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.