by Heather Braun, special to The Devil Strip
I was holding my signed copy of David Giffels’ “Furnishing Eternity,” chatting with a friend who hadn’t read it yet. David, who is my colleague at the University of Akron, was ahead at a table signing books as I tried to give a small-talky summary. Whatever I said was completely inadequate because summarizing this book leaves out just as much as saying it was surprisingly funny and inspiring. And neither explains the lasting effect this book had on me.
My friend and I were standing in the children’s section of the bookstore, our kids pulling on our coats, asking for stuff as we tried to talk. In a different setting, perhaps sipping coffee instead, I would have explained how the book startled me awake, made me want to reach out to my mother, my grandfather, my daughter, made me want to show them how and when and why they mattered to me. Maybe then I could have done justice to the way this book provokes deep gratitude for the people closest to us. It’s a reminder that loving someone means eventually losing them, which always feels too sudden and too soon.
Though this book details how to build a coffin from scratch, including the specific materials and decisions that go into such an endeavor, what stood out to me was how honestly and deliberately David captures three people in his closest orbit. In a year, David lost his mother and best friend to cancer as he and his father began working on making the coffin David planned to use.
David’s mother loved words and idiosyncrasy and life. She insisted on certain things some might consider eccentric, but I call delightful and charming: Donna Mae gave her kids baby chicks to raise; she owned and used a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary; and she brought home Ali Baba the Lamb as a family pet. His mother experimented wildly and lived boldly, whether she was entering and then leaving a convent or going through her “Liza Minnelli phase.” She was someone capable of embracing fully the “impractical whims of life” that many of us miss because we’re just not paying close enough attention. When she gave David her copy of J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories,” she sparked something literary in him that comes to full fruition in this book.
John Puglia, David’s closest friend, was a prolific artist, a fellow lover of mischief and puns, city life and good music. When John learned he was sick, he kept it to himself, choosing instead to keep moving, making art, hearing music. He refused to wallow or complain. He continued writing in his pocket journal every day, sharing in David’s joy at finding 30-cent Joy Division albums and living up to the name he gave his website, “Never Not Working”.
After John died, he lived on in the answering machine message that David and his wife Gina listened to repeatedly to keep him close. He was present in the Wally Waffle breakfast date calendar alert that David couldn’t bring himself to delete. John lives on in David’s rich portrait of his dear friend, an artist who had much more of himself and his art to give.
Like John, David’s father appears in the book as laconic about his suffering, pushing through it by carrying on, dauntless, with his art. Thomas Giffels, a superior craftsman, creates pieces of furniture and other objects as skillfully as his son crafts sentences. David describes his father as “solid and unadorned, like the block lettering of his graph paper.” Though the two worked side-by-side on this final project, David acknowledges that his father “was putting a lot into this coffin that wouldn’t show up in my accounting.”
The cancer Tom had fought for years returned as this book was being released. He would pass just days after it was published.
“Furnishing Eternity” doesn’t sentimentalize death nor does it idealize those we’ve lost in order to keep them close at all costs. Rather, it reminds us how a shared act, even the act of building one’s coffin, can reveal the unassuming, even pragmatic ways we choose to show our love.
I never got to know my own father. But if I had, I would have wanted to know him as deeply and unconditionally as David knew his father. I would have wanted to see him in the objects and songs and inside jokes that characterized who he was and what we shared. David’s father, his mother and his best friend live on through his precise descriptions of what they shared: Salinger’s “Nine Stories”, Swenson’s Galley Boys, Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.”, Dick Tappan, The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”, House of Hunan fortune cookies and years of openness and laughter.
“These things kept her literal,” he writes of his mother. “They kept her exact. They kept her from fading.” The book does this, too. It introduces us to three extraordinary people, brings each into sharp and exquisite focus and reminds us to cherish the same in our own lives.