I spent last week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the final hours of my brother’s life and his subsequent funeral.
Mike had been quite ill with emphysema for almost two years. His last months were spent in an assisted living facility after he had been found unconscious in his apartment by his former wife and daughter early this year.
I got word that he was in the hospital and was not expected to live. I immediately flew to Baton Rouge.
Almost all of the family was there, including his four-month old grandson and namesake, Michael – a dramatic statement of the continuity of the cycle of life. That first night, we all gathered in his room to listen to the LSU football game on the radio. We ordered in po-boys and cheered our team to a very lopsided 40-0 victory over Middle Tennessee State.
We held a vigil in his hospital room for four days. It sounds a bit ghoulish, but it wasn’t at all. We talked about family events in the distant and not so distant past – our parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren.
Through all of this, Mike slipped in and out of consciousness, but often seemed to comprehend what we were talking about. He would respond with a few words, the nod of a head, a laugh, or a grunt. Finally, on Tuesday evening, he just stopped breathing. People in the room did not even notice for a few moments.
The next three days were spent at a wake and a funeral mass. Old friends, most of whom we knew since early childhood, came and reminisced. Connections were reestablished; memories enhanced. Finally, Mike was buried with our parents in Baton Rouge’s beautiful Roselawn cemetery. The circle was completed.
Taking a break from the vigil, I dropped into a Barnes and Noble and happened upon a paperback edition of Philip Roth’s Everyman. It is a remarkable novel that begins and ends with the death and funeral of the principal – in fact, only – character.
Based on the famous medieval play where a dying man is informed by the devil of his imminent death, and begins a journey through his life remembering his own interfaces with death and the effect they had upon him. Roth’s Everyman rummages through his failed – and successful – relationships at every stage of life. It is a brilliant novel.
There must have been some hand of fate that guided me to the book. It described what all the family was going through at the time, probably even my brother. Each one of us was, I am sure, going through a period of retrospection and reassessment in the face of our own ultimate deaths, with Mike’s death as the catalyst.
I left on Saturday morning as fans were pouring into Baton Rouge for the LSU-South Carolina football extravaganza. As I was checking out at 9 a.m., a couple was rushing out to their car dragging a huge cooler. “We’re late for the tailgate party!” they exclaimed. The game was starting at 4 p.m. You have never been to a real football game until you have been to an LSU football game!
It was an apt reminder that life goes on.