Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Guest Blog: An Act of Kindness in a Dark Time

 Right before I moved, one of my friends approached me with this guest blog for Just Jules. I love sharing stories that are important to my friends especially stories of difficulties overcome. This friend wishes to remain anonymous but wanted to share a story about a difficult time in their life. It is a story that I think most of us can relate to in some way. I can relate to losing beloved grandparents close together and experiencing an "annus horribilis'' This friend needed to get it out and let it go, I think we all can understand that. Here is their story:

 The year 2011 was the worst of year of my life and that’s saying something because I’ve had some pretty bad years. There was lots of death (three of my pets and both of my remaining Grandparents), some people who I thought were good friends turned out to be not such good friends, the renter (also a friend who I trusted completely) of my house in a different state moved out after trashing the house and stealing everything he could from it, everybody’s hours were cut at work (that’s significant when you’re single and have one of those careers that does little more than allow you to pay the basic bills every month).

  I had to have my house exterminated for termites, police were called (on me), lawyers were consulted,  and it seems that just about everything that could break, did breakàmy furnace, my tv, my bike, my lawn mower, my weed wacker, my car (multiple times), my kitchen sink……so pretty much everything INCLUDING the kitchen sink.

The repercussions, ripple effects, and stress of all that happened in 2011 (the above and more) lasted long into 2012, and the anniversaries of the major events (most of which happened towards the end of 2011) hit me a lot harder than expected. As a result, I begin 2013 struggling to move forward and to find some meaning and/or good in anything. There was so much badness that I tend to forget there were some positive things that also happened in 2011, and I’ve recently begun wondering (not for the first time) why the negative always seems to outweigh the positive?   why do we put more emphasis on the negative rather than the positive?

  Some of the positives were small, like how my mom and step-father bought a new tv and gave me their old one during the time my hours were cut and it was out of the question for me to buy one myself (first world problem, I know—I don’t have cable/satellite, but do use the tv to watch movies while riding my bike on my indoor trainer, one of the few things that allows me to keep my sanity during the frigid winter months), but there were two big positives that occurred in the midst of all the negatives. Both of these were a surprise, and both have allowed me to not totally give up on people in general. One involved my sister-in-law, who I did not know well before 2011 but who I would now take a bullet for, and the other involved my Grandparents’ funeral director, Mr. Kulik, who I had never met before my Grandmother died in October 2011.

 It’s Mr. Kulik’s act of kindness towards me, a stranger that I’d like to share:

A little background: My paternal Grandparents were 87 years old, married for 65 years, died within 6 weeks of each other, and had pre-arranged a joint funeral. My Grandfather had two passions in life: his family and the Navy (he was an extremely proud WWII and Korean War veteran). He and my Grandmother had one child, I will call him T, who is my father by biology only. My parents divorced when I was two, and, along with always being behind in child support payments, T showed little interest in both his children, especially me, from the divorce on. I attempted throughout my teenage years and early twenties to establish a father/daughter relationship with him until I realized how futile it was, as he was interested only in himself.

  He popped up again in my mid-thirties when my brother lived with him and his third wife for a few years. I had come to realize that T fit the description of a narcissist to near perfection, but I really liked his third wife and thought that maybe he would change a bit with her guidance. If anything, he got worse and also became an alcoholic, and his third wife divorced him after becoming afraid of him.

 At that point I wrote him out of my life completely as he would never admit he had any faults whatsoever, he honestly believes the world and everyone in it owes him everything. This is someone who has rarely ever held a job, preferring instead to live off whatever woman he had fooled until that woman was fooled no more, someone who spent years at a time not speaking to his parents because they “wronged him” in some way, and someone who thinks that his only responsibility in life is to sit back and reap the benefits of what others sow.

At the end of 2009 I moved home, after living out of state for 5 years, to take care of my aging Grandparents. T hadn’t been speaking to them for a few years and my brother could only do so much. When my Grandmother was diagnosed with COPD after spending a few weeks in the hospital on a ventilator, T came back into the picture, not out of concern and willingness to help, but as a shark circling in bloody waters, knowing that his inheritance now wasn’t far away. He appeared at their house occasionally and would berate them if they asked him to do anything for them. More often than not he would not show up when my Grandparents called him for help.

 He more than once stormed out of my Grandmother’s hospital room in a huff during the last few months of her life, once leaving his soon-to-be fourth wife stranded there. His last words to his father, who at the time was laying in a hospital bed in the ER, were “Don’t ever call me again!”, to which my Grandfather replied, “I didn’t call you this time!”. My Grandfather passed away eight hours later. And when he was called by the hospital when my Grandfather died because their computers were down and they couldn’t access my phone number (I was his power of attorney and contact person), Tim flat-out refused to give them my number and told them that no one would be in to view the body.

