It was Monday afternoon and people gathered to say goodbye to Becky Smith.
As I related here and here, my mother in law was under the care of hospice as her body weakened from the decades struggle against multiple sclerosis. Last Thursday, she breathed her final breath and Monday, we said our farewells.
Funeral are never easy but it's especially hard when its for someone particularly close either to yourself or to someone you care about. In this case, it was both. My wife, of course, loved her mother very much and the knowledge that she was gone has been particularly hard to deal with. Likewise my daughter was very fond of her grandmother, having spent a great deal of her formative years in her company and care.
I had the intricate balancing act of helping to people I love very much deal with their grief in very different ways. My wife is more open with her emotions and is prepared to give voice to her pain; my daughter tends to hold her emotions in check and is less willing to open up about her feelings. Each needed the other in this time yet their distinct ways of grieving created stress. It was much job to bridge this divide as best I could.
Meanwhile, I had to deal with my own sense of loss. Becky had made me feel welcomed into the family. Even as MS claimed her body bit by bit, there was still a palpable joy in her life. derived from the love for and from her family. Becky would tell you she loved you and she meant it. I did not come from that kind of family; overt expressions and displays of affection were not the norm. Realizing that, Becky and I had our own special exchange whenever we said good-bye. To my wife and daughter, she would say, "Good-bye, Miranda, my angel, I love you! And good-bye, Andrea my sweetheart, I love you tooo!" And to me, Becky would say, "And David, you're not so bad." To which I replied, "And you're kind of OK yourself." And that was how we said we loved each other.
Watching Becky slip inexorably towards death was hard enough without the added context of my father's own death 8 years ago under similar conditions. He spent 30 days in an Intensive Care Unit before his body, worn down by injury and disease, could go on no more. It's hard to watch because there is no turning around from this state. There's no glimmer of hope, no matter how small, that the course can be reversed and not only will the patient live and but live well. No, there is only one outcome and while there is no way to avoid it, there's no way to predict it. I spent the month of January 2007 thinking that any given day would be my dad's last. And then one day it was and it still caught me off guard. And now my family stands watch over the slow fade of mother into the shadow of Alzheimer's.
So all of this was on my mind as I stood by wife, my daughter and the bedside of this dear woman. The three of us, my brother in law and his wife, my father in law and one of the pastors from my church were in the room on Thursday when Becky's lungs gasped one final time. It was strange. I had never been that close to a moment of death before. It was surreal. It was eerily quiet.
The staff at the hospice center, gentle, sweet souls who were nothing but supportive during this whole time of trial were most exemplary in their conduct in these final moments. If we are to look for the good in these times of trial, I think seeing the amazing capacity for human compassion from the men and women at the hospice center was definitely one of those good things.
Over the next day or two, final arrangements were made with the funeral home and the minister who would be leading the funeral service. Again we were dealing with people who worked with us in a understanding and empathetic manner. The minister, a young man named Matt Smith (no, not the Doctor Who one), was very helpful and supportive, very genuinely interested in hearing the family's stories about the life and times of Becky Smith, her burdens and her blessings.
At the service on Monday, in the hallowed halls of the church sanctuary, Matt told wonderful stories, some sweet, some inspiring, and a few that were a bit salacious. (Becky was a notorious flirt.) It was what the family wanted: an expression of the joy of Becky's life. Yes, MS had left her crippled and ultimately led to her death. But if MS was a burden, it was not her identity.
One more thing about the service: same damned fool got up there and sang a solo. OK, it was me. The song was "Homeward Bound". I had sang it one day while in Becky's room at hospice. I was with my wife Andrea and everything was quiet. The nurses at hospice had said that Becky could still hear so I thought someone should say something. But I could not think of a thing to say. Then I began to softly sing "Homeward Bound". The next day found my wife and I alone in the room. The hour was late and Andrea was feeling a bit frazzled by the events of the day. For some reason, I thought this song would help. And it did. So when we were planning the service, I did something that I never do: I volunteered to sing. I have little faith in whatever talents I have in this regard but I felt, I don't know, called, if you will, to do this.
I've sang this song many times practicing to get ready for this service. But as I stood up at the podium to begin, I had a very terrifying revelation: I forgot how the song went. I had the words in front of me but the tune, which I knew better than the words, went straight out of my head. But I had to go on. So the first, maybe even the 2nd notes were not correct but thankfully my brain finally rumbled into gear and the rest of it went....well, I'll say "OK" although others were more generous in their praise. Still, I did this because I wanted to contribute in some way that I would let me say one last time to Becky, "And you're kind of OK yourself."
So it was a perfect day for a funeral. But for all the grey skies over the grey earth, it is also perfect day to remember the lives we've known and, no matter the number remaining, the days of life to come.