I rarely think about the possibility of my own death. Instead I have become a bit too worried about losing others, my family members and friends. I suppose it is a natural thing to do in a year like we have endured of late. Each week seems to bring news of people near and dear to us leaving this earth either from the virus that stalks us or other causes that often have a link to the upending of normalcy in our current state. At the age of seventy two I have had to more and more often face the prospect of human mortality and I honestly fear the deaths of others far more than the idea of meeting my own end on this earth.
My doctor recently told me that I neither look nor act like my age which is mostly true but sometimes I find myself having conversations with friends that might have horrified me only a few years ago. We speak of our weak bladders and fragile bones. We discuss whether or not it would be a good idea to install grab bars in the shower and wonder if this may have been the last Christmas when I should climb back and forth into my attic bringing down decorations for my home. We laugh as we realize that we have become the old joke of sounding like our parents as we speak of topics that would have held little interest for us five years ago. We number our peers who have already died and feel a bit rattled when the baby brothers and sisters who annoyed us a children pass away. We understand that our own expiration dates are drawing nearer and that we need to make the most of whatever amount of time we have left.
I remember my mother-in-law in her very practical and businesslike way tutoring my husband on her will and what needed to be done in the event of her death. It used to annoy me in all honesty that she wanted us to think of such things instead of just enjoying life and worrying about funerals and such whenever the time arose. Still I have dark memories of my own mother at the age of thirty walking through the grounds of a cemetery in a zombie like daze attempting to find a final resting place for my thirty three year old father. She always urged me to take care of such things long before I would need them so that I would not have to endure the pain and confusion of such a dire duty. So when I was only in my twenties I invested in cemetery plots for me and my husband.
Now so many people prefer the idea of cremation and instead of having funerals they plan memorial gatherings that are upbeat and celebratory. The ones that I have attended are delightful affairs that bring people together to remember a person who was dear to them. I like the idea behind them but still want the final prayers and blessings of my Catholic faith to be part of my send off whenever that may come. As far as the other conventional trappings my theory is to keep them as simple and inexpensive as possible. The cost of burying someone has become almost as ridiculous as the weddings that are more expensive than a college education. I’m all for simplicity as long as people have a moment to grieve and laugh and remember together after someone is gone.
Wakes are the part of the final send off that are the most meaningful to me. They give people who have never even met one another the opportunity share their memories of the deceased. It is a rare moment in which we get to see the totality of a person’s impact on others, not just the sliver of our own experience. It amazes me how meaningful every single moment of existence can be as a vivid picture of life unfolds in the stories that are told about an individual. It always makes me wish that we had made our pronouncements while that person was still alive and able to learn of all the love and enjoyment that he/she had brought to so many people. I often wonder why we wait until death to open our hearts and share.
My brothers and daughters and I decided to give my mother a surprise party on her eightieth birthday. We believed that she would surely be one of those people who lasted until well into her nineties so our purpose was not so much to celebrate her life while we were still able to do so, but to give her the gift of knowing how much we appreciated all of the sacrifices she had made for us. For that reason we asked each of the guests to write a letter to her describing how she had impacted them. Happily we received touching responses from mostly everyone which we put together in a lovely binder. It was our way of quietly celebrating the joy that my mother had brought to everyone she encountered.
We still have that binder with those letters to hand down to our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren so that they will know the glory of the woman from whom they descended. We had little idea that less than four years later our beloved mother would die. We had no thought to what a treasure that party and those letters would ultimately become for all of us. We literally have a written record of our mama’s impact on the world and it is a lovely gift.
My only living aunt is now over one hundred years old. Death is very much on her mind as she spends her final years in a nursing home. Whenever we visit she asks us about heaven and gets a faraway look in her eyes as though she is wondering when her moment of leaving the earth will come. She once told my mother that she worried that she would live so long that there would be nobody left to attend her funeral. She did not think about the legacy of children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren that she has created. She did not consider the nieces and nephews who so profoundly love her. She will be celebrated most assuredly but perhaps it would be even nicer to let her know right now how important she is to each of us.
I don’t know what people will say about me when I am gone. I would like to think that they will remember me as someone who was kind and compassionate because I try so hard to be that way. I hope that they will know how much I loved them and how important their well being always was to me. I want to believe that somehow my life had meaning and purpose. Mostly I want everyone to feel happy in knowing that all of the goodness in my life came from knowing and being with them.