Death of the Patriarch
After a few minutes, reality intruded our sacred shelter. Business had to be tended to. We made sure that our mother was OK. I called my cousin, once again, to let him know that my father had died. By now he had mastered the art of deciding which people had to be called first, who would in turn call others. We had a similar system when our children went to school, and classes were called off because of snow. An oral chain letter.
The funeral home was called. My father had told us that he wished to be cremated. My mother, who at times would not sneeze on a Sunday without asking the priest if it was OK, went along with his decision and was at peace with it (later on, the priest told us that there was no religious objection to cremation). My sister from Spain arrived an hour after he died. She pitched right in.
Within ten minutes, calls poured in. Former students; colleagues; family; former neighbors. One message was central to all the conversations.
“This is what your father did for me.”
From a janitor that he helped occasionally, to high-ranking members of society. It dawned on me that these calls echoed what he had tried so hard to teach us when he lived. All of us were created equal. My father did not, could not, was incapable of segregating people according to what social class they belonged to.
The priest scheduled the funeral service. I spent some time driving places, signing documents, and reflecting on what could be said about my father that would do him justice. Our sister Julie took care of the obituaries.
The service was held in the small church that was a few blocks away from our house. It was a converted house. The priest had done a good job of presiding the transformation. One felt at home and in church at the same time.
I am not sure why I have become the “eulogist” for many family funerals. Maybe because I am not intimidated by speaking in front of a crowd; maybe because I do well at conveying feelings into words.
The church was full. When the priest finished Mass, I stood in front of the crowd. I introduced myself and my sisters. I spoke about my father’s youth and how he was orphaned by the great pandemic of 1918. How the family had migrated from Spain to Puerto Rico; how the high school student who knew no English graduated with the English Honors Prize.
I concentrated on his relentless drive for excellence. How he cared for everyone who wanted to learn. There were lower middle-class kids who would come to our doorstep on Monday mornings to see if he was done reading the Sunday New York Times. How there was a line of students in front of his office when it came time to pay for tuition, with requests for money for shoes, or books, or deposits on their apartment rentals. He never asked for any of this money back.
I went on to gripe, in a nice way, about how every time that he gave us a compliment on how well we were doing academically, he added a few suggestions as to how we could do better. It was impossible to get him to admit that he was fully satisfied, to our faces, yet we knew that when our backs were turned, he would stop the first person that he ran into in order to brag about us.
I ended my talk by sharing a small list of his successes. More than fifty years of a solid marriage. A universal reputation for being an honest man. Five children with advanced degrees, each of them successful in their field. As the twentieth century ended, no Garriga had failed to complete an advanced degree in their chosen field.
I concluded by saying that my father had died on his birthday, and that he had failed, by a few months, to reach one of the milestones that he had told us that he wanted to achieve: see the dawn of a new century.
The priest had told me that there was a Catholic legend that asserted that anyone who died on his birthday would get to go to Heaven. I told the crowd that my father did not need to rely on a myth to make it there. That by means of his achievements, he would make it to the next century, and to another after that. That his footprints would be there for anyone to see.
A hundred people stood up, as one, and began to scream and clap their hands. As if they were not at church, but at a ballpark where their favorite team had just squeaked out a victory in the bottom of the ninth. I lowered my head: this cheer was not for me. He should have been the one taking the victory lap.
I flew back to Saint Louis after a few days. I made a few radical changes in my life. As is to be expected, some for better, others not so much. My ever-patient wife stood by me, and my children tolerated me. Today I feel a bit guilty to admit how wonderful my life is. Although I have not asked her for her permission to share her thoughts, there is no doubt in my mind that my wife feels the same. Our children have done extremely well. I send weekly emails out, and we frequently talk on the phone, many thanks to whatsapp, because we are scattered.
I think of my father often. What enters my mind the most often is rather petty. I wonder if this was his plan. We received the most exquisite education available to anyone. We were taught to love knowledge and beauty. To worship books. To not forget where we came from: to be grateful for what we had and be willing to share with others who did not have the upbringing we had. In retrospect, our parents covered so many bases that it seems impossible to assume that this beautiful result was planned. No way. They were just being themselves. We were lucky enough to be there, close enough to be able to soak it all in. Bless them both.