(All quotes in this post are the words, written or spoken, of Thomas Lynch, author of Bodies in Motion and At Rest and Funeral Director in Milford, Michigan.)
"grief is the tax we pay on loving
people. It’s like
constantly being in the Book of Job."
When Dan was in middle school, as often as not, he failed to turn in his homework. Most of the time it was done and done well; he just didn’t turn it in. I’d find it later, too late for credit, wadded up in a pants pocket, shoved into a motley mass of papers in his backpack or under the bed and when I’d ask him what on earth was up with that he would look at me with a blank expression and say, "huh?"
I finally concluded that middle school, with all it’s angst and charm, was just far too distracting to keep track of anything as mundane as homework. He has long since redeemed himself in the world of academia but I was thinking of that blank stare and "huh?" when I wandered over here today. I read my last post. I looked at the three (3! Count ’em!) perfectly good posts all written and archived for publication last week. What’s up with that? I mean, I already wrote them! They have pictures! Really nice ones, too. Never posted.
I have a hunch. This may be getting old for you because I’ve been on this topic for a while now but my mother died. And yes, life does go on. But usually it goes on after the funeral. Or Shiva. Or a wake. After the casseroles and flowers.
"A funeral is the way we get through a death in the family. It has
not changed fundamentally since the species began doing it 40,000 years ago. The
fashions have changed, but the fundamental obligation of a funeral is to bear
witness to a death in the family and to initiate remembrance — that’s pretty
much the same. In some cultures they do that with fire, and other places with
graves. Some places use caskets. Some places use old doors. Some people leave
their dead on the tops of mountains to be eaten by scavenger birds. Some people
put them in vaults in veterans’ cemeteries. Those are fashions. But the fundamental
obligation of a funeral is to provide an opportunity for the living to confront
their dead and to dispose of them in a way that’s other than the way we dispose
of a rock or a rhododendron — that’s not changed. They have value in that respect."
We spent a week watching her while she died and then on March 11, we all just left the ICU at Marquette General Hospital and wandered home. I wandered around here, tending to life and then I wandered back up there to tend to Bud but it was about getting on with the day-to-day aspects of life. Cataract surgery. Medical bills. Filing taxes (or not, in the case of Bud and Jan). I flew to Florida to make sure Abby got her knee taken care of. I flew to Las Vegas and back with friend, Gene. I did a rather amazing number of other things that you don’t even know about yet because I failed to turn in my completed homework…But I didn’t yet say goodbye to my mother.
"Think of the people who must be
there to get a funeral going: You have to have someone who agrees to quit breathing
— forever, and then you have to have someone to whom that death matters, and
then you have to have someone who tries to make some sense of it. This doesn’t
seem to change. We have the dead guy, and we have the people to whom the death
matters, and someone — shaman, rabbi, priest, a holy one, a witch, whatever it
happens to be — comes in and says, "This is what happened, and this is why." "
We didn’t get it going, in large part, because of the damned snow. 8 feet of it, on the ground and another 31 inches the night after she died. No one could get there. The prop planes don’t fly in that much snow. Blame her idol, Mother Nature. We decided to wait for better weather, which in no small part, is taking liberties with death.
I want a mess made in the snow so that the earth looks wounded, forced open, an
unwilling participant. Forego the tent. Stand openly to the weather. Get the larger
equipment out of sight. It’s a distraction. But have the sexton, all dirt and
indifference, remain at hand. He and the hearse driver can talk of poker, or trade
jokes in whispers and straight face while the clergy tender final commendations.
Those who lean on shovels and fill holes, like those who lean on custom and old
prayers, are, each of them, expert in the one field.And you should see it till the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy leave-taking
in a room, a cemetery chapel, the foot of an altar. None of that. Don’t dodge
it because of the weather. We’ve fished and watched football in worse conditions.
It won’t take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it.
Wonder. And be cold. But stay until it’s over. Until it is done."
Well, we just couldn’t. Now, however, we’ve collected ourselves and the black flies are waning and we’ve bought up an entire prop plane worth of seats and we’re going to have a final goodbye. I doubt it will be a tidy leave taking; our family is far too goofy and opinionated for that. Betsy was taking requests for music and as I understand it we’re going from the ridiculous to the sublime (Tristan and Isolde to Tom Waits). First we’ll all gather for Friday Fish Fry and Bud may well get into fisticuffs with the owner of the restaurant: they butt heads over environmental matters in the past. Then we’ll convene around the table at the Lithium Manor Inn and play Texas Hold ‘Em until Dan drags in during the wee hours. He’s leaving his tour in Minneapolis and coming by rental car because he doesn’t trust the airlines with his 1930 Beuscher baritone sax. Who can blame him?
On Saturday, we’ll charter a boat and scatter her ashes on Lake Superior and dine at her favorite restaurant in Copper Harbor. On Sunday there will be a service at Michigan Technological University in Houghton; hopefully someone besides us will show up. It is, after all, 3 months to the day later and while we have been stuck in the Book of Job the rest of the world has moved on. I just ordered more flowers than my credit card can hold; my mother loved her garden and her flowers and I have no idea if there will be many others beyond what we sisters come up with. Bud will say some things about my mother that he has been hashing over- think of the eulogy you can write during three months of adjusting to life without your love! Maybe some others with speak. Not me. You may have noticed that I’m atypically lost for words. There will be lots and lots of food; it comes with renting the MTU space and besides, who knows how many mouths to feed?
"Feed the hungry. It’s good for them. Feed them well. This business works up an
appetite, like going to the seaside, walking the coast road. After that, be sober."
I was thinking the other day that the thing I’ve been missing the most, other than my mother, is my sense of humor. I’m not laughing much and I’m not funny, either. I’ve been sober. But somehow, I suspect that, surrounded by this wacky family of mine, with a celebratory nod to my mother’s friend, Jack, and with so many wonderful memories, I’m about to rediscover that lost sense.