In my faith community, we have lost a number of beloved, indispensable member-friends in recent months. I believe I have been to eight funerals in the last six months (and have begun to understand my parents’ “resolution,” after living almost their entire lives in a mid-sized Midwestern town, to attend fewer funerals). Many of us are reeling from the passing of these extraordinary “ Greatest Generation” folks and our collective loss of their wisdom and patience and long perspectives.
Being present at so many memorials to lives well-lived has raised issues I had never adequately considered, and allowed me to think about how memorial services can be conducted, as well as how lives can be lived and remembered. I have learned that if you die shortly before your 98th birthday, the church may not be as full as your life was, because you have outlived so many in your circles. I have learned that the sanctuary can be packed to overflowing, but the words spoken may fail to capture a life that was so much more than could be expressed, so that the gaping hole left in so many lives stands as the most powerful testimony to a life lived to the very limits of human energy. Hearing old-timey hymns I usually have little patience for, and knowing that they were chosen by my deceased friend, or their family, gives me a new appreciation for the comfort that a hymn I had dismissed may hold for others. I have thought long and hard about the demonstrated human qualities that compel friends and family to show up for a memorial service and remember their loved one.
An overwhelming realization, one I hope to carry with me more consistently in my life, is that some of the quietest, humblest people can be, deep down, the most fascinating and wise. As a somewhat reserved person myself, I don’t tend to draw people out as much as I could, and certainly as much as I later wish I had. I so regret not asking Lou more about his transformative service as a marine in World War II, or talking with Harry about what it was like to run against Jesse Owens, among many other topics. I had no idea that Helen had a career besides that of mother long before most women did, and I wish I had learned more about what demands and indignities her bravery subjected her to. I also wish I had made the effort to learn more about the difficult time our congregation went through in becoming the first integrated church in Bloomington. We have one older member who returned to us only a few years ago, having been removed by his angry parents over this issue decades ago. I think I’ll ask him to tell me all about it next time I see him.
I’ve also had ample time to think about what we are actually grieving in our loss. Happily, people sometimes die having lived their time among us so fully, and having made such complete peace with the end of life, that it is inspiring, and in our sadness we realize that the loss is almost completely our own, that there is virtually nothing more we would wish for the deceased; our magical thinking is only for ourselves, to have had more time, or to have treasured the time we had more intentionally.
The first death that touched me deeply was that of my maternal grandmother, when I was 19. I had grown up around the block from her, and she had been a constant, patient, deeply supportive, and inspiring presence throughout my life. While my mother had been with her in her final hours of physical suffering and was grateful to see her out of her pain, my sister and I were inconsolable, and wept unceasingly throughout a triumphant celebration of her life in the home congregation in which she had married, seen her daughter and son married, and provided years of deeply musical keyboard and vocal service. We simply wanted MORE, for ourselves, more time and experience with the woman who had meant so much to us from our very beginnings.
I have much to learn about so many things surrounding the end of life, as well as the living of it. However, I am hoping for a pause in the intensity of my recent learning experiences. Enough loss, for now.
Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse