On April 24th my grandma died.
I've experienced the death of a number of loved ones, but this time it feels different. The other times there was disbelief and sorrow and grief and rage. And yet this time, while I am certainly sad, I am not in disbelief. I may feel sorrow, but not necessarily profound grief and certainly not rage. The conclusion I have come to is that the reason is simply this: my grandma was 95 when she died.
She was not taken from this world before she could make her mark upon it. She did not die full of regrets. Sure there were hard times and strive (there always are in life), but there were just as many times of joy and laughter (if not more). She lived a full life and was loved by all around her. For the first time someone I love has died and it actually feels like it was meant to be. Like reading the last sentence in a great novel. You're sorry that it's over, but you're happy, invigorated, and fulfilled at having been able to experience it.
Like usual, my brain seems to be hard-wired to tie my experiences to scenes from stories I have read or seen. In this case I am brought to mind of the movie A Prairie Home Companion. Most specifically a scene that occurs at about the half-way point of the film. I wasn't able to find a video of the scene in question to show it to you, so I'll have to describe it for you instead.
The scene begins in a dark dressing room. There's a quiet tapping at the door and an old woman peeks her head in and enters. She's here for...well let's call it a romantic rendezvous with the man she loves. As she moves into the room we are able to that man sitting in a recliner with a blanket draped over his body and head. Standing behind the chair shrouded in shadows stands a beautiful woman in white. The old woman goes to the chair.
“Hey, honey, why are you hiding from me?” she says jokingly as she pulls off the blanket. “Hey, wake up, Sugar.”
She gently shakes him and then slowly she leans back. Her eyes widen and hand goes to her mouth in realization.
She leans back in close, and places a hand on his shoulder and the other on his stomach.
“Chuck?” she whispers. There is no response. She whispers again, “Chuck? Chuck?”
Just as this old woman is starting to get frantic the woman in white leans over and and puts a calming hand on the old woman's shoulder, “It's okay,” she says gently. “It's okay.”
The old woman—her eyes never turning to look at the woman in white—gives off a sob, “How can he be dead?”
“He just went away, that's all,” the woman in white gently reassures her.
“Nooo...my Chuck,” she sobs again. She gently rubs his shoulder, "My baby.”
“The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” the woman in white says gently.
“I don't want him to go,” the old woman weeps.
“Forgive him his shortcomings,” the woman in white replies. “And thank him for all his love and care.” She withdraws her hand from the old woman's shoulder, removing her presence from the shot, the room, and the scene.
The old woman rubs Chuck's shoulder again. “Goodbye, baby,” she says softly as she gazes at him, willing herself not to cry.
She gets in close and she nuzzles his nose in an Eskimo kiss. The music that was once playing quietly in the background begins to swell.
The shot changes to a stage where we see the performers that are responsible for the music.
“Shiiine. Let it shiiine. Let the light from the lighthouse shiiine on me. Shiiine. Let it shiiine. Let the light from the lighthouse shiiine on me,” they sing.
It makes me cry every time I see it. I'm not doing it justice, but it really is a beautiful scene. And it all comes down to that doesn't it? “The death of an old woman is not a tragedy. Forgive her her shortcomings and thank her for all her love and care.”
Although we are all sad, that's what's so great about the ceremonies regarding death: the we. There are few things in this world that juxtapose the twin emotions of joy and sorrow as perfectly as funerals.
Well, in all honestly I have been to some funerals that were awful and boring beyond belief. One's that seemed to be much more akin to a boring church service than a celebration of someone's life. So let's just expand our frame so that the term "Funeral" will encompass all the gatherings (formal and informal) brought about by a death and focus on a life, shall we?
When a musician or an actor you admired dies, you can put on their records or put in one of their films to remind yourself of and appreciate the art their life brought created. But family members and friends are different. Because WE ARE the things they've made. We are the testament to their beauty and accomplishment of their lives.
And so we get together and we assemble all the people we can who were touched by the ones we've lost.
Whenever you touch something you leave a little bit of yourself behind. Even if it's nothing more than a footprint on the beach, a fingerprint on a glass, or even something as ethereal as the residual heat on a chair you leave in a chair when you leave it. And the same can be said of when you touch someone's heart/mind/soul (whatever you want to call it). You leave a little bit of yourself behind in them.
And thus we are living embodiments of those who have touched our lives. Whether physically—as in our genes—or emotionally/mentally/spiritually. Energy is neither created or destroyed, it just changes forms. We give our love, our time, our energy to one another and as it passes from person to person it evolves. This is why you can look at someone and see their mother, their father, their siblings, their friends, their role models, and the infinite others looking back at you. It may be cliche to say that the people we love will never leave us, but, cliche or not, it's still true.
I believe the author Terry Pratchett said it best when he wrote, “I'm made up of the memories of my parents and grandparents, all my ancestors. They're in the way I look, in the color of my hair. And I'm made up of everyone I've ever met who's changed the way I think.”
When someone we love passes away we are their inheritors in more ways than one.
Which brings us back to the concept of a funeral. Because what is a funeral if not a gathering of these inheritors. We come together and we share the pieces of this person that we keep with us. We share these in the form of stories, and photos, and memories, and sometimes even just in the form of our presence.
As we do this we bring the dead back to life. We put all of shared fragments together and we reform what has been lost. We bring them back from wherever they've gone so that together we bask in the full glory of their light one more time.
And while they're there we can speak with them for a moment to say the things we need them to know.
Whether or not we said it enough when they were living, we bring them back and we say, “Look at this! At all of that you've made and all you've done! Look here! At all the people your life has touched! We love you. We love you so much, and we wanted, we needed to thank you for this. And for everything else.”
And then we depart. We read the last sentence from that epic tome that was their life. Then we close the book and put it back on our bookshelves where we can reference it and be inspired by it whenever we need to. We go our separate ways and get back to writing our own stories. Although with a renewed passion to making sure ours will be just as good as the ones that we love to read.
“So we bore on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald