Songs. Stories. Slides. Music. Poetry. History. A recording of a phone message. A 90-minute Memorial Service for my mother-in-law Pam Shultz that never felt one minute too long because every minute was sincere, authentic, heartfelt, eloquent and true. A eulogy from each of the three children spoke, two absent grandchildren (my kids) whose pieces were read (see last two blogs), two grandchildren present who spoke in-between their tears and each one revealing another facet of the complex jewel that Pam (and each of us) was and each one so clearly expressed and beautifully delivered. I offered opening and closing remarks, played piano and led songs in-between. Here was my part:
Remember that scene in Tom Sawyer where he gets to hide in the church and witness his own funeral? I imagine a lot of us have wondered about that, would have enjoyed— or worried about— hearing what people said about us. Pam was very fortunate in that she did get to have that kind of living memorial. First when she announced she was ready to go and scheduled it like a C-section of birth into the next world. Friends and family gathered around, helped her pack up the house and had time to say all that needed to be said before bidding her farewell.
But life had other plans— or in this case, Death had other plans and she decided to pay attention to them and graced us with another three years of her presence. And then in the Fall of last year, her children organized a show of her rug hookings and once more, people came from near and far to bear witness to her life in art.
It was a glorious event. People walked through the gallery and Pam greeted each of them in turn, holding court from her wheelchair. Then we gathered together while some spoke of the many facets of Pam’s rich life— her work as a teacher, as an advocate for special education, as a gardener, as an artist and amateur musician, as an always-curious reader, as a friend, as a mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. Pam got to hear it all. I sat with her afterwards and helped her sort out the cards from people who couldn’t come and look through the comments in the book. She took her time, pausing thoughtfully before each entry and bringing the person to mind, telling me little stories of each before, during and after reading their testimonies. And we still have on our cell phone a message from her expressing her appreciation for the event and her love for the children that organized it. (play recording)
As we know, it wasn’t long after that she began her decline, that Death announced itself with a timing that felt right. She had just turned 90, was increasingly unhappy with the limits of her fading body and having had the closure of that living memorial, felt that now indeed was the time to join Ted and finish her time here on earth.
When Karen and I discussed if there was going to be any memorial service soon after, the general feeling was that we had already had it and in the best way, with her still alive to enjoy it. But it felt like something was missing to leave it at that and I think I know what it was.
The living memorial service—and we should all be so lucky to have one— was for Pam. But this one is for us, the ones who are left behind. We can talk all we want about how it was a long, fruitful life, how we got to say all our goodbyes, how she was ready to go, how all her affairs were in order and 90 years is about as generous as a life-span can be. All is true. When people expressed their condolences, we mostly said, “Well, it was time and she had a long life and we had a lovely goodbye” as if that excused us from feeling grief.
No matter how long the life, how lovely the goodbyes, we still miss our loved ones terribly. Without grief from those of us left behind, the circle of life feels incomplete.
It’s too easy to just say, “I’m fine and ready to have a nice day” as if a dear friend and mother was so easily replaceable. When a parent leaves us, there’s a big hole that never fills up. Yes, it’s the natural order of life’s cycle, but such easy consolation doesn’t fill that hole. We have some exciting news and want to call them and they’re not there. We think of the question we should have asked them too late and sit with it unanswered. We miss the touch of their hand and those little things they used to say, things that maybe drove us crazy, but dang it, we miss them!
So that’s what we’re here for. To take time out from business as usual and remember this person together, as a community of people whose lives Pam touched and who was touched by them in return. We all will miss her in different ways, but I believe we all share both the joy of having known her and the sadness of saying goodbye. So this memorial service is for us, to help us bear up, to help us remember, to help us move forward while still looking behind. Let us be generous with both the tears and the laughter.
I think one of the hardest questions death asks us is, “Where are they?” Every culture, every religion, and perhaps every person has some kind of answer and no two are exactly alike. We just have to live with not knowing. But we can imagine and dream and create our own vision and if we’re lucky, it’s a beautiful one that gives us some comfort and solace. In a certain Guatemalan Mayan cosmology, they believe that what lives on when the body goes is the person’s “seed heart,” their soul, their core, their life germ and that this part of them sails out over the ocean of all time gathered to the Beach of Stars. And there they are greeted by all their loved ones have gone before— grandparents, parents, husbands, wives, friends. I imagine Pam re-uniting with Ted and Norma and Mark and Joan Wehmeyer and the many she knew who exited before her. And won’t that be a joyful reunion.
But in the Guatemalan cosmology, there is a catch. The recently departed has no life force left to paddle the long journey to the Beach of Stars. How do they get there? From the expressed grief of those left behind who loved them. When they all get together, their tears and laughter make a canoe and paddles the majestically ushers them to the waiting arms of the ancestral souls.
I said earlier that this Memorial Service is for us, but it turns out that it is for Pam also. It is the chance for her to get paddled further over the Lake Michigan of the other world on the path of the Golden Sunset, powered by our love and tears and remembrance here. And perhaps at the other end, those awaiting her are lowering down a sweet chariot to swing low and also help carry her home. Let us rise and sing, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”