Tonight, on salon.com I came across the only other story about family members building a coffin for their father that I’ve ever read. I found it interesting — not necessarily wrong, just interesting — how the children of writer William Manchester approached the task so much more light-heartedly than a Eugene man I once wrote about, Mike Furgason.
I reprint the following Register-Guard column (March 4, 2007) in honor of Mr. Furgason and the father for whom he built his coffin, James, whose body now lies in that coffin in Idaho”
EUGENE, Ore. — In winter’s bleakness, the daffodils arrive. Lest they grow haughty as precursors to spring, they are soon pelted with stinging rains and late-season snowflakes.
It’s part of the annual Oregon passion play, an intertwining of endings and beginnings, two seasons locked in an emotional tug-of-war.
Which brings us to the man on Lakeview Drive in north Eugene who is going through the same thing lately. The man out in his workshop each night.
Mike Furgason, a 36-year-old dentist.
He remembers, growing up in North Bend, a father who built things out of wood: A chest of drawers. A table. Shelves. Nice stuff, but nothing fancy. Like the man himself: simple, functional, dependable.
His trademark on projects was exposed plywood ends left just like that – not hidden with the aesthetics of moulding.
Substance, not style. That was James Furgason, a man who had come to Oregon from Arkansas in the ’50s to work in the lumber mills.
Now, decades later, it was the man’s son working on a project. A man with two sons of his own – Tyler, 10, and Jared, 7 – and whose wife, Amy, was expecting their third child soon. A man on a mission.
Each night, out in the garage, he would measure, cut and glue – and think of his father.
The time he had skipped school and knew he’d be in trouble. And was. But then got one of those rib-crushing hugs from the old man.
The time, in college, his father came for a visit and gave Mike a $5 electric jigsaw he’d found at a garage sale. And how Mike thought: How random is this? But, later, realized that saw ignited a love of woodworking he’d never lost.
The time when Mike, as a first-time dad, had been rocking Tyler to sleep and his father – a man of few words – had said: “It’s a pretty special feeling, isn’t it?” And how it had touched Mike deeply because his father had once felt that way about him.
Night after night, Mike worked on the project. Once, Tyler went to get something in the garage and found his dad in tears. “Mom, what’s going on?” he later said to Amy, by now due any day.
And so she explained how Tyler’s grandfather in Idaho was very sick; he had something called Alzheimer’s. And how Daddy’s tears were good tears. And because he loved Grandpa so much, he was building something for him to be placed in when he died.
Mike knew it was an odd thing to do; people don’t make caskets for their fathers in their garages. But, for him, it seemed like a small, yet good, way to honor his father.
So he selected Oregon alder – both in plywood and hardwood – because it was a good Oregon tree and his father loved this state. He got plans off the Internet. And went to work, each night lost in thoughts of the 75-year-old man.
The whine of a saw; the times they’d played catch. The grinding of a router; the camping trips at Tenmile Lake. Sawdust and tears.
Then came the news he knew was coming any day: Ryan Michael Furgason had been born. And so there was Mike, his hands holding a newborn in his arms one moment, then sanding his father’s casket the next. Hello, goodbye.
He wrapped moulding around the casket’s base, then, on the lid, built cascading layers, like short stair steps. He sanded and stained. And fastened on handles.
After about 40 hours of work, he finished – except to put plates on the four corners to hide the exposed plywood ends. Mike started to affix the first one, then suddenly stopped.
No. Leave the plywood ends exposed. That’s my father.
Later, a sister of Mike’s drove the casket to Idaho, where it awaits a day that has not come but will. Probably soon.
Meanwhile, Mike waits for the phone call. And gently rocks his son Ryan, a daffodil in the bleakness of winter.