I buried Aunt Sue yesterday morning. That’s what some pastors call funerals. We bury the dead, speaking the word with reverence.
It was ashes a dozen or so family and friends commended to the earth. Since Aunt Sue died in February, all had grieved for a couple of months, maybe spent their quota of tears.
I loved my aunt, but her passing hasn’t crushed me—the sad result of extended families drifting apart. I saw her once or twice a year. She was cheerful, loved china painting, made elegant sea-foam, and traveled a lot in her later years. A few loved ones shared such memories, and I tossed in a couple of my own: her twittering laugh and her faithful attention to my dad during his decline, punished by dementia. She never quite understood that a person whose brain has gone to pieces can’t read a book or assemble puzzles or in any other way snap out of it. But she was present to her brother in the best way she knew how, which is all any of us can do.
An hour before the graveside service, images of poor, confused Dad went through my head, and I remembered something he said a few months before his death in January of 2012. His words were confused, but poetic.
At that time Dad and his wife Mary were in different care facilities, both having lost not only each other, but themselves. I arranged to take Dad from Independence Court (great facility, absurdly named) to Mary at Pleasant Ridge (well, that’s half right), hoping that seeing each other might bring them joy. When I wheeled him into her room, they were joyful, indeed: a kiss, a hug; then he took her hand as if he had found a fragile treasure and held it to his lips. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” he said, the old Dad surfacing for an instant, eyes narrowing into his old enough-of-this-bullshit expression.
“Oh, Dad,” I thought. Mary was mostly bedridden, her legs dead weight. But, of course, who doesn’t want to close his length of days at home, with his beloved? Does the longing for the warmth of familiar skin ever die?
During one visit to Dad, he thought I was his brother—he didn’t have a brother. He confided that he planned to ask Mary to be his wife, but was worried she wouldn’t say yes. He couldn’t remember her name.
“Mary,” I said.
“Yes, Mary.” He wiped away tears. “She’s my favorite.” They had been married for over thirty-five years.
When dementia or Alzheimer’s had stolen everything else, it granted Dad the slight mercy of leaving Mary’s face. When he said “let’s get out of here,” I imagine he just wanted to be close to his favorite.
Mary was silent, lucid enough in the moment to know that they had no place to go, no muscles or wit to get them anywhere.
“Well, then, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad paused, searching his atrophied vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”
“If only we could step out onto a cloud,” Mary said, still holding Dad’s hand. “But that can’t be.”
Dad’s enough-bullshit face returned. “Why not?”
I don’t remember anything else about the visit, but Dad’s suggestion has played again and again in my memory: “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”
So an hour before giving Aunt Sue a good send off, Dad gave me the right words. When the time came to speak them, the nightmare of his last days stopped me. I barely managed Dad’s longing, his wish: “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”
Sometimes tears make the most honest eulogy. I remember my Grandma Miller, her body stooped and gnarled with arthritis; my sedated mother on her death-bed with her left hand, scarlet and impossibly swollen, reaching for my hand as I thanked her for being a good mother; my father, howling and clawing through his final hours.
Oh, for the hope of another post—where minds are restored, where pain rises like fog at dawn and burns off, where wounds are healed, injuries forgiven.
Then I hear Mary: “But that can’t be.”
My lips purse, eyes narrow: “Why not?”
This morning I ached for the other post and knew that nothing but sitting still and silent with God would help, so I drove to Presque Isle and watched waves catch the sun. Honest-to-goodness shafts of heavenly light split iron-gray clouds and warmed Erie, Pennsylvania, across the bay. I had planned on burying my aunt yesterday. I hadn’t expected to bury my father again.
The weight of tears pressed from behind my eyes, but none came. Who knows why?
Eternal Love, prepare for us the other post. Gather us all there, our hurtful bullshit left behind. Our brains and bones wear out, so we return them to the earth. Give us what we need–only what we need–to know you at last.
I am crying now.
P. S. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these (the first one is joyful, the other two not so much):
“A Letter to My Late Mother”:
“A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire”:
“Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani”: