We buried my brother Chuck on Sunday, August 25th, 2013. These are some thoughts written by my brother Mike.
Every so often in one’s life, something occurs which goes beyond “memorable” to being “unforgettable.” It causes you to think deeply. It changes the way you look at life. I have been reporting the past few days about our gathering to lay the ashes of my oldest brother Chuck to rest.
It began with a request from Chuck’s step-son Wade back in February, and we begin making plans for a long-delayed memorial service and final disposition of Chuck’s ashes. During Spring and Summer, we set a date, started making transportation and housing arrangements, and began to sketch out plans for both the memorial service and reunion weekend.
There was a period – from the time my Mom first became ill with terminal cancer back in 1994 until the time that my widowed Dad died in 2002 – when we Vrtis siblings would gather quite often. It has ALWAYS been rare for ALL seven siblings to able to get together at the same time. The age difference between the oldest (Chuck) and the youngest (Ray) was too great – 20 years. And our jobs, commitments, and locations were too diverse. But Mom and Dad gave us both the wings of confidence to fly in our own directions, and the roots to return to deep, loving and supportive family tradition.
So, whenever we have gathered – whether in small groups of 2 or 3 siblings, or in large groups of 5 or 6, we gather knowing that the memories shared will bring laughter, and the activities shared will create more fun memories. Our sibling gatherings always seem to create tales to be retold in years ahead.
Two things made this gathering even more “epic” then usual.
One difference was that it was so rare that all seven of us gathered – perhaps only four times in the last four decades. And this was the first time in a dozen years – since Dad died.
The second, even more poignant, difference was that is was the first time we all gathered to honor a DECEASED sibling. Chuck had died almost four years earlier, having spent a handful of his final years in never-explained, self-imposed, near-total isolation from any family contact. It was only in the final four months of his life that we were able to re-establish any contact with our “long-lost” brother.
In addition, we included plans to honor our cousin, Al Veras (“Butch”), who shared a similar “lovable, kind-hearted, black sheep” personality with Chuck. Whereas Chuck was the oldest our family, Butch was the youngest of his family. Though a cousin, Butch had especially close ties to our family due to circumstances in his infancy.
So this past weekend already had the promise of being exceptionally important.
How we honored Chuck’s memory would lay the foundation on how we as siblings will deal with death in the future.
And death will surely come.
Friday and Saturday was typically crowded with a variety of activities. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll copy the report I gave on Sunday morning:
“So far this weekend, together or separately – in small groups and large:
We have gathered for pizza while pouring over piles of old family photos;
We have cooked up a breakfast that would rival any TV reality chef show – three brothers and assorted others whipping up waffles and scrambled eggs and fresh fruit and sautéed veggies and toasted English muffins and home-made strawberry jelly and simmering sausage links — all the while simultaneously playing “Musical Outlets” as we tried to find the right combination of electrical Appliances without blowing the limited number of fuses;
We have slowly trickled in from various parts of the country – the world, even — by car and by plane, to four different airports and by a dozen different routes;
We have launched – and almost sunk – a flotilla of canoes down the river, avoiding snakes and squeezing over and under and through branches, and soaking each other to the skin; We have blasted the USS CONSTITUTION and a half-dozen 45s (including one by Paul Revere and the Raiders) under a fierce fusillade of bb’s;
We have used a small Weber charcoal grill to feed a multitude of mouths with juicy burgers and dogs;
We have blasted off bottle rockets and blown off firecrackers;
We have pointed foam rubber guns at each other in an effort to get the greatest amount of loot (Huggy didn’t do too good, sorry Tom);
We have toured wineries, and stuffed ourselves with Ice Cream from Sherman’s;
We have watched the sun go low over the light house in South Haven and off our pier at the lake;
We’ve even managed to do some much-needed work on the cottage – burning a big stack of branches; hauling bricks by hand to build a fire pit by the lake; shoveling sand to even out a walk-way; chopping out an old stump and putting in a railing to keep us from falling off the entrance ramp and rolling down the hillside.
We began Sunday with almost two dozen gathering for 8:30 mass at St. Joseph Church in Watervliet. It was the same parish that we would attend every Summer Sunday since the 40’s. They moved to a newer bigger church building in the 60’s, and recently remodeled, but the faith community is essentially the same – even down to the routine of welcoming the summer visitors as the Mass begins.
I personally always find it much more beneficial to pray in groups, and speaking for myself, attending services with family and friends is far more meaningful then attending by myself.
Although we did not succeed in having Chuck and Al mentioned in the mass intentions, I think we all felt joined together in prayer.
I focused on what Mom taught me were the “community ” moments of service – the Confiteor (“….I ask the Blessed Virgin Mary, all the saints and angels, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me.”); the Preface (“…. And so we join all the saints and angels in this hymn of praise”); the Eucharistic Prayer (“we remember our departed brothers and sisters and all those who have fallen asleep in hopes of rising again”), and of course, joining hands with each other during the Our Father and exchanging “Vrtis greetings” during the Handshake of Peace. (That’s a tradition started back in the 60’s when my Dad starting greeting his children with “Merry Uni-oofs” instead of “Peace be With You” one Christmas morning shortly after a funny Dick Van Dyke episode aired that featured a toy flying saucer that couldn’t say “Merry Christmas” properly. Ever since then – almost 50 years now, that is how we family members share “Peace” during Mass – Merry Uni-Oofs! And it always brings grins.
