Whenever Mom tells me about a recent wake or funeral that she has been to I will always ask, "And how was it?" She predictably says the same thing every time, "So-and-so looked good and you'll never believe who I ran into there." One time she went to a wake and on the way out passed a room that was empty except for the person in the casket. "I decided to go in there and sit for a bit," she said, "because I couldn't imagine how anybody could die and not have a single person there to pay their respects."
"Well, Mom" I said, "maybe the family went out to get something to eat."
"Somebody should have stayed behind," she answered. She would later add in almost a whisper "Kath, he was a professor." I didn't know if this was a simple fact she was passing along or a warning to share with my professor husband that he better start working on his people skills or he'd end up in a funeral parlor alone save for a stranger passing by. "I stayed for a bit and said a few prayers," she said. "It seemed like the least I could do."
A few weeks ago I was driving around running errands and thinking about the father of my childhood friend. Nancy and her dad had a falling out when her mother died that was never mended. About that wake Mom said, "That might have been the worst one I've ever been to. Nobody was talking or even looking at each other. You could cut the tension with a knife."
Many years would go by after that when Mom told me that she had heard from Ed who had called to tell her that he had reached out to his daughter. He was in the throes of a deep depression and his therapist thought that writing a letter and trying to repair his relationship with his estranged youngest child would be helpful to his recovery. Nancy called me after she read the letter and was livid. I listened once again to her litany of accusations but for the first time I didn't let her off the hook. With my own dad gone even longer than her mom, I couldn't imagine having a father still alive but acting as if he were dead. Sharing those thoughts with her would end our friendship as my perceived allegiance to her dad was enough for her to cut ties with me as well.
Since he was like a second dad to me growing up I decided I'd respond to him with my own letter. The specifics of it will stay on those written pages, but I wanted to thank him for many things including being so good to my mom and dad when my dad was so sick. He called me when he got the letter, and on a trip home awhile later he and Mark and I met for breakfast. He carried a Ziploc bag with him that included old photos of him and Nancy's mom, the second wife he would be married to for a few short years before she would die of cancer, photos of grandkids, and the letter I wrote him. "This is my important stuff," he said. "You see what's in here, right?"
With Ed on my mind so much that day, I decided that since we were going to Chicago soon I'd call him and see if he wanted to meet again for breakfast.
That afternoon Mom called. "I have some bad news," she said. "I just got a phone call. Ed died this morning."
Ed died this morning?
All morning I had been thinking of him on the very day he died?
A few days later Mom would call back to tell me about Ed's wake. She would say that my childhood friend was a no show but that she talked to Nancy's older sister and her husband. About Ed she said "He looked good" and then added, "he looked like he didn't suffer."
Those words stung because my mom had never said anything like that before, but at 88 she's grieved for more than her fair share of people who have suffered on their way out. I don't know anyone who has lost more people in her life - her husband, friends from church, friends from the old neighborhood and the new neighborhood, friends from high school that would always go to reunions with her, two full-term stillborn babies, a niece and nephew, a brother-in-law, two sister-in-laws, cousins, the spouses of cousins. The list goes on and on, and instead of being sad about Ed, my sympathy suddenly turned towards my mom and her circle - a bigger-than-life tribe throughout my life that has gotten smaller and smaller as the years go by and the deaths accumulate. How she must miss them all.
When the last of my mother-in-law's brothers died she said, "I can't believe I'm the only one left.". My grandmother, who lived to be 97, once said to me, "You don't want to live this long, honey. You don't have any friends left."
No friends left? Whatever in the world must that be like?
If it's true that when someone dies their energy dissipates into the world, the dearly departed, including Ed and a professor whose name she never knew, have been keeping Mom company for a very long time.....
......and while it certainly isn't the same as having them here in this life it is how she has lived without complaint.