A friend is a second self. –Aristotle
Planning a funeral is a lot like planning a wedding, only on three days’ notice. For Dad’s funeral, I needed a church, a priest, lectors, altar boys. Instead of groomsmen, I needed pallbearers.
I needed something to wear. I needed something for Dad to wear. I needed four thousand tissues and a metric ton of makeup.
When I took Dad’s best suit to the funeral home, I forgot to include a rosary to be placed in his hand. I intended to bring one to the wake service, but in the sad chaos of it all, it slipped my mind then, too. It was a small detail — nothing more than a symbol, really — but praying the rosary was an important part of both my parents’ lives. Burying each of them with one was meaningful.
Thankfully, I remembered to bring it to the church on the day of the funeral. Among the unending details, I somehow managed to find five minutes that would allow me this indulgence, this one moment of closure. The funeral director wasn’t anywhere nearby; he was busy handling bigger pieces of our somber ritual. I could try tracking him down (and surely be diverted in the process), or I could figure it out myself and know with certainty that it was done.
In our thirty five years together, Dad and I shared a lot of moments in that little church. During Mass, he would always offer me his hand, and I would always take it – a silent gesture of affection that we’d share during the Bible readings and through the homily.
Looking down at our clasped hands in those moments, it was almost comical how different they were. Mine are pale with a highway system of bluish green veins just beneath the skin. Dad’s hands matched his dark complexion and were rough from a life spent working on tractors and cars. My fingers are long and slender; his, thick and compact – like the jaws of a vise. A gentle vise. A gentle vise that liked to be held and examined.
I don’t know how many Masses we attended together, holding hands, but that was our routine. Our little routine in this little church.
I was in robot mode when I walked over to place the rosary with Dad, more focused on all the remaining things to be done than on what I was actually doing. I was looking at his hands, trying to decide how to place the rosary, and then… I saw his hands. I snapped to the moment, and I really saw them. They were handsome, bordered by the cuffs of his suit jacket, those calloused hands I had held so many Sundays.
His hands. Tears stung my eyelids; I thought my knees might buckle.
I tucked the rosary in as best I could, threading the beads through his palm and letting the crucifix lay gently across his knuckles. I hovered, staring, overanalyzing. My fierce intent on it looking natural was ironic, given how entirely unnatural it all was.
Suddenly, Aunt Denise was standing next to me, saying that it looked perfect, just perfect. I felt reassured.
My work was done, but I wasn’t ready to leave him. I reached out and touched his hand again. It was ice cold — much colder than I had expected — but I didn’t care. It was still his. I examined it for the last time. His calluses were still there, his skin still weathered and tough. His hands.
I felt feminine, nurturing: a woman looking after her father. I was holding his hand, as though comforting him, while acutely aware that he wasn’t actually there. I was nurturing the shell of a man that I had known well and loved deeply.
I could have stood there for hours, but it was nearly time for the funeral to begin. The priest and the family were waiting. I took a deep breath, turned — and literally walked into my friend Meredith. She’d been with me when I thought I was all alone.
I looked up to explain, but her soft eyes told me she understood. She wrapped her arms around me and I lost my composure for a brief moment. She held me close.
We both knew it would be the last time I would see my father.
When the ceremony was over, our family shuffled out of the church behind the priest, ahead of everyone else. We were suddenly standing in the sunshine; a beautiful day.
I felt a little lost, unsure of what to do next.
I turned and saw my friend Lisa standing in the church yard, holding her infant son. She must have stepped outside to change him, or shoosh him, not realizing that she was planting herself exactly where I would need her a few moments later.
Her eyes were big, brimming with tears. I can’t imagine, her eyes told me, silently. But when I try, my heart aches and the tears come and I just really hurt for you.
I went to her and she pulled me in tight, her strong embrace having plenty of room for both me and her sweet boy. She touched my hair.
It was invigorating to be loved like that, in that moment. The rest of the day, including the burial, stretched out before me, and I was more than willing to borrow her strength.
I can recount a dozen more stories of how my friends rallied around me when Dad died.
How Leah instantly grasped the grief I was too shocked to yet feel.
How Jamie inspired me to somehow find paradise in the midst of my sorrow.
How Shana talked with me about things that only daughters who have lost their fathers too soon can really understand.
In the opening lines of her poem Solitude, Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, “laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.” I love that piece for its harrowing insights about grief, but bless her heart, Ella must not have had friends like mine.
I weep, but I do not weep alone.
My second selves weep with me.
By Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.
Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.
I learned from my mother about the importance of having deep, meaningful friendships. All her life, she maintained a wide and varied circle of people that she loved, and they loved her right back.
There’s a story about Mom and a lemon cake she encountered while on an outing with a group of girlfriends. She and her friends raved over that cake, and she vowed to replicate it when she got home, which she did.
Linda, one of the friends that was there that day, contributed the recipe for the lemon cake to our church’s 100th anniversary cookbook, in Mom’s honor. She called it “Girlfriend’s Lemon Icebox Cake,” which makes me smile every time I see it.
I was inspired by this story of friendship to make mom’s icebox cake, but it calls for lemon cake mix and lemon instant pudding, which I didn’t have on hand. What I did have on hand was a raft of Meyer lemons from my neighbors Joe and Janet — so I made these cupcakes instead.
Triple Lemon Cupcakes
(Adapted from Peace Meals, a gorgeous cookbook published in 2008 by the Junior League of Houston, a copy of which was given to me by my good friend, Jamie)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 eggs, room temperature
16 ounces sour cream, room temperature
2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon zest
5 egg yolks
1 cup sugar (if you’re using Meyers, taste them — if they’re sweet, you may want to cut the sugar back to 3/4 cup)
4 lemons, zested and juiced
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into pats and chilled
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Coffee Mate powdered creamer (it cuts the sweetness!)
3 teaspoons milk
1/4 cup Lemon Curd
For the cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 standard muffin cups with paper baking liners (I prefer Reynolds brand double layered liners, foil with paper inside). In a medium bowl, whisk or sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium high speed until creamy, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the sugar; beat on high speed until lightened in color and texture, at least 2 minutes and up to 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and then the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the sour cream in two parts, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined, creating a thick batter. Stir in the lemon zest. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the batter into each prepared cup. Bake about 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely.
For the lemon curd:
Combine the egg yolks, sugar, and lemon zest in a medium stainless steel or enamel saucepan. Whisk until smooth lightened in color, about 1 minute. Measure the lemon juice and, if needed, add enough cold water to reach 1/3 cup. Add the juice to the egg mixture and whisk again until smooth. Add the pats of butter, then cook over medium heat, whisking, until the butter is melted. Continue to whisk constantly until the mixture is thickened, allowing it to simmer gently for a few seconds. Scrape the curd into a clean bowl. Let cool, then cover with layer of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. (It will continue to thicken when refrigerated.)
For the frosting:
Cream the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add the powdered sugar and powdered creamer, then add the milk and blend until smooth. Add the Lemon Curd and mix until well blended.
Scoop out the center of each cupcake using a melon baller, spoon, 1-inch biscuit cutter, or whatever tool you have on hand that will do the trick. Fill each cupcake center with the Lemon Curd. Top each cupcake with frosting, either piping through a bag (you can use a regular old zip-top bag with one of the corners snipped off) or with a butter knife.
Note: You might be wondering what to do with 24 little scraps of cake. I had plans to make a parfait from mine, but my husband and my kiddo swiped them before I had a chance. I imagine you won’t have a problem disposing of yours, either…