After Mass, an even bigger group gathered at Charlie & Linda’s home on “The Neck” of Paw Paw Lake. I call it a three story beach house. They designed and built it themselves, and it is a model of Lakeside Ambience. It’s focus is on “Hospitality” rather than pretentiousness, and maximizes the enjoyment of the lake – sunshine, warmth, memorable vistas on many levels, and easy access.
Charlie and Linda are themselves models of true hospitality. They welcome family and friends with warmth and with concern for their guest’s comfort. In our case, Jeremy slept in one bedroom, Jenny & Andy & Avi in another; Bob & Vicki in a third; Nick & Mel in a fourth; and Terry & I and Sasha in a fourth, which also served for Terry’s 4x a day dialysis exchanges.
After Mass, they hosted a brunch for almost 35. Not only friends and relatives, but the “strangers” that we bring along – new family members joining us for the first time.
After a filling and delicious breakfast, we gathered on their long series of patio steps for a group shot.
At Jeremy’s suggestion, another magical moment occurred. While setting up chairs for a group shot, he noticed that just SEVEN chairs would fit along wide center step – ONE FOR EACH SIBLING. So we decided to sit the siblings in Birth Order, leaving Charles seat vacant, with our own family groups surrounding in front and behind each sibling as they were able to attend.
It was an inspired photo moment.
After the group photo, we got in our cars and staged our own unofficial funeral procession along the lake road and down past the cottage and onward to Charlie’s farm. This was another surprising impromptu touch that was pulled off with dignity as we slowly drove down the narrow road that passes the cottage and all reflected on our ties to that site.
The actual burial was a powerful event that would rival any scripted and staged funeral. It had elements of humor and pathos and dignity and pure primal symbolism.
The burial site we chose was back on what had been my Uncle Louie’s Farm. It was a location that my older brothers and our cousin Charlie, and their friends Rich and Ed Schouten, often used for cookouts and camping and fireworks and firearms (bb guns) during their teen years. Charlie told of a story of setting a bunch of 22 caliber bullets on the blade of a shovel and then shooting at them with BB guns – occasionally successfully getting the bullets to fire off uncontrolled and unguided. Rich told of pushing a sleeping “somebody” over the edge of a sand dune, and watching the surprised victim do log rolls down the steep face of the dune.
When we arrived at the Farm, Charlie dismounted his bright yellow pick-up to unlock the metal gate blocking the muddy road into the farm, only to discover that he could not unlock the gate!!! After several unsuccessful attempts, he returned to his truck and dug out a different set of keys and found one that worked.
He had warned us that we would probably have to walk about a half mile back to the actual burial site. What he neglected to mention was that the narrow rutted road was overgrown with two seasons worth of vines and poison ivy and rose bramble trailers.
We were able to drive far enough along the track to get all twelve cars off the county road and onto the farm, but at that point Charlie realized that only his 4-wheel drive would be able to traverse any further – deep puddles and uneven soft dirt made it unwise for any other cars to try to go any further.
So everyone had to dismount and hoof it – including the women who had just gone to church bare legged and sandal shod.
At this point someone commented that if Chuck WERE with us, he would have told us, “Ya’ll leave the beer and go on ahead. I’ll stay here.”
But we did go on – some carrying the cooler of beer, others carrying the smaller kids, others helping each other. All the while trying to avoid the vines that caught our feet, the poison ivy that encroached on either side, the thorns that scratched our ankles and the puddles that threatened an embarrassing fall.
On we trudged.
A thousand yards.
About a half-mile.
A cooler of beer.
A box full of memorial Solar powered “daisies” that waved back and forth under the clear blue skies.
All following the urn containing Chuck’s ashes, carried by his stepson Wade.
Following the track where the tires on Charlie’s pick-up had mercifully flattened the undergrowth somewhat.
Eventually the road widened and headed uphill to a wide and open meadow at the top of a flattened sand dune.
Chuck’s final resting spot.
Charlie and Wade chose a spot on the edge of the sand dune. The logical reasoning was that if we buried him in the middle of the meadow, someone might dig him up while using the meadow for building or as an easy source of sand fill.
So the two of them cleared out a small opening in the midst of young undergrowth and started digging, using a long-handled “Smokey the Bear” shovel someone reminded Charlie to bring along just before we had departed his house.
After Wade and Charlie had started the hole, Wade’s wife Margo asked if she could take a turn. Then she invited all the siblings to take a turn. And then our friend Rich, and our cousin Joe Veras, and so on, until anyone who wanted to had the opportunity to take a shovelful of the sandy soil out of Chuck’s burial hole.
The soil was ideal for the occasion – compact and damp enough to hold the cylindrical shape, yet light and soft enough to be shoveled with relative ease.
