I attended the funeral of a beloved aunt this week, meaning, that of my father’s family, there are now only two left: A young brother and his wife. At this stage of my life…and most of my friends agree…it seems as if loss gets a capital L. Loss becomes too regular a visitor. The phone rings and your response, before you answer, is, “Uh oh.” There’s a good chance it is not good news on the other end of the communication.
There’s a time in everyone’s life when we begin to try to rationalize the ‘circle of life’. I think it happened to me in my late 40’s, early 50’s. I think it’s the psyche’s way of preparing us for death, the great unknown. It’s the time when we have to acknowledge Death, that ever-present entity, successfully ignored until now. It’s when we have to accept that we will also die, that we cannot live forever. It is the loss of the philosophy of limitlessness. And it’s a sad day.
I can vaguely remember the days when I never thought of death at all, when I automatically thought everything would be okay. The only death I knew anything about, was that of other peoples’ pets (We didn’t have any). My first experience with death was the loss of my grandmother, whom I did not know, and the death of President Kennedy…which traumatized me. I was nine years old, and cried for weeks. It wasn’t a good way to get to know Death. It was as if it charged through the locked door, screaming, sensational.
Most of the time, Death tapping on our shoulder is done subtly, when on the news, we hear about the death of our parents’ favorite singer or actor, and we realize it and move on, never missing a beat. Then their parents pass on; but we’re usually very young, and it’s not a bulldozer that hits us. We stop and make sure our parents are okay, but it doesn’t alter our orbit. Later, when our parents’ older siblings die, we realize that Death is much closer, more real and scary. Death keeps creeping toward us, and then our parents go, and we’re next. It is us on the edge of the precipice. Gradually, we are forced to acknowledge Death. I started counting years ‘until’. Maybe Daddy will be here for five more years until he goes, maybe Mama has 8 more years. And now I count my own remaining years. Maybe I have 10. Maybe less. Until.
I’ve been to too many funerals in my life, and have been at the bedside of more friends and family members than I can bear. I have had those last visits, tactfully ignoring the angel of Death close by, trying and failing, to let that person know that they mattered, and how much. I’m not good at that part of the journey. I feel like they all left me, not really knowing how much I loved them; and maybe at that point, it doesn’t matter to them. I think the letting go on their part is an intricate process that gives them great peace, regardless.
The point of this post is this: How we behave in our life matters. The things we do and do not do, make a difference. How we treat one another matters. So back to the funeral of my aunt. This was a woman who spent much of her life serving others. Over the years I saw her at the front of the line when someone was in need. I saw her doing things for people in need, even when she was very busy with her own life, even when she didn’t feel great, and even when the person she helped wasn’t really very nice about it. She was a kind, caring, and gentle spirit.
It showed at her funeral. The chapel was filled with love; people there knew we had witnessed the passing of one of the souls whose leaving left the world worse off. In that room filled with over a hundred people, not one could remember a time when she raised her voice in anger or said a cross word to or about, anyone. It made for a bittersweet time of fellowship and farewell.
It occurred to me that when we are leaving the world, perhaps the greatest compliment of all would be that nobody could think of a single bad thing to say about you. Can you imagine that? It won’t happen at my funeral, I am convinced, because our generation are just not nice anymore. There’s a lot of bitterness and jealousy and outright hatred within which we live, and which wasn’t so prolific in our parents’ generation. That’s our cross to bear, and shame on us for it. Regardless, it does make a difference how you live your life, how you treat your fellow man. We have the capacity to love one another, to choose that over hatred. It’s a choice.
I have come to believe that some people are born without the ‘care’ gene, as I call it: No compassion. To them I would say this: If you are able to read this, it is not too late to think about what kind of difference you have made in your life, and what kind of feeling will prevail at your leaving. I think Aunt Mary Alice would have been proud of the sentiment surrounding her last moments on Earth. She wouldn’t have taken credit; she’s have given it to us. And I hope she knows that our lives are diminished by her leaving.