It was just an engagement party.
We called the event at our Queens apartment last August 12th an engagement party for my brother and his new fiancé. My brother, his fiancé, my mom and my dad (Pops) and I invited every friend in the tri-state area for a fun afternoon of catching up and celebrating.
But we didn’t come together just to celebrate my brother’s engagement. Everybody except my cousin’s toddlers knew why we got together on that hot afternoon. Two weeks later, we repeated the event, but this time without one of the guests.
We all needed to say goodbye to Pops before he passed away from brain cancer.
Pops didn’t want to draw attention to himself and the illness that had taken over his quick-witted, Jesuit-trained mind, though. So it was just an engagement party. He never wanted people to give him the luxury treatment. He hated that I had to drive him to work at his Brooklyn newspaper through 50 minutes of bumper-crunching BQE traffic whenever he wanted to go to work, and he always tried to get off of the couch by himself before extending his pudgy fingers to whoever was standing nearest.
So we called it an engagement party.
A bewildering series of events converged to make this engagement party possible. My brother and his fiancé somehow got an extra two weeks off from their non-stop theater jobs in San Francisco, allowing them to come home that weekend. My job at Loyola New Orleans delayed its orientation retreat until August 14th, a few weeks later than normal. Everyone we knew from miles around happened to have the day free—my friends were leaving the next day for study abroad trips, and Pops’ singing friends had the rare day off from a barbershop performance. Most importantly, Pops could still recognize and talk to all of his loved ones.
Everyone who piled into our cramped living room played along with the engagement party idea. My family hadn’t told anybody explicitly that Pops was going to be gone soon—hell, none of us had really come to terms with it yet ourselves, regardless of what the doctor had said. But everyone just sort of knew.
The day must have looked like a normal family gathering to an outsider, complete with an awkward toast by the groom’s brother and the barely-concealed antagonism that sits in the room whenever a large group of family members get together. But there was one big thing that set this engagement party apart from a normal one.
Somebody was sitting with Pops on the couch all afternoon. He still had enough in his brain to talk barbershop arrangements with his quartet friends, to make fun of my best friend for drunkenly falling into a door frame last year, and to hoot and holler when my friend took all of his chips in poker. He even stayed awake until nearly all the guests left, which he hadn’t done in weeks. He was happy all day long.
As I went back to New Orleans the next day, I became uneasy about how we—everyone—acted at the engagement party. Shouldn’t we all have been telling Pops how much we loved him and will miss him? Why was everyone laughing and playing poker when we knew that the life of the party wasn’t going to have life in a few weeks?
On August 29th, Pops passed away peacefully, seconds after the priest administered the Last Rites. As I flew home to JFK–on the same flight as Anderson Cooper, who was down in New Orleans to cover the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—the tears ruined the yellow legal pad I was jotting Student Government notes on.
The engagement party made sense.
I understood now. Now was the time to cry and say how much we’ll miss him. Now was the time to weep—not when he was sitting on the couch smiling, but instead when mom and I were walking down the church aisle to “Amazing Grace.”
And yes, we wept. A lot. And then we wept some more. And I still weep.
I’ve figured out that my family was given a better engagement present than any couple ever gets. Most families never get the chance to say goodbye to loved ones. Down here in New Orleans, no one got to say goodbye to the hundreds of fathers, brothers, and grandmothers lost on the last August 29th, when the levees broke.
My family and friends took full advantage of the chance to say goodbye to Pops. Sure, none of us except the priest at Calvary Hospital ever explicitly wished him well wherever he is right now. But we said goodbye with some delicious six-foot long sandwiches and all-ins over old-fashioned long stories, laughter at the randomness of life, and much-longer than usual hugs. And for a guy who loved his friends and families more than anything, I think it was the best goodbye possible.
Pops wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I think it was a little more than just an engagement party, after all.
—Bob Payne is the Student Government Association Vice President at the University of Loyola New Orleans. Last fall, after Hurricane Katrina, he was a visiting student at Harvard College and became a Crimson editor.