Finally, we had a hole about two feet in diameter and three feet deep, plenty adequate for our purposes.
While the digging was going on, the men in the burial group started clearing out a larger circle by breaking down the undergrowth, until, by the time the hole was completed, we could all gather in a circle around the urn before the hole.
I spoke for a couple minutes, commenting on how the cottage had been a constant – drawing in an uncountable number of family and friends for over a half-century. Then I tried to list those that who had enjoyed the cottage who had already passed on – grandparents, parents, cousins, spouses, friends. And how they still formed a Circle of Friends with us.
Then we joined hands and spent a few minutes in silence, remembering those who weren’t able to be present – living and dead. Family and Friends who we hold dear.
We followed this by saying our family prayer:
“Oh Heart of Love, we entrust our home to Thy unending care.
May it be like Nazareth – a house if peace and prayer.
Bless the joys and bless the tears, that consecrate each day.
Bless all those beneath our roof, and those who are away.
Bless the young, and bless the old, wherever they may be.
And when the hour of death shall come, draw us all close to Thee.
We followed that with a rousing chorus of our Dutch celebration song – “Laung Sous A Laven” – “Long may you live in glory” – which ends with a triple -Hip Hip Hooray!” Complete with a fist pump. (Did anyone explain THAT song to Margo and Wade?)
After that, I put a two dollar bill in the bottom of the grave, and Wade lowered the urn. (Previously we had remembered to include a note card identifying the contents of the urn as “Charles Vrtis, Sept. 23, 1944 – Dec. 17, 2009”)
Then Wade took a shovel of sand and dropped it onto the urn, followed by Margo,
Jeremy turned on his iPhone to play songs he had recorded – “‘Tis a Gift to be Simple” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and the version of “Amazing Grace” from the movie Maverick.
And one by one, the rest of us filled the grave.
Each one taking a shovelful or a handful, and dropping it in.
As we moved along, we grabbed a bottle of beer or some other refreshment.
While we waited for the final soil to be replaced, we passed our the sunny plastic solar powered daisies – with the words “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Written in magic marker around the base.
After Charlie and Wade completed the filling, and tamped it down firm and even, we gathered in a big circle in the sunshine in the open meadow, and am raised our beers (or other bevereges in Red Solo cups in another rousing toast – first to Butch:
“Hip Hip HOORAY!
Hip Hip HOORAY!
Hip Hip HOORAY!”
And, following a long cold gulp of beer, we repeated it again for Chuck:
“Hip Hip HOORAY!
Hip Hip HOORAY!
Hip Hip HOORAY!”
followed by another long swig.
Then we took turns around the Circle, each one having an opportunity to speak some words or pass in thoughtful silence.
Jeremy spoke of having enjoyed watching Chuck and his siblings interact with our own Uncles and Aunts – who we indeed idolized, and feeling privileged to have the same opportunity himself with Chuck and his siblings and in-laws.
Joy commented movingly that she felt especially close to both Chuck and Butch in that they were both the “black-sheep” of the family and she too, often felt like a black-sheep. And she found it reassuring that even though they were black-sheep, the family loved them unconditionally, as witnessed at that memorial gathering.
Charlie spoke of the Circle of those living and dead, and Rich spoke of the value of family and friendship that our gathering showed. And Nick expressed thanks to all those whose work helped make the gathering possible.
Then, in true Vrtis fashion, we fell into a pattern of light-hearted ribbing and mutual self-depreciation.
Mel kidded about Chuck and Butch appearing to me in a dream on a meadow-topped sand dune and telling me “If you plan it, they will come.”
Jeremy observed – accurately – that this was exactly the type of burial that I would want. (Indeed, my initial reaction was “ME NEXT! ME NEXT!!!) we kidded Bob about burying his ashes in his beloved Washington National’s Ball Park, “Not under home plate,” he protested. “Put me in coach. I want to play Centerfield.” Nick added that there would be a slight dip to trip up opposing outfielders, and I corrected that it would most likely be a resulting bump instead of a dip!”
And on and on it went for another dozen minutes. Meanwhile some “mourners” drained their beers and others walked back to the grave to pour out their last few ounces of beer onto the bright yellow sand that showed where Chuck’s earthly remains now rested.
Slowly we made our way back down the track to our cars. This time Charlie lowered his pick-up’s tailgate and rolled back the tarp cover to allow Mary Celine to have her first tailgate ride- along with a half-dozen others.
I watched as the procession started down hill, I returned to the gravesite, and planted my bottle of Miller Lite upside down into the soft sand.
I wish I had thought to wear my hat.
I would have liked to tip it.
Somehow, the walk back from the grave was much easier then the walk to the burial site.
Maybe it was that Charlie’s tire tracks had flattened the growth even more.
Or maybe it was just that our hearts were so much more lighter.
Following in procession up a difficult road.
Each helping dig a grave for a father, a brother, a friend.
And each taking the soil and covering the ashes – deep and final.
We left confident that death will not leave us forgotten.
We were sure of each other’s love.
Even after death.
Was this burial unique?
Will it be repeated?
God only knows.
It was a blessing to have participated once.