July 19th, 2009

Creative Joyous Cat


Today I went to a gathering in honor of a friend who has passed. It was a picnic for her friends, for her husband, and for her daughter, who is middle-school aged. It was very relaxed. People played croquet, because she used to set up obstacle-course croquet games, though this game was much more tame than I remember those being. There was food, kids played, and grownups talked.

I remembered the wake when my father died, a proper, multi-day, somber wake in a funeral home. At the start, my grandmother was inconsolable. It eased a bit when she saw her great grandchildren, his grandchildren, in part because she didn't want the two toddlers to see how upset she was. But in part it was something else, something I came to understand better as I attended those days in the funeral home. At first, one of us sat with her, every moment, reminding her not to hyperventilate. Seeing her, I could understand how someone could literally die of a broken heart. It was really too intense for me, most of the time, and I was glad I had a toddler, and could retire to the private room provided for diaper changes and noisy toddler games from time to time.

But then people started to arrive. My father knew a lot of people, he had a gift for connecting with people from all walks of life. And each one stopped to pay their respects to the family. And each one told a story to my grandmother, a story of how her son had touched them, had made their life better, whether in a large way or a small one. And I started to see how each story settled her, each story reminded her that my father's life, though it ended too soon, had been purposeful, had been meaningful, that he had loved this world and the people in it, and left a legacy. And I saw that my daughter and her cousin were also a legacy, a proof for my grandmother that something of my father lives on, that his legacy will continue into the future.

Each story brought her back from a very close, very personal encounter with death, and re-linked her to life, to her family, her city, her world.

This gathering was different. I shared a couple of memories with my friend's husband (who is also a friend). One of the things he said to me, however, was that the gathering was for "this group of people". My grandmother needed that wake, may well have died without it; but his experience was clearly different from hers. I'm not sure how he came to his peace with the grim reaper, but he's a very quiet, private person. It makes sense to me that he didn't need a crowd to start the journey back. Instead, for him, honoring their friends' need to honor his wife was in itself a way to honor her life.

I keep being amazed at the many ways people are so different, and the many ways we are the same.

The death of a friend or family member reminds us we are mortal. And then, each in our own way, we mark that passing by honoring life, with food and fellowship, and sharing memories.

And in doing so, we reconnect with our own lives.