The family that puns together

I just said farewell to my extended family, after several days of extreme togetherness for my grandmother’s funeral. We’re a farflung lot. We came from Boston, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington and California for the celebration of her life. I think that since my uncle enlisted in the Navy out of high school, the four siblings have never all lived in the same state. (Maybe briefly in the ’80s?) The far-flungness gets worse with my generation. (At one point, my family of birth lived in four households across all four continental US timezones.)

The four siblings - then and now
The four siblings – then and now

You might take from that an idea we don’t like each other. Nothing can be further from the truth. These people are awesome. They’re hilarious. Entire conversations were conducted entirely in pun. The jokes flew thick and fast. But, generally, they were kind jokes based on wordplay instead of insult. We spent a ton of time catching each other up on our lives – the full parts of them, including the complicated challenges and feelings. I’m related to some kind, intelligent people who are interesting to be around. They listen. I sometimes feel like I won the family lottery.

There are many ways the celebrate the life of a person who has died. With three pastors in the family, we did the funeral in grand style. (Although none of the three actually conducted the funeral. There was just a wealth of liturgical knowledge and some extremely moving speeches.) My aunt and I had a bit of a reunion tour – I rented a trumpet. She was often my accompanist in high school, and we played several pieces together which was awesome. Grandma had arranged much of her funeral (including picking her lavendar casket and the funeral home) but the only part of the service she’d specified was that my aunt sing “The Silver Cord” – a hymn I’d never heard before but which was a beautiful expression of faith. (I can’t believe there are Fanny Crosby hymns I don’t know! Few chances to learn them either – they’re no longer much sung.)

Rehearsing before the funeral
Rehearsing before the funeral

But in addition to the traditional services of the funeral, we remembered my grandmother – and each other – in other ways as well. We ate meals prepared with the loving hands of her daughters and daughters-in-law that were her favorites. We looked through pictures together. We told and heard stories of her, and the family. We read through some of her letters. We made jokes about a notebook that said “Ruth’s Notes” and was totally blank. (I used it to record the funeral planning.)

My favorite remembrance was heading up to a place that was very dear to her. A bunch of us went up to Yosemite to spend the day. Grandma had loved Yosemite, and a lot of the warmest stories came from camping trips (when she’d taken the FOUR kids up by herself, sometimes!) I am a mountain girl myself, and it was great to see the places of story in legend in real life. (The superb weather didn’t hurt either.) We even found the “Indian Caves” which have an oversized place in family mythology. It made my heart glad.

Can you spot the uncle and brother in this picture?
Can you spot the uncle and brother in this picture?

It was hard to take our leave of each other (despite the fact I am pretty sure we were all completely exhausted – it was as action-packed a funeral week as I could imagine). It was just that we enjoyed each other so much, and it’s hard to see how or when we might be together again. May we all be so lucky as to have families who we can spend a week in close quarters with and leave with only warm feelings and a wish to be together again soon.

My village

On Tuesday, my husband and I conscripted my brother into childcare and went to donate blood at the annual memorial blood drive for Vicky Graham. Vicky died of cancer a year or two after we joined the church. The blood drive is an especially appropriate way of remembering her, because during her fight infusions of platelets were one of the things that helped her feel better and get stronger. Vicky’s dad Whitey was standing at the entrance to the drive when we pulled up. We chatted, he signed us in and gave us stickers and little squeezy-balls. He thanked us for remembering Vicky.

As I was drinking my post-donation beverage, Whitey waved goodbye and said that his lovely wife was there to pick him up and he’d see us later.

Thursday night, when I came downstairs from putting Thane to bed, I saw my husband standing stricken with a phone to his ear. Whitey died Thursday afternoon from a massive heart attack.

When I think of Whitey’s dying, I think of work. There are Christians — I am one — who tend towards an intellectual approach to their faith. I think theology and Biblical study. Whitey was a Christian whose faith was done with his hands. He spearheaded the church’s ministry with the Dwelling Place, serving a meal to the hungry. Several times a year he cooked a meal for the church — Easter Breakfast, Fall luncheon. He was behind “Soup”er Bowl Sunday, and the Blankets and Tools drive. He was the lone guy on Deacons. He served with me on the Hospitality Committee. In my church bag, I noticed an envelope from him, my name scrawled on it. It was one of many projects we were working on together. He was a man who did things in accordance with what he believed.

He was also a father, many times over. He and Jean had three children: Vickie, Alex and Andrew. He and Jean had over 200 children. They were, are, foster parents. One of the last things he told me about was Alex and Andrew making foster-child Daryll laugh — Daryll is about Thane’s age. Whitey and Jean offered short term and long term homes to children in dire circumstances. They prayed every year for the children who “aged out” of the system and were sent alone into the world. Those children were always welcomed back at the Graham household.

When death comes long and slow, you have time to prepare. Gradually the tasks that person undertook are put aside in illness. I’ve seen that before. When death is a sudden visitor, you realize just how much you relied on a person. Whitey was supposed to give the sermon this Sunday while our pastor was on vacation. In an unusual fit of preparedness, he had already finished writing it, and it was read to us. It was about his faith, how his journey with Christ had progressed, and about what it had meant to him to be in community with us. It was an affirmation about how much he loved us. How strangely profound to hear from a man who had had every intention of delivering it himself.

Tomorrow, I will play “Lord of the Dance” at Whitey’s funeral. In September, I will find someone to prepare the Fellowship Lunch that was always his domain. In March, I will buy yellow roses and play “Lord of the Dance” for Vickie and Whitey. His example will remind me to be not only a thinking Christian and a feeling Christian, but an acting Christian.

