I was thirty-five years old before I ever attended a funeral or memorial service.
Both sets of my grandparents had died during my lifetime and yet I never attended their funerals. Granted, I was young when most of them passed away, but my parents never seemed to press the issue of my attendance. I was a clingy, emotional child and imagine it was simply easier for me to stay home with my sister. It was as if one day my grandparents were in my life and the next day I never saw them again. My parents didn’t talk about it much. The concept of death was confusing and mysterious.
My mother’s best friend, Betty, passed away from complications of lupus not long after her retirement. By this time I was at the end of my teenage years and I loved the rarely-seen playful nature that Betty coaxed out of my mom. I hold images of the two of them curled around mugs of thick coffee and a plate of store-bought taffy cookies, planning and conspiring day trips here and there, mapping out adventures to be had. Betty’s eyes always sparkled with the hint of inside jokes that made my mother blush. She’d compliment my long, smooth legs, making me feel beautiful and confident while she questioned my choice of boyfriends like a protective aunt.
Her illness and death came far too soon.
I was at my boyfriend’s apartment when out of the blue, I sat up abruptly and insisted I had to go home. I felt an urgency to get to my mother and be with her. I couldn’t explain it, but when I walked in the door, she was in tears and told me that Betty had passed away that afternoon.
Knowing without knowing.
Betty’s family planned a memorial service–a celebration of her life–rather than a funeral. It was a warm summer day full of sunshine, the event held in the lush gardens at Betty’s daughter’s home. My mom and dad and a sibling or two attended, but I did not. I couldn’t face the inevitable avalanche of emotion.
I used to worry if I started crying, I’d never stop.
My mom was never the same after Betty’s death. And death remained a strange, abstract concept to me. Betty didn’t seem dead and I found myself expecting her to arrive at the door to whisk my sad mother away to points unknown and bring her back breathless and happy again.
A tightly-knotted boulder of emotion sat low in my belly the day I prepared to attend my father’s memorial service. Please, God, don’t let me cry, was my impassioned plea. I was thirty-five and still worried that if I started crying, I’d never stop. It was months after his actual passing and I had seen his dead body and confirmed that my father was no longer in the building. But this was my first experience with real grief.
At the service, I started crying and I felt like I’d never stop. At first, I was ashamed of such unbridled emotion and tried to choke back the sobs which only resulted in strange, snorting sounds. But then, as abruptly as a flick of a switch, something changed. My dad just died! I should be crying if my dad just died! The less I tried to rein in my natural emotion, the more everything became bathed in a soft, gentle energy of mourning. My uncontrolled hiccuping sobs relaxed. I was so, so sad and it was just as it should be.
My daughter and I walked into the cavernous auditorium of the church where Ellie’s service was held yesterday. A familiar knot in my belly, I recognized the fear that I would never be able to stop the tears once they began to flow. Photos of Ellie, emblazoned across the stage, as tall as a movie screen. Please don’t let me cry rose up in my subconscious again, afraid of looking foolish amidst these hundreds of mourners. If you need to cry, cry spoke the pastor leading the service. If you need to laugh, laugh he gently reminded us.
And we did, the whole mess of us. Remembering, honoring, crying, laughing, mourning. The reality of death, the finality and unfairness of it all. The celebration of a brilliant young woman who packed more love and life in her 17 years than most of us ever will. The full spectrum of grief to joy and back again, shared in community in its untidy entirety.
Death, not so much an abstract concept anymore, but death as a part of life.
“April is the cruelest month…” ~ T.S. Eliot
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865)
Adolph Hitler’s birthday (April 20, 1889)
The sinking of the Titanic (April 15, 1912)
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968)
Chernobyl disaster (April 26, 1986)
Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995)
Columbine (April 20, 1999)
Virginia Tech shooting (April 16, 2007)
Deepwater Horizon explosion (April 20, 2010)
The Boston Marathon Bombing (April 15, 2013)
Prince died (April 21, 2016)
We’re in the homestretch, friends. Hang on. Care for each other. Pay attention. Love each other.
The human body has always fascinated me. When I was young, I’d put my face up close to cuts and abrasions and study their progress of transformation. I’d watch as the inner tissue would begin to knit itself back together again and marvel at the way the body healed itself from the inside out. I wasn’t a scab picker, but I loved the moment the crusty lid of a wound would release to reveal the baby-pink skin beneath. I’d watch as the soft pink took on more color and after a week or two it took a bit of searching to find the spot of injury again. Bruises were cool, too. Such an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors and healing just beneath the skin.
I love my scars.
The bumpy, keloid scar on my shoulder from a scald of spilled hot tomato soup. The lump of a scar on my right cheek where my brother clocked me with a ceramic mug of hot coffee and another scar on my nose from the sharp slice of the broken mug. The numb, white line of a sliver in my thumb from a slip of an Exacto knife while trying to get the very last bits of an expensive hair gel out a bottle. The straight slice of a laparoscopic scar from my appendectomy that sometimes gets mistaken for a bellybutton piercing. My right ankle, a multifaceted roadmap of scars from a broken and dislocated joint and slow-to-heal incision. If you tap the outside of my ankle, you can feel the metal plate and screws that live there.
A story for every imperfection. Each wound creating the complexity of a human life, each one a unique journey of pain and healing.
My surgeon warned me that the incisions on my ankle might be slower to heal because of it being further from my heart. Less circulation. He was right. Even once I was cleared to walk again, the surgical sites stayed open and sometimes angry. I cared for them meticulously, but worried about my upcoming trip to the coast where I’d be tempted to put my feet in the ocean. Just be careful, the surgeon advised. My eyes rolled. I was over three months post-op and weary of my limitations.
I’m not sure I know how to be at the ocean’s edge and not let the icy Northwest coast salt water wash up over my feet and ankles. It always seems like a necessary baptism.
Each night, I’d make sure any sand and grit was rinsed free before applying antibiotic cream and bandages. I was careful.
Home again after five days at the coast, I bent over to inspect my wounds. I looked closer and was amazed to see the sure signs of healing. The incisions, less red and angry, no longer bearing a constant, sore ache. Edges beginning to knit together, the soft pink of new skin.
Heart wounds are deep and tricky. There’s often talk of healing after loss, but I don’t believe that. At least not in the way our tissues heal and over time we have to search for that place of injury again. Each loss I’ve suffered leaves a hole, a chasm, a fissure that always remains. No amount of stitches or time or carefully applied cream will close that space. But instead, a new normal. A beating heart, riddled with a tapestry of tender holes where love has lived. Unseen, but those holes forever filled with a soft ache of sadness.
Soon, my feet will be at the edge of that very same Northwest coastline again. The expected, sharp gasp of breath as I let the frigid waves lap and splash at my feet and ankles, toes curling into soft sand. Ebb and flow, wild and messy, an offering of tears and grief.
A necessary baptism.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
~ Leonard Cohen