Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A High Degree of Visibility

Verna sometimes felt invisible next me to me, her loud and gregarious husband. Her sense of being indistinguishable may have been on her mind a week or two before she died when she told me, “Let anyone who wants to speak at my funeral, speak.”

St. Raphael’s Church’s rules, however, precluded a litany of family and friends singing her praises, but a standing room only crowd of more than 400 people filled the San Rafael parish cathedral on a windy day last Wednesday as we laid Verna Mercedes Wefald to rest.

Verna need not have worried that she was ever invisible. The packed church, with overflow crowds snaking out front, was a veritable This Is Your Life gathering that included the woman who ran (and still runs) the daycare program Miguel attended at the City Attorney’s Office in San Francisco when he was 10 months old, Miguel’s preschool teacher, attorneys and paralegals Verna worked with for 11 years, a priest from Southern California who knew Verna’s brother, Marty, but hadn’t seen him in 35 years, a woman I’d never met but had corresponded with via a political chat room, and countless family and friends.

Six days before she died, Verna had a reading done by an internationally known forensic scientist who claims to have psychic powers. She is a medium. One thing she said that I will never forget is that, “Verna, you have touched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. You don’t realize what an amazing impact you’ve had on so many people.”

I believe the medium’s words were quite comforting to Verna as she neared death. As I scanned the crowd on the day of the funeral I knew everyone was there to honor Verna, the woman who bravely lived her life so well before and after her cancer diagnosis.

Ten minutes before the ceremony began, I was standing in the aisle greeting people when I looked over at Miguel, seated in the first pew. He was crying, bent over, head hanging against his hands, in one of the few outward expressions of emotions he’d displayed for Verna in five years. I sat down next to him and pulled his head to my lap. He was actually bawling.

“Miguel, do you want a Kleenex?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“That’s OK, you can cry on my pants. What’s a little snot?”

A few minutes later he asked for a Kleenex, and one miraculously appeared behind me. I stroked the back of his head and was glad to see his release. He sat up, I put my arm around him, and then he resumed joking with his first cousin, Dominic, who is 17.

At just about noon, Father Paul, the senior pastor at St. Raphael’s, gathered all of us—Miguel, Maya, Verna’s family, my parents, my stepparents, my brother, and the two others who were also pallbearers—at the back of the church. The six pallbearers (Verna’s two brothers, Marty and Jim, her first cousin, Jim, my brother, Scott, our dear friend, Tony, and me), all selected by Verna, descended the steep steps in front of the 19th century church toward the hearse. Once we carried Verna’s casket to the lobby, Father Paul said some prayers and sprinkled holy water on the coffin.

Unlike when I served as a pallbearer in 2008 at Verna’s mother’s funeral, and cried so hard, I was in a state of shock as we gently pulled Verna toward the church’s altar. I was so focused on carrying out my sacred mission that no tears fell as I marched with the casket.

The first part of the service was a blur of Father Rossi, holy church music, and scriptural readings. Tony did the first reading, one I selected from Genesis. When I’d met with Vicki, Father Rossi’s pastoral assistant, she suggested I choose something from the Old Testament.

“We want to make you as comfortable as possible,” she said. “And be sensitive to your Jewish faith.”

I immediately chose something from Chaye Sarah, the life of Sarah. Chaye Sarah is Maya’s Hebrew name and was my grandmother’s actual name when she grew up in Poland. I just didn’t know if there’d be verses that would resonate with me.

But Providence shined down on me—something like that. I found a portion inside Chaye Sarah that deals with Abraham sending his servants back to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. The servants knew that Rebecca was the maiden for them because when they met her at the well she offered water to them and their animals.

Rebecca in these passages is seen as compassionate and caring, traits that Verna certainly possessed. I was ecstatic that Chaye Sarah presented me such a worthy portrait of a Biblical character to link with Verna.

Amanda did the second reading, something from the Book of John. Then Father Paul talked briefly about Verna, but in the context of explaining the significance of the Biblical texts.

Miguel, Maya, and I carried the Communion wine and wafers from the back of the Church to the altar. When Vicki had invited me, during our planning meeting a week or so ago, to participate in the service by carrying the wafers with Maya, I said, “But what if we drop them?”

I could clearly see the headlines in the Catholic Times: Jewish Mourner Carelessly Drops Host on Floor of Church.

“They’re not holy until Father Paul blesses them,” Vicki said.

See, even I learned something new about transubstantiation.

After Communion, Verna’s brothers together shared reminiscences of her. Moments before they began, Jim whispered in my ear, “I hope it’s OK if we poke a little fun of you.”

“It’s not a problem,” I said.

Jim mentioned how Verna and I were polar opposites in many ways: she was a carnivore, I am a vegetarian; she was Catholic, I am Jewish. She was athletic, and then he paused without saying another word. It was very funny.

The carnivore-vegetarian split reminded me of the first time I met Verna’s family at their fog shrouded home across from Ocean Beach in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Her parents hosted both her brothers and their wives and two grandchildren, and Verna’s aunt and uncle. Because Verna was so accommodating (and I was inflexible about my diet), she lovingly prepared a vegetarian lasagna. At several intervals during the meal, both her brothers chimed in, “Verna, this lasagna is so delicious.”

But Jim also spoke about how Verna and I shared core values about parenting, the world, and life in general, and that helped forge the close bond between us. Then I got up and delivered the eulogy I have already posted.

After the service, close to a hundred of us gathered graveside at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, also in San Rafael. Father Rossi shared more prayers, and then several of us placed flowers on Verna’s casket as it was lowered into the ground. Maya chose to toss in two bracelets, one for Verna and one for her mother (as they are buried in the same plot) that she’d bought with her Auntie Donna a few days earlier. My brother, Scott, then invited people to shovel some dirt into the grave, according to Jewish tradition whereby mourners ritually honor the dead.

I’d be lying if I said the service, the graveside ceremony, and the reception afterward outside our home were anything but surreal. Yes, Verna is gone, but the reality has not fully sunk in. It’s still so very hard to grasp viscerally what I know intellectually to be true: Verna died.

But, then again, Maya and I see Verna every night as she shines brightly in the nighttime sky before millions, if not billions, of people.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve,
    I just got back from N.Y. and am so sorry to have missed Verna's funeral. You are such a giving person and are so loved, please remember that. I would love to bring over dinner one night - let me know a night and what the kids like. Much love,
    Ellen Gumbiner