Reflections on Loss, Four Days in Late May 2022
These past four days have circled around some of the people in Unloose My Heart and one person who isn’t. The one who isn’t died the other day right after I returned from the west coast. The next day, I attended her wake not far from my home. Much younger than I, she was part of a large circle of acquaintances and friends. I knew her to be generous and kind and gentle but had not had a chance to get to know her deeply.
Gathering for a wake is an ancient custom and seems not often done anymore. This gentle woman, suffering no longer, lay on a bed in a family home. She was covered from the neck down with a beautiful spread lain with fragrant magnolia blossoms. Her deeply grieving husband sat in the corner of the room by the door. This made it easy to greet him, gently touch him, and whisper condolences. Photographs of his wife were on the walls and perched on the dresser. The people there, including myself, went in and out often lingering long enough on the several chairs to share stories and even laugh at the good times and funny tales. Many of us brought food and flowers. Some of us saw people we had not for some time. We met others we had heard of and welcomed the opportunity.
One of the people I knew of but had never met was a beloved family doctor in our area, now retired. I had never been his patient but many of my friends had. It was clear that he knew this family well both as their doctor and as a friend. When he left, he bent down and kissed the grieving husband on the forehead and murmured something to him. This, too, seemed timeless. Who sees something like that these days? What a gift it was to attend this wake.
Today, the woman will be buried nearby, put in the earth which nature softened with good rains a few days ago. I think about how seldom this simple handling and honoring of the dead happens anymore. I think of the aunts and uncles whom I have described in the book and realize I was only able to get to the funeral of one. It was held in a church and with an open casket. I chose not to look. My aunt was still vibrant in my mind.
The day the woman died for whom the wake was held was also the 50th anniversary of the death of my dear father. It had been much on my mind and I had been weepy for some days prior. There is a lot about Papa in the book. I wrote about this anniversary on the book’s Facebook page saying I hadn’t expected to be alive for the 5Oth anniversary of the death of my dear father. He died when I was 30. He kept me afloat when I was little. I learned so much from him. One of the greatest gifts he gave me was to treasure nature. This has stayed with me, given me joy, and soothed me when I needed comfort.
Wakes, funerals, and memorials – whatever we call them – to me are for the living to help us mourn, to remember, to share, and to provide closure. Three days before all this, I was on the west coast for another honoring of the dead. This time it was for my beloved friend, Jill, also discussed in the book. Few who cherished her are still living. They are her sister, her sister’s children, and me. Jill died at her home in the deep South in 1983. Later, I traveled there twice to ask her husband to let me have her ashes so I could give them to her sister who lived in the West and already had several loved ones in their family plot. Though this husband had not had a service for Jill and though the ashes resided in a closet in the house where they had lived, he would not give them up. Years passed, and I traveled a third time to a city along the Mississippi River to try again after the husband died. His youngest child, now well grown, whose mother had become an ex-wife of the husband, also wanted the ashes. I knew this because the husband had told me that he had charged this son with their care. As we sat near that grand river, the son told me the ashes were in possession of the current wife, now widowed, and she would not relinquish them.
Eventually Jill’s niece and her sister contacted the young man who, by then, had procured the ashes but didn’t know what to do with them. So, a plan was made to get them to the west coast. The details are too long to tell here. At last, those of us who loved Jill and were still alive were able to gather and honor her memory with stories and poems and a bit of music. Closure, much welcomed, after 39 years.
Just one week before I left for the other side of the country, a friend of 30 years died after lingering and long illnesses. The gathering to commemorate and honor her still remains to be set. Thankfully, I had made a special trip to say goodbye and tell her I loved her. Too often I have not made that happen- sometimes from unavoidable reasons, other times because I thought it could wait.
This I have learned: I think it best not to wait to tell someone how much they mean to you and how much you love them. Even if they are not dying.