Jeff Hanson clenched and unclenched his fists. He felt the cool end-of-September breeze as he waited on the church steps, but he was sweating anyway. At least his suit jacket would hide the evidence. He hoped he wouldn’t have to tell his wife that she’d been right.
“Lots of people wear jeans to funerals,” he’d pleaded.
“You’re not lots of people. And you’ll be at the front. You’ll be nervous enough. You might as well look good,” Elaine had said, ending the debate.
Now he turned to Elaine again, as they waited for the undertaker to lead the family to the front of the church.
“This would’ve been a good day to pick up the last of the durum. It would’ve killed Grandpa to know he kept us out of the field all day during harvest,” Jeff said.
Elaine ignored him. She was trying to keep their two kids from sliding down the steps on the handrail. But Jeff’s mother Donna turned around to glare at him from her spot closer to the head of the line of family members.
“Sorry,” Jeff said. “Nerves.”
“Don’t blame you. Public speaking makes me anxious too,” said Jeff’s father Dale.
Dale was cradling the urn that held the remains of his father, Ed Hanson.
Ed had never fully recovered from the stroke he’d suffered in the winter of 2016. He’d regained some speech and he still drove his truck when his family hadn’t been watching, but he’d never gotten back his quick wit and physical health. When a late summer cold turned into pneumonia, Ed’s weakened defenses had not held up. He’d died in the night, at home in his condo.
His girlfriend Helen had been the one to phone the family and break the news. Always considerate, she’d waited until seven the next morning. The Hansons took the news well. They’d all loved Ed and would miss him, but they’d already mourned the loss of the sharp-tongued, strong man he’d once been. Dale, Donna, Jeff and Elaine each secretly believed that Ed would be happier to die the way he had than to keep living as a ghost of himself, although none of them said this out loud.
“I know you’re busy,” Helen had said to Dale on the phone that morning. “Still harvesting.”
The uneven crops had taken longer than usual to mature and the Hansons were barely half-finished combining by mid-September.
“We could wait,” Helen had gone on. “I know a lot of people do that. Wait a few weeks or even months, until it’s convenient. Then have some sort of memorial service. But I’d really rather do it now. Get some closure. As long as everyone can get home, of course.”
Dale wasn’t about to argue with Helen, not after she’d taken such good care of Ed for so long. And now Helen might want to move home to Alberta to be closer to her own family. Other than Dale, none of Ed’s relatives were farming anymore, so it wouldn’t be as inconvenient for anyone else. Cousins in Alberta, some shirt-tail relatives from P.A., and some of Helen’s family would come, but they all lived within driving distance. Dale phoned his sister Margaret in Ottawa and his daughter in North Carolina to make sure they could fly home by Thursday. Then he began to plan his father’s funeral.
“You’re giving the eulogy?” Margaret asked her brother over the phone.
The idea hadn’t crossed Dale’s mind. He thought of that saying about how most people are such nervous public speakers they’d rather be in the casket at a funeral than giving the eulogy. “No,” he said, definitively.
“Helen?” Margaret said.
“We can ask her,” Dale said, knowing Helen would say no. “What about you?”
“Me?” Margaret said. “I’ve barely spent two weeks with Dad in the past 40 years. One of your people should do it. And you’re sure we should hold it in the church?
“Yes,” Dale said.
“Does Helen go to church? Dad sure didn’t,” Margaret said.
“Mom did,” Dale said. “It’s what Mom would’ve liked. Helen insisted.” Even Margaret had to agree it was nice that Ed’s new partner considered Ed’s first wife.
By the day of the funeral Margaret had arranged details Dale and Donna would never have thought of, and phoned relatives Dale hadn’t talked to in decades.
That Thursday afternoon the church was filled with people who had known Ed. Neighbours. Friends. Family.
Jeff took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Dad? Are you sure?” he asked.
Dale turned around, and nodded. “You’ll do fine.” Dale had seen Jeff speak in public before. He didn’t imagine this would go well, but it didn’t really matter. The crowd would be friendly, and nobody came to a funeral to hear an Academy Award-winning speech.
Jeff had never been a confident public speaker. He’d hated standing in front of a crowd, and sometimes joked that he took up farming because farmers never had to give presentations. But Ed had been important to Jeff. Ed had taught him how to drive the truck when he was way too young for that. Ed had shown him how to shoot a gun. Throw a curling rock. When his high school girlfriend had dropped him just before the graduation dance, it had been Ed who talked Jeff into going to the dance solo.
Jeff would give the eulogy. His wife and his mother helped him write his notes, and even put some photos into a Powerpoint show to play in the background.
The church choir stood to sing while the Hanson family filed in. Gauging by the average age of the choir members, it occurred to Jeff that the church was going to doing a big business in funerals for the next few years. Then he reminded himself to focus on Ed.
At the front of the church, Dale set the urn gently on the table where Donna had already arranged a few photos of Ed and some sheaves of wheat from this year’s harvest.
The family took their seats in the two front pews while the congregation watched. Helen tried not to cry. Elaine tried to keep Connor and Jenny from turning around to wave at their cousins in the back. “You can talk to them later,” she whispered.
Jeff was shaking. His mother took his hand. “You’ll be fine,” she said.
He went over the speech in his head, imagining how many ways it could go wrong. He considered picturing the audience naked to overcome his fear, then took another look at the choir and changed his mind. Suddenly Elaine was elbowing him in the ribs. “It’s your cue!” she whispered.
The crowd was waiting. Jeff pulled the crumpled papers out of his jacket pocket and made his way to the lectern.
Almost as one, the Hanson family took in a deep breath and held it. “I hope he can do this,” Dale thought. Donna closed her eyes. Elaine snuck one hand under her leg where she crossed her fingers, out of sight.
The view from the front made Jeff’s head spin. He was still sweating. He gulped in some air. And then began.