Burying Aunt Sue

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.


When I buried Dad a few years ago, Aunt Sue stayed in the car. She couldn’t bear his passing.

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.


A view of Lake Erie that Dad and, eventually, Mary will share–sad they won’t see it.

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?”


The closed children’s portion of Lakeside Cemetery, where Dad and his sisters, mother, and father are buried: soaked Teddy Bears and plastic flowers.

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.


Aunt Sally’s (Saradell) resting place, a footnote on her parents’ gravestone. Her twin, Aunt Sue, will be somewhere nearby.

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.


Presque Isle Bay doesn’t shimmer like a Monet, but the waves are dear to my eyes. (Claude Monet, Grand Canal Venice, 1908. Credit: Wikipedia)

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”:




13 thoughts on “Burying Aunt Sue

    • Hey, Rob. Since Kathy and I are in the process of moving, I’ve really fallen behind on keeping up with my blogging buddies. Hope all is well with you and that most of your mornings these days aren’t too frazzled. Peace, John

  1. I’ve lost my mother, a favorite cousin, an aunt, and several friends in the past 12 months. And as Ben’s parents get ready to take him back to the doctor in New York, we are terrified that we will lose him, too, even though there’s no reason to feel that way. “Eternal Love, prepare for us the other post.” Bless you, John, and thank you. Deb

    • Hi, Deb. This life kind of knocks the wind out of us sometimes, ay? Tell you what, that sweet-faced grandson of yours is never out of my prayers. Peace and healing, John

      • Thank you, John. Our little sweetie saw his doctor in New York today and will have tests Thursday. He has developed a pronounced limp, and we all are worried and praying about that and the upcoming tests. Thank you for your concern and prayers!! Cheers, Deb

  2. After my sixtieth birthday I have become more and more aware of the urgency to honor and treasure the precious gift of life. Thank you for your beautiful words, and thanks to your father for his words. Eternal Love, prepare for us the other post – I will keep this little prayer with me.

    • Hi, Maarit. It is urgent to “honor” and “treasure” life, isn’t it. These are words I’ll keep with me, sister. Thanks and peace, John

  3. Your blog brought me back to 20 years to when my grandmother passed. (I just realized I have been alive longer without her than with her now…) I had avoided her deathbed, not wanting to accept the truth. She held on to life long enough to say good-bye to me. I was the last in the family that was going to see her. She passed away later that night, and I was surprised that I smiled when I heard she had passed. I guess I was just relieved to know she was beyond the pain at that point.
    There is something about the profound pain of loss that is beautiful in its complexity. Some people cannot get past the pain and suffering, and the anger never fades for them. To me, that aching void that settles in is a gift that shows how deeply you are able to love.
    Thank you for sharing your pain so willingly. I always end up feeling inspired and hopeful when I read your blog, and I feel like if I sat down next to you at your coffee shop one day, we would end up chatting for a good long while about a good many things.

    • Good morning, brother. I’m sitting in my usual coffee shop and agreeing with you: I’d buy you one and we’d have a good talk. Must say, you’ve given me a gift. If you feel “inspired” and “hopeful” after reading, I take that as a blessing. Heck, I’d settle for just “hopeful.” Peace, John

    • Thanks, Mandy. I’ve fallen a bit behind on my reading and writing, but look forward to catching up in the days ahead. Be well, John

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