Shortly after, in the kitchen I said hello to the others there: Ed's son Alex, Rob's daughter Devvy, and the out of town relatives staying at Donna's—the Gregory's, who are Donna's dad's side of the family, consisting of Uncle Fred (who was married to Donna's dad's sister, who is now deceased) and their children Randy, Russ (and his wife Pam), and Jan. It was good to see all of them again.
At a little after 11:30, Carolyn drove me, Pam, and Jan to the All Saints Catholic Church, only about five minutes or so from Donna's house. It's the church that Donna's parents attend there in Lake Wylie, as they live only about three or so miles from Donna and Rob.
In the parking lot, we met up with Carolyn's family, and I then I said hello to the Knuebels—Mr. & Mrs, and Debbie—who were standing along the sidewalk to the church.
And right after them was Ed's daughter Angela, to whom I was an uncle for the first couple of years of her life, and whom when I went to shake her hand said with her arms outstretched, "I want a hug from you." I was so touched by this gesture, as honestly, I really didn't even expect her to remember who I was. And this was not to be her only loving gesture of the day.
Some folks kept talking out on the sidewalk, but in a coat and tie and with the temperatures close to—if not in—triple digits, I headed into the church before I became soaked with sweat.
Just inside the entrance to the church on the right, there was a lectern holding a guest book, and I stood in line to acknowledge my presence. When I got close to it, Donna's dad was standing there, and as I hugged him he said, "John. We were so hoping you'd be here." We cried together for just a moment as I said, "I loved Vince so much."
"We all did," he said hugging me back. "We're glad you're here."
After signing in, I took in a poster board that was on a table behind the lectern that had about six or seven choice photos of Vince, various snapshots of his life, so to speak. I was so moved to see this one, in the bottom left corner of the poster:
I just love Vince's face in this picture, as he is trying very hard to look as serious as he possibly can and not smile. This picture was taken in "the big house" (mine and Donna's) somewhere in the late 80's, early 90s, during "the mullet years," when the salt hadn't yet crept into the pepper in my hair and beard, and I was still in my early-to-mid 30s.
As expected, the memorial service was a full Catholic mass, although it wasn't a "high mass" (a.k.a. "a smells and bells service"), and before it started, I saw Donna's relatives from her mother's side of the family—Uncle Steve, and his children Steven and Greg, and Greg's wife Allison. Aunt Jean wasn't with them at the time. I ended up sitting next to Donna's cousin, Steven, as he was there alone, too—his wife having stayed back in Colorado to tend to their dogs, as they were in the middle of a 7-month RV tour around and about the mountains and national parks of the western United States.
I was a little taken aback when communion time came, and the priest interjected a little explanation about how Catholics have been trying to embrace non-Catholics in their mass in small ways over the years, but noted that the one thing they've not been able to agree to do is let people who are not practicing Catholics partake in communion during the mass, after which he invited those who did meet the criteria to come forward.
So many thoughts came into my mind about this that I'm not going to go into here, as it's not what I want included in my memory of this day. I'll just note that it really caught me by surprise, I guess especially since there was no such pronouncement made at my aunt's Catholic funeral mass in February, where it essentially remained a personal issue between God and the communicants.
After communion came the hardest part of the entire service, when Vince's older brother—and dedicated caretaker during his five-month battle with his renal cancer—took to the altar to deliver Vince's eulogy. He started off by acknowledging the incredibly difficult task before him and comforted us with the fact that his cousin, Russ, was graciously waiting in the wings to take over should it come to that.
He went on to paint a touching and loving portrait of Vince's time here with us. Things that stood out to me included:
- I'm pretty sure it was this quote he started off with, "When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. ~Kahlil Gibran" It stood out not only for its truth, but because it was a quote on a sympathy card I recently purchased.
- How Vince would have waved his hand over all of this and said something to the effect of, "This is too much fuss over me," as he was one of the most selfless, caring, and generous people most of us knew.
- The story of his sister Carolyn's encountering a dragonfly in her bedroom, and asking Ed to catch it and let it outside, as she was afraid to hurt it in case Vince had come back as a dragonfly. Later, his wife Susan noted that that couldn't have been Vince, as he would have come back as a butterfly, which Carolyn has a little bit of a phobia about. And Ed added that it obviously wasn't Vince, because it didn't have a beard.
- Ed's story about doing the Word Search in the paper on Sunday mornings, many times during which Vince was visiting and sitting outside with him. And how the one on the Sunday after Vince passed away, the theme of the puzzle was something like, "Forever Memories," and two words in the first two columns in the upper left hand corner of the puzzle turned out to be the two words: "Forever" and "Brother."
- Ed's sincere appreciation for everyone in attendance, including family members from around the country, as well as co-workers from the other side of the state who came to affirm Vince's life today, many of whom were obviously as sad and hurting as much as family members were.
I loved the choice of the recessional song, which was Wind Beneath My Wings.
After the service, refreshments were served in a little room off to the side of the rear entrance of the church. "The ladies of the church"—there always seems to be some "ladies of the church" in every church doesn't there?—had put out a nice spread of little (crustless, triangular!) sandwiches in three varieties, some deviled eggs, some potato chips, and a number of desserts.
Before entering, I got in line to offer my condolences to my ex-mother-in-law and father-in-law and by the time I got to the front, dad had stepped away for a second, which was no problem since I'd already had a moment with him when I first got there.
Mom didn't recognize me at first, but once she did, she thanked me so much for being there, to which I replied, "Thank you for having me."
To which she replied, "Oh, you'll always be a part of this family, John" and with which I moved ahead to let the next person in line offer their condolences. I was so touched by her comment that I stood alone for a minute overwhelmed with emotion and crying when Angela stepped up to me from nearby and hugged me saying, "No one should be sad all alone." What an incredible human being, particularly for a rising senior in high school.
There was a hallway off the room in which the food was, and on a table in that hallway there were two laptops, each with a slide show of pictures of Vince, and in between them, Ed had made a poster board of that Word Search he was working on that Sunday morning with the "Forever," "Brother," entries in it. Very cool.
The slide show on the left laptop was essentially of Vince at work, and the photos told the story of a Help Center manager who did everything he could to have fun with his colleagues, and to engage in his work. It's no wonder some had come to offer their final respects, and had traveled the distance they had, to do so.
I was so touched to be in a few of the photos on the other laptop, which were all family photos. It affirmed that fact that I was indeed an integral part of the family, and Vince's life, for 16.5 years. Here's one of the pics that was in the mix:
At one point during this reception time, I told Ed that I'd recently read the very cool story of the Return of the Prodigal Guitar, about how someone in Louisiana had called him about a guitar that was on sale in a closing auction on eBay that had his name etched on the back of it.
After the reception, most of us returned to Donna and Rob's house, where we had a heart-warming afternoon of sharing, which for me included two nice talks with Allison and Jan, each at different times. I chatted with Jan on the living room couch; my chat with Allison was while having dinner on a folding table that had been set up off the dining room.
Toward the end of our dinner, Donna's sister Anne came over to say good-bye and as she walked away from us, she caught a glimpse of an 8x10 picture of Vince on a nearby chest, and she just stopped, stared, and teared up in sadness at the reality that is yet so hard to grasp—he's gone.
The table I ate dinner on, and talked at with Allison, had a tablecloth on it that was from Donna's and my time together, and I noticed a few other things that she still has from our time together, which ended as many years ago now as we were together—16.5.
I checked on the only thing I've asked her for, from her estate, which is a serving set consisting of a pitcher and six (I think, although it might be four) goblets that we bought in Venice in May of 1987.
The set was hand-blown by a master Venetian glass-blower and is purple glass with gold inlaid all over it. I remember we paid $800 for the set then, which was outrageous to us and a huge decision, and we were told that at that time it would easily have sold for $3,000 back in the States. Today, I wonder what the good folks at the Antiques Roadshow would say about that.
It really is a beautiful set, which is my main interest in it, aside from the sentimental value of that purchase, of which that stop in Venice was part of a 17-day tour of a 6-country, 13-city vacation by bus with both sets of our parents in tow! We visited: England (London), France (Paris), Italy (The Italian Lakes, Rome, Ostia, Florence, Venice, Verona), Austria (Innsbruck), Germany (Munich, Heidelberg, and a Rhine River Cruise), and Holland (Amsterdam). Whew.
But I've digressed... albeit that's where my memory and heart took me briefly while I was there.
Shortly before—and I mean like about five minutes before—the full catered meal of chopped barbecue, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese that had been ordered for dinner arrived, neighbors of Donna's and Rob's dropped by with another complete meal consisting of fried chicken, two huge tins of coleslaw, two tins of baked beans, chips, dips, a huge veggie platter and a number of desserts. It was absolutely incredible.
After a long and emotional day, I took leave of Lake Wylie at around 8:00 with both my stomach and heart about as full as they could possibly get. As I signed Vince's obituary "guest book" online, I'll end today's memory:
Changed for the better
Because I knew you...
I have been changed for good."
Rest in peace, my friend.