February 12, 2005
After a few days of “betters” and and a few days of “worsts,” Monica Gordon passed away on February 9, 2005 at the age of 82. Meghan got a call Sunday night during the fourth quarter that Nana—“Nana” on her dad’s side, not to be confused with her mom’s mom, who is called “Nana,” or my Nana—had gone back into the hospital. We stayed with my brother for a few days, waiting to see what would happen rather than just getting back out on the road, and when Nana died we reserved a flight home for the next morning. The funeral was earlier today, Satuday, and we’ll be here a week total before returning to Kansas and continuing our trip.
Meghan went with her family this morning for a closed service, and then at around ten o’clock I drove with Meghan’s friend Danny to the church where the funeral was held. It was a beautiful morning, very sunny and warm, probably around 50 degrees or so, and as always I had the conspicuous feeling that comes any time I’m wearing a suit and tie, particularly when I’m wearing it outside. I only wear suits for special, special occasions, namely those that specify a suit and tie dress code. The last time I wore one was in September when I attended Luke’s grandfather’s funeral, and I can’t remember the last time before that, though it would have definitely been at either a funeral or a wedding, which seem to be the only events that I wear suits for anymore, as I no longer attend synagogue. To that end, I’m always rather self-conscious when I’m in a suit; part of it is that it’s not really “me,” but mostly it’s a physical reminder that something Big is happening, either happy or sad. Today it’s sad.
We get inside, and I’m sitting next to Meghan and her parents on one of the front pews. It’s a really beautiful church, and the family has made a really nice memorial for her that is sitting at the front of the aisle, right at the base of the stage. (In a synagogue, it’s called the Bima. I don’t know what it’s called at a church.) The memorial consists of a collage of pictures of Monica throughout her life, including a nice portrait from a few years ago taken by Meghan’s upstairs neighbor Andy; there are two or three pictures of her and her twin sister Veronica from when they were kids and then when they were older…there is one of her dancing with Don at Don and Bonnie’s wedding…there is one of her in her uniform from World War II, where she was a nurse…there is one of her with Meghan and Shanna as kids, the three of them pulling on their mouths with their index fingers and sticking out their tongues, and another of the three of them donning Cubs hats. Draped over one side of the collage is her nurse’s hat from the military, and on the other is her Cubs hat.
When I first met Monica, towards the end of last August, she was in her room downstairs, watching the Cubs. The Gordons own a two-flat in Rogers Park where they’ve lived for over twenty years. Meghan rents one of the basement apartments, and Monica lives in the other, with Andy and his son Devin living upstairs. As far as I learned in the short time that I knew her, Monica was a woman of habit. She liked her beer—Miller Lite—she liked her cheese crackers—the little cracker sandwiches with the cheddar cheese in the middle—she liked her smokes—Marlboro Lights—and she loved her Cubbies. By the time I met her, her body was extremely frail; she had been on a bowling team for many years, but was no longer able to play. Her skin was soft and wrinkled to an extraordinary extent; it reminded me of what a t-shirt looks like after you untie it from the rubber bands you use to make a tie-dye shirt. Her hair was short, white. She was missing her front teeth. And yet an incredible spirit leapt out of her at first glance; she was clearly happy to be alive and well, and I don’t care what my doctors say: if I’m going out, I’m going out drinking and smoking and laughing it up. Even in her quiet moments, sitting on her favorite chair in the backyard smoking a cigarette, or resting in the kitchen waiting for somebody—anybody—to come through and say hello, or even just petting one of Meghan’s kittens, she was quite clearly Monica Gordon.
The funeral began, and it was a lovely service. I found that I was a bit detached, and there were a few obvious reasons why. First of all, I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction. All people considered, I didn’t know Nana that well, and so I was really in support-mode, particularly for Meghan, because she is A. my girlfriend, and B. in deep mourning right now, as Monica was, as far as I can tell, her favorite non-immediate-family family member. Second of all, I’m a Jew in a church, which leaves me with much less service understanding and familiarity than if Meghan’s family were Jewish. Even at a support-mode Jewish funeral, I would at least be participating in the prayers—if only in my head—maybe even mouthing along with the Sh’ma or the Kaddish. At church, it’s totally different. I’m respectful, obviously, but while I’ve been to churches before I don’t know the prayers, and even the ones with which I am familiar—(“though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”)—carry no personal weight with me. And so I was able to glance around, take in the scene, do some personal reflection, and mostly just be a shoulder for Meghan.
After the service, there was a luncheon at a small restaurant near the church. It was to everyone’s liking, as the people who knew her best instantly knew that it was a place that Monica would have liked. We were in the dining room next to the bar, a small area—not cramp, but not necessarily cozy—filled with deep browns in the walls, tables, and chairs. It reminded me a lot of a 1950’s style basement. Once everybody had ordered, people began talking, and the conversation was light and fun, but with a tinge of sadness as you would expect at any funeral. Still, the mood was generally happy, as Monica had been old and “on her way,” even though her attitude and smile suggested otherwise. I was sitting next to Meghan with the younger guests, but my ear perked up at a conversation going on behind me between Don, Andy, Devin, and Bob, a close friend who lived up the block with his family. At first they were talking about the Sosa trade, but then the talk turned to Monica, and the stories came out. Everybody had a story. With Meghan entrenched in a conversation with some of her friends, I pulled my chair over to the men’s table, sat, and listened.
“I don’t remember if I ever told you this,” Andy said to Don, “but there was one day when Devin and I were walking home from the El after work and we saw Monica out walking. I said ‘Monica, what are you doing?’ And she tried not to smile, and said ‘Nothing.’ So I said to her, ‘OK, what do you want?’ And she looked right at me and said without hesitating, ‘Miller Lite please.’”
Everyone laughed. Andy continued.
“So I said, ‘OK. Devin’s going to take you home, and I’ll get your beer.’”
“Of course,” said Don, who hadn’t heard the story but immediately recognized the behavior as spot on. “She knew I wasn’t buying for her.” He laughed.
“She had everybody in the neighborhood wired,” said Andy.
Bob nodded. “You knew. You just knew. If you saw her, you knew that she would put you on a mission.”
“You know,” Andy began, looking at Don, “you guys really did it the right way. She was always with you, instead of at a home or something, and you always had family together. That was really the right thing.”
Don smiled, staying silent.
The conversation turned back to baseball and the Cubs, and then back to Nana, and then back to the Cubs, each subject weaving back to the other, and as they reflected on how the 2003 season ended and how the 2004 season fell apart, the subjects came back together again.
“It was as if she couldn’t wait any longer,” Bob said. “Maybe if they’d won it two years ago, she would have said, ‘Well, I can go. I’ve seen it all.’”
After hanging out at the bar for a while with Meghan’s friends, I went with her and Danny back to her house for another family and friends gathering in honor of Monica, and as if on cue, Meghan’s perpetually pregnant cat Lynx began giving birth to a new litter of kittens.