 I am being very polite when I say that I strongly, STRONGLY dislike him.

 My Grandfather died on a Sunday morning; the very next day he had an appointment set up with his attorney to change his will and make me the executor, instead of T. My brother and I spent the week going back and forth with Mr. Kulik, because even though the funeral was pre-arranged, there were still some details to be sorted out that we wanted and deserved to take part in. Mr. Kulik was also separately in touch with T throughout the week, since he was executor and had the final say in the arrangements.

I felt bad about the awkward situation, but figured we were just another of many messed up families to come through his doors.  I never spoke to him about it, but Mr. Kulik obviously knew something was amiss, as I was the one who identified my Grandfather’s body (because T refused to do it), I was the one who informed Mr. Kulik that my Grandparents already had a headstone (after T told him to just go ahead and order the free military headstone), and since T refused to allow my brother’s and my names to be put in the obituary (we were to be listed, per T, as “two grandchildren” under “survived by”). 

At some point before the funeral, my brother and I realized that T, as next-of-kin, was to be the one who received the military flag. This upset both of us deeply and I know it would have upset  my Grandfather, who was completely fed up with his only child by the end of his life. After many phone calls and some research, I determined that a second flag was allowed to be presented at the funeral as long as it was purchased by us. I bought a flag, spoke with Mr. Kulik, and arranged for the 2nd flag to be presented to me.

The day of the funeral arrived and shortly before the graveside service began, T noticed that Mr. Kulik’s assistant was holding two flags. After he inquired why, he instructed her in no uncertain terms that only one flag was to be presented, and it was to be presented to him. My sister-in-law, who had become my rock throughout everything, found out and wanted to correct this before the service started. It broke my heart, but I told her to just let it go because I didn’t want to put this poor assistant in the middle, and I didn’t want there to be a scene caused.

 Sadly, the most important thing was that after the service I would never have to see T again. A few minutes after the service began, a car pulled up and parked a little ways down from the graveside, and out came Mr. Kulik. I distinctly remember thinking “Wow, that’s really nice of him to attend even though he has an assistant here”, and didn’t think any more of it, focusing instead on trying to stop crying because I was already running low on tissues. Turns out Mr. Kulik’s assistant called him, probably in a panic over what she should do, and he came right over and made sure I got my flag presented to me by the military color guard. And not only did he do that, he stayed for the entire service and then afterwards dug through the grass himself to find and give to me 3 shell casings, which are also presented with the flag (which I didn’t get because I got an “extra” flag) and Mr. Kulik also made sure my brother and I were listed by name in the obituary.

It wasn’t until a week or so later, when the smoke cleared and things calmed down a bit, that I truly understood and appreciated what Mr. Kulik did that day (and with the obituary). I thought that, in his eyes, we were just another dysfunctional family to be dealt with. I was convinced that he rolled his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief every time we left his funeral home and he was able to shut the door behind us, but in reality he was processing everything that was said and done, not just by me and my brother but also by T, and he knew who the good guys and the bad guys were in this story.

 In a world in which athletes, actors, and reality stars are the heroes to many, in my view Mr. Kulik may as well have ridden up to the graveside that day on a powerful, white steed. He didn’t risk life and limb, but he certainly risked the wrath of T and a potential lawsuit in order to right an impending wrong. He didn’t need to do that; the funeral was prepaid and I was not the executor, so he owed me nothing. I am humbled to this day that he thought that that one detail was important enough to correct, and to oversee it personally, when there could have been negative consequences involved for him and his business.

  Aside from the day my Grandmother died, I only ever saw my Grandfather speechless and with tears in his eyes once, and that was when I presented him with a certificate stating that I had made a donation to the WWII Memorial fund in honor of him for his birthday. I have no doubt that he would have had the same reaction to me receiving a flag at his funeral, and even though Mr. Kulik knew no specifics, he somehow did know how important that flag was to me.

Occasionally I wonder what makes a person want to become a funeral director and deal with dead bodies and crying people all the time. Maybe not all funeral directors are the same, but Mr. Kulik made me realize it’s not just about the deceased, and maybe even not primarily about the deceased, but it’s about those who are left behind; making sure that those who loved the deceased are able to honor them and say goodbye in the best way possible. Despite the best efforts of a very bad person, Mr. Kulik allowed me to do that, and for that he will always be a hero to me. I choose to focus on the amazing act of kindness he showed to me, a stranger, rather than the negativity that my own father chooses to perpetuate. And I hope with all my heart that Mr. Kulik feels as good about what he did that day as I do.