An Irish Wake
An excerpt from the memoir Dying Well: Our Journey of Love and Loss
By Susan Ducharme Hoben
It was a beautiful April day in Connecticut, sunny and 75 degrees. The forsythias and daffodils were in full bloom. I jumped the gun on summer, breaking out a long black and gold spaghetti strap sundress and my chunky black and gold jewelry, but keeping a black shawl draped over my arms just in case. Bruce wore what seemed to be his new daily uniform, his New York City ball cap, a long-sleeved thermal tee under a heavy, long-sleeved navy shirt, and faded jeans held up by the same worn belt, cinched a little tighter. It was unusual for him to be more warmly dressed than me, but I remembered the constant bone chilling cold I felt during my bout with cancer.
The food was easy: a potluck with everyone contributing their specialty. I put beverages on the kitchen counter and arranged the casseroles and platters on the center island. Some ate inside, and some ate outside. Bruce and I had brought the table and six chairs from the screened porch to the deck, so our guests could be warmed by the spring sun. A bouquet of daffodils graced the table. An oval pot of purple and white pansies cheered those who sat at the nearby patio table. After dessert and coffee, and refilling our wine glasses, we gathered the chairs in a circle and began reminiscing. The nieces and nephews spoke fondly of crazy Uncle Brucie, Aimée perfectly capturing a young child’s view of his joie de vivre.
“Brucie made everything fun when we were kids—even driving to the grocery store. He had an ongoing game where he would coast his car down East Hill with the goal being to get up enough speed to make it through the flat spot and up the next rise, which as you know is followed by another downhill stretch. It was our very own roller coaster, and endlessly exciting as we all knocked around in the back of the VW bug.”
Bruce’s siblings had much edgier tales to tell.
“Remember when Richard flunked out of college and lived on the third floor for three months before Dad discovered him?” Marion asked in mock disbelief.
All the siblings gently nodded and chuckled.
“Remember Nanny Murphy?” Sandra quizzed her siblings. Their great-grandmother, who had a fondness for whiskey and snuff, had lived with them. “I remember one morning when someone must have left a bottle of whiskey on the kitchen counter. We came down for breakfast and she was sitting in a kitchen chair ten sheets to the wind. We carried her to her room in the chair and put her to bed.”
“I often served as her dealer,” Bruce confessed, “taking her fifteen cents and purchasing a tin of Red Top Snuff at the drug store.”
We briefly paused as Beth’s daughter, Serena, playing Pied Piper to the younger children, ran onto the deck then circled back out to the lawn, blowing iridescent bubbles that were lifted high by spring breezes.
“I remember when you banged my head against a window pane and shattered the glass,” his sister Barbara scowled, shaking an accusing finger.
“I was imitating a scene from a western movie where the bad guy bangs the good guy’s head against the wall,” Bruce defended himself.
“Lucky for you, nobody got hurt,” Barbara shot back with her sly dare you attitude.
Jane smiled in amusement at these tales while Aimée listened with false shock, mouth agape.
“I remember the Breach of Peace charge brought against me and Boncal.” In Bruce’s teenage years, he had turned to cars, girls, and beer, and Billy Boncal was the coconspirator in many of his exploits. “Officer whatever-his-name-was was driving a Studebaker Lark. The Studebaker was a dog and we would almost let it catch up with us and then stomp on the gas. I was driving Dad’s 1957 Ford Fairlane 500. It was a V8 with a four-barrel carburetor—the car flew! But the cops outsmarted us. They waited at Boncal’s house for me to drop him off and nailed us. Mother had to come to court with me to pay a ten-dollar fine. She was mortified.”
There was a theme to the stories: falling off roofs, crashing cars, evading police. Goings on at the Hoben House, or “56 Rockwell Avenue,” as Bruce and his siblings referred to it, were always on the edge of chaos. It’s a wonder they all survived.
Along with the tales of bad judgment and mischief, there were also warm remembrances of gathering around the radio to listen to Saturday morning serials, Bruce riding the bus to Waterbury with Marion and her friends, laughing so hard his stomach and jaw hurt, rescuing a very young Sandra from an angry nest of yellow jackets by scooping her up and running to safety.
Bruce’s sister Marion then brought us back to where it all began in 1941.
“I remember when Mother brought you home from the hospital. You were so tiny.”
I looked from Marion to Bruce, knowing what was coming next.
“I was sooo tiny that I came home in a Kleenex box,” Bruce interjected, mischief in his smile and eyes.
“No, you didn’t,” his brother John wryly corrected for the umpteenth time. “It was Snoopy who was brought home in a Kleenex box.”
Snoopy was the family dog.
Barbara dismissed everyone. “I don’t remember anything about Kleenex boxes, only that Bruce was really premature.”
“He wasn’t premature,” Sandra piped in. “He was a blue baby.”
By now everyone was laughing. This story had been told, including the corrections, for as many years as I’d known Bruce, but the urban legend of Bruce and the Kleenex box endured. All the sibling remembrances were murky and/or partially disputed, a kernel of truth in all of them but needing to be consumed with a shaker full of salt. What was important was that the experience of telling and hearing stories, conjuring up a time and place and stirring up thoughts and emotions, preserved a strong family narrative and testified to their lifelong bonds.
Before the sun faded and the party ended, we took group photos in front of the tall graceful hedge of golden yellow forsythia. Aimée’s husband Mike, our photographer for the day, took separate group pictures of the eight of us in Bruce’s generation, Bruce with his four siblings, the thirteen nieces and nephews of the next generation, and the nineteen members of the next two generations. The last pictures were of just Bruce and me.
Before Bruce’s Aunt Rosemary had moved from her big house with its expansive lawns, she used to hold large family reunions. I enjoyed looking back at the candid shots, but it was the group photos that had the most lasting impact, positioning us in the continuum of time and ancestry, and creating a lasting record for future generations. On this afternoon we had contributed to the family historical record. I envisioned our children and grandchildren, and their children, looking at these photos after we’d gone and hearing stories about us that have been handed down over generations. I had never been more aware of being part of a large family that will continue to extend across time and distance and cultures.
As people were saying goodbye, I was struck by how similar this party had been to what I imagined as an Irish wake. The glorious sendoff of a departed loved one. Laughter and tears as people recalled stories about the deceased. Food and drink flowing freely. A life remembered and treasured. Following our philosophy of celebrating life, we had created our own Irish wake with a new spin. We weren’t grieving Bruce’s death but the impending loss of his presence in our lives, and our “guest of honor” was still alive to hear the stories and feel the love that would remain fresh in his heart and mind over the next weeks, and would stay with us, his survivors, for the rest of our lives. How fortunate for him—and for us.
Before going to bed that night, I looked through the photos from the afternoon, stopping at the one of Bruce and me. I wasn’t sure if the clouds had suddenly cleared away or the close-up shot framed us with vibrant yellow forsythia, or maybe it was our radiant love, but our photo was much brighter than the others.
Susan Ducharme Hoben is the author of the memoir Dying Well: Our Journey of Love and Loss. For more information, visit www.SusanDucharmeHoben.comand connect with her on Facebook, SusanDucharmeHobenAuthor.