Dying of Cancer: The Musical

The kid from Domino’s asking the undertakers how to get to the house behind the house next door while they were wheeling my dad’s dead body down the front steps was sort of comical. The kid was just trying to do his job. So were the undertakers. They didn’t want to stop what they were doing, but they didn’t want to be rude, either. They were torn. Besides, they didn’t know how to get to where the pizza was supposed to be delivered anyway. Marya had to step in and tell the Domino’s kid what he needed to know. There’s a path between our house and the house next door, see. It’s not all that easy to find in the dark.

Marya did everything the whole night. She’s Nicki and Murph’s daughter. My niece. She was the one who found him. We were all out in the living room singing “Say Goodbye.” If you’ve never heard it, it’s a long song. A ballad. It goes on and on, verse after verse. Some guy by the name of Pappy was wooing the Widow Norton. Pappy and the Widow Norton were out on a date, out on a jamboree — and when Pappy brought her home at sun up, old man Norton raised his gun up:

“Say goodbye, say goodbye. Say goodbye, say goodbye.
Say goodbye to the old apple tree.
They cut the tree down for a casket,
Put the apples in a basket,
And buried poor Pappy ‘neath the tree.”

“Mom,” Marya said.

Her tone was unmistakable. We stopped singing and went into my father’s room. His eyes were open. They still had some expression in them, too, but it wasn’t an expression of anything any of us wanted to see for long. I pushed his eyelids shut. Nicki started wailing like a Palestinian banshee woman. She was practically doing those ululations they do — then she blurted out: “He loved me. From the day I was born. To the day he died.”

I thought that was sort of a slick thing to say. I stole it off her for what I said about him at his funeral. We put a cribbage board in the coffin with him. That was probably pretty stupid. I mean, what you are when you’re dead is a hunk of meat. They have to hurry up and get you to the funeral parlor and shoot you up with embalming fluid or you start to rot. What use a rotting hunk of meat may have had for a cribbage board was beyond my ability to comprehend, but we put a cribbage board in the coffin with him all the same. There wasn’t much my father liked better than a rousing game of cribbage with one of his kids or the guys down at the Elks.

We put a mouth organ in the casket with him, too, in case he ran into anyone who might need cheering up. He had a knack for cheering up a person by playing the mouth organ. He’d have been lost without one, so we stuck his favorite Marine Band Harmonica in the lapel pocket of the double-breasted brown pinstripe suit he used to wear back when he was still selling insurance.

When we got to the cemetery, Mandy and Marya sang “The Rose.” Mandy is Nicki and Murph’s other daughter. She was around fourteen at the time. Marya was seventeen. Mandy’s middle name is Rose. Amanda Rose Murphy. And there was a picture of a rose on the front cover of the program the undertaker passed out. Roses turned out to be kind of the floral theme of the whole funeral. I don’t know whether anyone planned it that way. Printing programs was part of one of the more moderate packages the funeral home had to offer. The Serenity Prayer was on the back cover.

Marya laughed some during the first few verses. She wouldn’t have picked “The Rose” as the song to sing — in fact, she wasn’t sure she could get all the way through it without barfing due to the sickening sweetness and sentimentality of the lyrics — but it was the only song she and Mandy both knew on such short notice, and once they got into it, the lyrics seemed to get more and more appropriate.

By the time they got to the last couple of verses they were belting it out like they were Ethel Merman, both of them, two Ethel Mermans. Funerals are supposed to be sickeningly sweet and sentimental. Marya wasn’t laughing because she was nervous. Nobody was nervous. She was laughing because she was crying. She was laughing because her mother was crying and her father was crying and her grandmother was crying and her uncle was crying. Marya was laughing because everyone was crying. She couldn’t help it. Everyone crying was making her laugh.

Mandy wasn’t laughing or crying, either one; she was mainly concentrating on doing a good job of the singing of the song and didn’t think much of her sister cracking up in the middle of her performance.

To counteract some of the sickening sweetness and sentimentality of the whole affair, there was a donkey in a field not far away, a donkey that hadn’t been fed in awhile judging from the sounds he was making. He kept braying during the most somber moments. We all thought that was a nice touch. My dad would have liked a donkey braying during the eulogies at his funeral. He could bray like a donkey with the best of them. I adore my father. I will always adore my father.

Murph accompanied his daughters on the guitar while they sang “The Rose.” Then he sang “You Are My Sunshine” all by himself. Murph said it had been my father’s favorite song. He was probably right. It probably was. My father had all kinds of favorite songs.

Then, God, I don’t know what the hell happened after that. My mother, I guess. My mother got up from her folding chair in the front row. She walked across the grass in a pair of sturdy black shoes and stood with her back to everyone and put her hand on the coffin. It was a plain pine box, part of the same moderate funeral package she had picked out. She gave the box a comforting pat, then turned around and faced everyone.

There were maybe a hundred or so people there. People we hardly knew — grizzled old World War II fighter pilots from the Elks, guys my dad sold insurance with, guys he sold cars with, guys he sold storm windows with and got drunk with and played poker with. And there were flowers everywhere, flowers of all kinds and of all descriptions. There were flowers on my mother’s dress, tiny little sprigs of bachelor buttons and lilies-of-the-valley. What she said was simply that a song had been going through her head for the past few days. She didn’t know where it had come from; it had just been going through her head.

“It’s an old song,” she said. “Maybe from the thirties. It’s just been going through my head. I don’t sing very well, either. As most of you know.” Then she sang it. A cappella. Accompanied by no one:

“Out of a blue sky,
The dark clouds came rolling,
Breaking my heart in two.
Don’t leave me alone,
For I love only you.
You’re as sweet as a red rose in June, dear.
I love you, adore you, I do…”

That was as far as she got. We have it all on videotape.