I scan the crowded room for a familiar face. It’s a big room, outfitted with the type of couches and chairs that swallow you whole, heavily ornamented light fixtures, and emotionally neutral paintings. At the front is the box surrounded by floral sprays on stands. Nestled between blooms and leaves are little white cards delivering personal messages. Some of the bouquets have gold and silver script letters labeling the deceased: dear father, beloved husband, dear son.
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Beloved. Why is that a death word? Do we ever say that in life?
Is it the flowers or the picture collages that make it hard for me to swallow? Here before me is a Cliffs Notes pictorial of the parts of a person we will miss: the chubby cheeks lacquered in pureed yams, the diaper-clad butt and dimpled knees of babyhood; the gap-toothed smile of elementary school portraits, the sand castles and sunburns of summer days at the beach; the parade of sports team pictures and scouting banquets; the proms and weddings; the chrome-wheeled muscle car parked in mom and dad’s driveway; cheesy tourist shots; hugs and kisses, suit-and-tie days, and, oh, that dear sweet first-born child. We gather like flowers the good parts that happened before the end days, when only scraps are left. Absent are pictures of the medical clinic waiting rooms, the son and daughter crying themselves to sleep, the unhealthy habits, the bar fights, the bad tattoos, the post-chemo haze, the last days in hospice care.
We die and if we are lucky, no, strike that, luck has nothing to do with it. We are born and we die. No one knows why the bastard molester alcoholic chain smoker lives to 100 and the selfless sweetheart is hit by a bus at 22. If we live our lives well, and by that I mean we give from the heart, and give all we have, and think of others before ourselves, and let our lights shine, we will touch lives. Maybe many lives. Maybe millions. Maybe only one. When it’s our time, maybe we blow out of here on a cyclone blast so powerful it brings our survivors to their knees. Not that we want to hurt anyone. But with loss comes pain. If you do nothing in life to make anyone miss you, you miss the point of living. The goal is to love.
And that right there was last Friday’s lesson.
Out of this world is another good person who touched my life and so many others. A person I’d long forgotten until I heard the news. As I left his funeral, I remembered another service many years earlier:
This time a small room, no bigger than a vestibule, with furniture slightly more stiff than the people. When I approached the survivors, I said what we usually say at these things. They said in return, ”Don’t be sorry. We’re not. She was a miserable old shrew every day of her life and now she’s gone.”
Mortified, I didn’t know where to direct my eyes. I looked toward the full box of tissues on the table, the chairs which bore no weight, and the lone basket of carnations. How could anyone say such a thing at a funeral? Eighty-something years on this rock and all she gets is an unattended wake arranged by duty-bound, bitter survivors?
Forgive me if I sound preachy; it’s not you I’m telling this to but me. As I hurtle toward 50 my biggest fear is that I’ve not lived enough, not loved enough, not done enough of anything with 100 percent of my self. I dole out small portions, saving the best for something in the future.
My second biggest fear is coping with the increasing frequency of funerals of my contemporaries. Apparently I am at that age.
LIfe and death remain a mystery to me. One is a gift. The other a lesson.