I reached for my phone to call our dog sitter friend: realizing this was the fourth call in a year telling her we needed to travel back to Maryland for a funeral.
As we walked into the small limestone church of my husband’s youth, set amongst the mountains in rural Maryland – I saw her lying in the open casket that greeted us as we walked into the vestibule.
Funerals have a way of making old manageable wounds sharpen again. They bring past hurts to the surface as if your wound was fresh: bleeding, throbbing and needy of immediate attention. A palpable pain.
Sitting at Aunt Sis’s funeral, looking around at a sea of black, I wondered how many other people were feeling a sharp wound in their heart from a past significant loss. How many minds were trying to focus on the funeral that was about to start while their memory place drifted back to another time.
My heart broke for Aunt Sis’s husband and three daughters as I watched their memory place being changed indelibly. I listened intently as each daughter honored their mother with heartrending eulogies.
Worse yet, was the deep sense of regret that was now sitting uneasily between her funeral and our memory place. We had planned to visit Aunt Sis in a few weeks. Now. It was too late.
My brother-in-law, Gale, approached the podium. I swallowed hard. Trying desperately to steel myself away from the scalpel like hurt his song was about to inflict. “His eye is on the sparrow,” was the very song he sang at our son’s funeral. Looking at his considerate eyes as he sang so beautifully made it harder still: as if I’d been thrown recklessly back in time. My psyche was being bruised and battered with each continuous note. I tried unsuccessfully to contain my tears that did a free fall from my memory place. Realizing all to quickly the wound in my memory place had been cut wide open. And it hurt. As I took deep breaths, desperately trying to keep myself from going to the ugly cry, I noticed tears slip down my daughter’s cheek, as well. I felt my husband’s strong arm wrap around us both. Glancing at my husband and daughter, I worried about their memory place.
My standard for what defines a meaningful funeral is – if I were a stranger sitting in the back of the church, would I get a good sense of who the person of honor was. Aunt Sis’s funeral did just that as her daughters eulogies touchingly and humorously spanned the scope of her life. We laughed through tears as their stories filled our memory place with images of the lady we all knew doing things in a way that only she could. They spoke of a grand lady who was a caring and loving mother and wife. Telling us of the woman who was a ‘sister’ to all, hence her name. A woman who had battled cancer several times. A woman who could turn out homemade noodles, mouth watering pies, and biscuits that melted in your mouth. All without a recipe.
Aunt Sis was a grand lady. Not because she did things in a big, grand manner: but rather because she did little things in a heartfelt, genuine way. Her grandness came in the consistency of her love. The gentleness of her smile. The steadfastness of her many acts of kindness. And the love and focus in her eyes as she listened attentively to you. All filtered through her nonjudgmental heart.
During the meal after the service, Kay spoke of how her husband, Waldy, wasn’t doing well. How he’d just given up. Waldy and Kay employed my husband, as well as several other teenage boys, to help work their farm during summer breaks.
I knew what my husband needed to do. As we drove the quarter of a mile from the church to Waldy’s farm we passed Aunt Sis’s new resting place, dug by her brother. Limestone fence rows bordering rolling farm fields guided our path – echoing the deep rooted history that surrounded us. As we rounded the corner turning into their farm lane, in the distance we could see the Washington Monument poking up from South Mountain – where I grew up and where we raised our children. Greatly pleasing our memory place.
Kay happily greeted us at the kitchen door. An earthenware crock filled with pink peonies sat on her kitchen table that had been covered with a checkered tablecloth. Waldy scuffled in with his shoulders hunched over, his hair rumpled as if we’d disturbed a good nap, and his once lively face looking like he had indeed given up. He looked at Sam with an expressionless gaze. Examining his face as if he was trying to determine it’s origin. Noticing his vagueness, my husband quickly began talking about the good ole days working on the farm. He spoke of hot summer days spent bailing hay, of tractor rides, snakes and silly pranks. He reminisced about Kay’s scrumptious lunches and wondered out loud how she managed to put up with the antics of those crazy teenage boys. He reminded Waldy of the last time he visited with a good friend he’d brought along to meet him.
Kay ushered us into their living room to sit down for a visit. Sam continued with farm stories as Waldy listened carefully, like he was a student in Sam’s class hoping to glean valuable insight that would recharge his memory place. I was certain that if I could have glanced into his memory place it would have looked fatigued. As Sam told story after story Waldy started to sit up a little taller, offering a smile and a few words and as my husband continued: this once gregarious man’s eyes brightened and before you knew it he was the one telling stories to us. He spoke of his jousting days and of his three year stint as the Maryland State Jousting Champion. I wish I would have taken a picture of Waldy and Sam sitting on the sofa together as they beamed smiles and laughter back and forth to each other as if it were a tangible energy source. Witnessing the ‘real time’ before and after metamorphosis was completely and utterly magical.
As laughter and story telling permeated the room I watched Waldy’s colorful personality emerge once again. His smile grew wider and wider, at last personifying his true nature. Seeing this transformation made me sad to realize that when we lived so close we didn’t visit him or Aunt Sis more often. Sometimes when we’re physically so close we assume things will always be there waiting for us. “Closeness” gives us a false sense of comfort. Time, distance and a funeral is that great teacher of should’ve, would’ve, could’ve.
The one that shakes your memory place to act before it’s too late, ever again.
As we stood in the kitchen saying our good-byes, Waldy turned to Sam and hugged him tenderly, the way a ninety year old man hugs someone he thinks he may never see again, and with a tear trickling down his face told him, “I almost forgot you,” as his hands gently shook Sam’s shoulders. He then turned quickly toward the sink, looking out the window busying himself with the view. Our eyes welled up with tears as we realized the profound impact our visit had on him. His reaction left an unforgettable imprint in our memory place.
Walking to our car, instead of regret sitting precariously between a funeral and a memory place, our hearts were full. I think Aunt Sis would have been pleased. We left knowing that acting upon the “now’ is the most important way to fill our memory place of tomorrow.
We drove away feeling content, smiling deep down in our hearts – knowing we filled his memory place of today… the most important day.
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” Robert Frost