Funeral baked meats

This weekend was overlaid with the patina of soft-grief, of the loss of a friend who has been sick for a very long time. I had a lot of interaction with those who were strongly affected and a lot of “touches” with the funeral preparations, so I ended up spending a good bit of time thinking about funerals, death, and comforting the young in a rather concrete way — but distant enough from me that I could bear to think about it.

The woman who died, Lynda, had been very ill for about 2 years. She’d had cancer for near 30, but it was sort of a chronic cancer. Every once in a while she’d get chemo or surgery to remove some tumors, but most of the time she was pretty healthy. They were slow-growing and while not exactly benign, they weren’t doing a lot. Then two years ago, the cancer changed and got much more aggressive. She never managed to fully recover or get back on even footing. The doctors put in a stent — she was getting fed entirely through IV — and that got infected and in the end, it was the infection that did her in. They simply could not clear it up, so she’d go home for a week and it would re-ravage her and she’d head back to the hospital… over and over and over again. It became clear that she was losing ground in the fight, but she had two children — a 20-something young man and a 17 year old girl. So she kept fighting. Once she gave up the fight, once she relinquished and admitted that she was done, she died within two days. It was her will that had been holding her, and once it turned from the task, her body gave up easily.

Anyway, I think that 4 or 5 years ago, I would’ve been looking at this from her daughter’s point of view. I would’ve been thinking how horrible it was to lose a mother and the huge gap that would create. How lonely it must be. And how many practical things will be difficult… can they keep the house she grew up in? (Her parents were divorced.) Is there a chance she’d have to change school districts? Who will help her with her college applications? Who will go prom-dress shopping with her? When a wedding comes around, how badly will she miss her mother?

I’m thinking of those things too. But for me now, I see this from Lynda’s point of view. How unready I would be to die now. I’m not wildly afraid of death — it comes for us all and I truly believe that while death is the end of what we can know from where we stand now, I do not believe it is the end. For me, I am less afraid of death. But I am terrified to leave behind those I would leave behind. My sons! My husband! I, too, would fight against leaving them with all the strength I could muster.

My mother told me not long ago that she felt much freer now. With all her children well-launched into their adult lives, while parting would be sad and we would miss her greatly, we are all standing on our own. I really understand her point of view. Most of my family has been thoughtful enough to die in the fullness of time, after having completed the tasks to which they set their hands and with few regrets. (My grandmother’s only regret is that she’s STILL HERE.) I am not at all afraid of that. But I cannot bear to think of leaving now.

And then there’s the little boy and the practical aspects. I really wanted to go to the reception-thingy. (Wake? I dunno — it seems like a very New England thing to me. You make the bereaved stand in a line and hear for three hours straight “I’m sorry your mom died.” I’m surprised the Geneva conventions haven’t outlawed this practice.) Mostly I wanted to go because I wanted to give the daughter big hugs and tell her I was there for her when she was ready. The issue was that I had sole custody of a Mr. Greypants. Worse, it was the Napless variety of the Greypants.

So I got out the neat photo-album scrapbook from Grey’s baby shower. (He is in a “loves looking at pictures of baby Grey” phase.) I showed him my belly and how I was pregnant with him, just like I was pregnant now with baby-brother. I showed him the picture of Lynda and I together. I explained that she had left (I did use the word die), and that her family and friends were very sad because they would miss her. I told him we were going to see her family and friends and give them big hugs to make them feel better. I told him we needed to be very polite and quiet.

And I put him in the car and took him to the wake. He stood very nicely and politely in line until it was our turn to express our condolences. He *did* give big, comforting 3-year-old hugs to the bereaved. And then I sat with the other church-mothers (mostly the moms of my teens) and we talked about Lynda and the kids. I critically failed my “be welcoming to other people” roll, though, I realized on my way out. It can be so nice to sit and talk with your friends that you forget to talk with the people who don’t have as many folks to talk to. May I be forgiven for it.

Tonight is the funeral. (Very fast!) Part of the unspoken role of the church is to provide snacks to the mourners afterwards. I remember that when my grandfather died — after a very long and protracted Alzheimers-decline — the church my grandmother attended put on quite the spread for us. It was especially kind as none of them would have known my grandfather when he could, you know, talk. The funeral baked meats and funeral feast stretch back into the mists of time. If memory serves, Gilgamesh had a funeral feast. And that story is one of the first ever written down. They’ve changed over time of course. But it is a sacred obligation, a continuation of a story, a link to our history and tradition, and a very real and present comfort in a time of tears.

Somehow it seemed wrong that I should take up this sacred burden and acquit it with funfetti cupcakes, but by then I was really, really, really tired. I thought about a tea ring (which seemed to me like an appropriate funeral-food), but weariness won out over symbolism. I do wish that I’d had frosting other than the pink stuff I used for the Patrick cake.

Lynda wouldn’t mind.

I’m a little sad that I’m far too pregnant to play for this funeral. Much of the time I end up getting called on in my role as a trumpeter for funerals. I play “Lord of the Dance” and taps. (Lord of the Dance is apparently my church’s gold-standard for funeral music. It pretty much always shows up. For the record, I prefer “How Great Thou Art”, “Abide With Me” and some of the evening hymns. Also, I’d like the funeral to happen before I die so I can enjoy it and plan it out properly.)

I wish I had a good way to tie this up — to talk about the Christian confidence in redemption. In our church we do not pray for the dead, for they are the care of God. We pray for the living who are left behind. I truly have full faith and confidence that Lynda is where she belongs. I pray for the rest of us wisdom to know how to reach out and comfort and support those who will miss her every day for the rest of their lives.