t know what it means to be a man or a woman. I think that the openness she brought out in people also helped me see her and many of her female friends more clearly and completely, more as “people” than as “women”, something that society doesn’t teach us so well. That’s what it came down to. There’s just people.
But Naomi wanted to be a doctor. Which meant, I realized retrospectively, that these close times really only amounted to two or three years. At that point, she was sucked deeper and deeper into the obsessive study of the Med Student (Med Students are, by nature, crazy). And as more time passed, our rare conversations were rather mundane exchanges of me ranting about politics that she hadn’t read about and her confusing me with doctor jargon that I didn’t understand. People go their own ways sometimes.
Around four years ago, Naomi was having breathing trouble and started receiving treatment for tuberculosis. Which might have been helpful if she’d had tuberculosis, and not a rare form of lung cancer. Two years went by before she was properly diagnosed (about a year after her wedding), at which point she had to give up an entire lung to save her life. Would she be alive today if that first doctor hadn’t fucked things up? I don’t know, but it seems entirely possible.
After near-constant struggle with the cancer and chemo and complications and ventilators and insurance companies and drugs and depression, she finally succumbed earlier this month. Two years to the day, after her initial major surgery, they tell me.
The funeral was Saturday in Los Angeles, at a tiny chapel at a tiny cemetery hemmed in by skyscrapers in Westwood. Weird. Happily, there were so many folks in attendance that they overflowed the chapel, overflowed a patio section with chairs, and overflowed a patio section without chairs. I think I stood in some grass somewhere.
I got angry almost as soon as I arrived, as it looked like Mark, Naomi’s husband, was being forced to play host. He was right by the entrance, and a small line had formed in front of him to give condolences, like the reception line at a wedding. And Mark appeared to feel the need to be a good host, cordially greeting everyone, attempting to be somewhat upbeat. I was angry that everyone was putting him through this. But, I mentally conceded, maybe he was doing this to protect Naomi’s parents from the onslaught. Still…
Then I was angry that some folks seemed to be using this as a social occasion. Well, okay, it was. I mean, funerals can be big events where people who haven’t seen each other in years come together and reconnect, and that’s not a bad thing, so I guess I can’t blame them. But I did anyway.
Then I was angry because I discovered the funeral was open casket. I fucking hate that. I don’t want my last memory of a family or friend to be their immobile, awkwardly make-up-ed corpse! I want to remember them alive and vivid and happy. Open casket means that 1) I have to go out of my way to not see the body and 2) other people are replacing their last memories of a living person with the memory of a dead body.
The ceremony started, I calmed down, but was filled with raw, burning empathy for Naomi’s family and husband. I know how this feels. I don’t know how they were holding up so well. Most of my family was a fucking wreck at my mom’s funeral. I guess it helped that they had their faith, that Naomi was in Heaven now and that they’d see her again. I’ve had no such comfort, but I can see the fucking appeal. Almost nothing hurts me more than thinking about if there were a Heaven, and my mom was up there and happy, and looking down on me all smiling and proud– yet not believing in such a thing at all. Pained sweetness, like a mouthful of broken teeth.
And I got mad at the Christian aspects of the service. Why is so much of Christianity creepy? We’re supposed to be happy that God is our overlord and that He can empathize with us since He had a Son die too and that Naomi’s pain was a good thing because it brought her closer to God?
But I guess funerals are a place to wrap things up, at best a time to say “I’ll miss this person.” But not for the most vital feelings, not for the “I want her back! I want her back NOW!” that I imagine everyone must have felt. Maybe that’s what my anger was, at heart. I’m mad that she’s gone, mad at a doctor that screwed her over, mad that I can’t make her come back.