Family Life and Death

Dad’s Last Ride

My father rode down King Street for the last time just before noon on Saturday, May 27.

My father rode down King Street for the last time just before noon on Saturday, May 27. It had been fifty-three years since he first drove through the small town of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, in his blue station wagon, looking for a place to live with his wife and six kids.

Father Joseph prays the rosary aloud at his father’s coffin.

We had met a couple of hours earlier at Our Lady of the Visitation Church for the viewing and funeral mass—a replay of my mother’s funeral eighteen months ago. As is the custom among Roman Catholics, it was an open casket, and for some reason, my father had on eyeglasses. He was inordinately proud of his eyesight, the kind of man who would rather die than let you catch him wearing cheaters.

Father/brother Joseph presiding

After Father Joseph led the rosary, the coffin lid came down, and the guys from Fogelsanger-Bricker Funeral Home wheeled my father up to the front of the church for mass.

Pallbearers Jim, Bob, Brian, Camille, Brandon, and Aphia

When mass was over, I grasped the polished wood handle and walked my father’s shiny casket from the church to the hearse with my brothers, Jim and Bob, our cousin, Brian, and our nephew and niece, Brandon and Aphia. It was as pretty a day as you can want for a funeral, clear and crisp, as lovely as the day we buried my mother.

The guys from Fogelsanger—Justin, the Kung Fu black belt, an older man, and a young girl in training—hovered like bees, reaching out to help and steady as they probably do at all their funerals. No one wants to see a coffin dropped, least of all the guys in charge.

Mom’s casket – Oct 1, 2021

I was a first-time pallbearer and found it heavier than expected, heavier, someone said, than the box they’d buried Mom in.

And then we took Dad for his last ride through town. I’ve always loved a parade, so I sat straight in my new, blue Tesla, bought with my father’s money, giddy with closure, resisting the urge to smile and wave, wondering what true feelings lurked beneath my bubbly exterior. I’m the oldest now, I thought. The unrestricted head of the family. “Isn’t that nice,” I felt my father hiss from the car ahead.

Father Ben from Our Lady of the Visitation in Shippensburg and Father Joseph of St. Joseph’s in San Francisco

We parked at Spring Hill Cemetery, stepped out, and tucked our fingers through the smooth wood to move the casket from the hearse to a bier atop a hole next to Mom’s grave.

The good fathers conducted the graveside service while I stood in the sun beside my brother, Michael. We had a nice view of the proceedings, our brothers and their wives, kids, and grandkids under the red canopy, and my Bob working the angles with his Sony mirrorless.

Bob joined us, and we discussed the viewing, which Michael had not attended. Michael was surprised to hear about the glasses, agreeing that Dad would have been mortified. He had asked the director to give his father a professorial look, and noted that the glasses probably also hid a recent oddness where you could kinda/sorta see Dad’s eyes behind his eyelids.

“Here’s a fun fact,” he said. “Dad’s not wearing any shoes.”

Sisters-in-law, Darla and Debbee
Bob with nephew Brandon’s four children, Bethany, Jacob, Ben, and Micah
John and Darla’s daughter, Aphia, and son, Brandon
We two
Brother John, ailing, but still game
Me and Father Mark from California and I, contemplating the abyss

I hoped to see them lower the casket into the earth as they did at my mother’s burial, but that didn’t happen. Finally, people began to leave, so we got in our car and drove back to the church to eat and mingle. I read my eulogy, and eventually, we all went our separate ways.

What I had to see—the hole sealed, presumably with the coffin inside

The next morning, before driving back to North Carolina, Bob and I returned to the gravesite for a look-see. We found the sod replaced with the casket flowers atop the parched grass.

I crouched down to snap a photo, hoping that my father had truly reached his final home in his bare feet and glasses, and that’s when it happened. Emotion flooded in as I pictured Mom’s white coffin inches from his. This is how we all end up, I thought, tears smarting.

I thought of their sixty-eight years together, all the pain and joy, the ups and downs, their legacy—three generations of people all destined to die—the promise shining in their great-grandchildren’s eyes, the whole circle of life swirling around in my head.

I wished I hadn’t been so joyous the day before, so all about myself hefting Dad’s coffin, playing the big girl, happy for the closure, no more feeling like I have to reach out to my father, trying to connect. I stayed there close to the earth for a while, smelling the raw soil underneath the yellowing sod.

I didn’t feel brash or joyful now. I felt small, squatting near the sod, small, and old, and tired.

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

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