Friday, May 16, 2014

Gratitude and Grief

Life goes on, as it tends to do, and today I spent the morning with some 200 other folks, most of us trying to get out of jury duty. And most of us did. From there to school to properly close out the week and then home for another hilarious evening with my children back in my home, with Zadie as the centerpiece. 

But yesterday I promised some more words about my Mom's Memorial Service and I think there's yet more after this. But I'll start with my opening as the officiant in case it's of interest or use to anyone else crafting their own service. Below are my opening words:

"We’re gathered here to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of my mother, Florence Goodkin. Normally, this service would take place in a synagogue, but the Rabbi was unavailable for this date and it was not a place that mother ever spent time in. Indeed, I never heard her talk about religion and mention the word God in the 62 years I knew here— except once, as you’ll see later on. At any rate, since she was born Jewish, went to Unitarian Church during my childhood and ended up with two Buddhist children, this will be a non-denominational service. The good thing about that is that we have to construct our own meaning about life and death in general and a life and a death in particular without blindly accepting any dogma handed down to us. That’s the way my sister and I were raised and it feels right to pay homage in that spirit.

If I had to choose one tradition of paying respects to the departed, I’d go for the
New Orleans funeral. There’s that somber processional to the graveyard with the band playing a slow, mournful hymn and the folks shedding tears shed for the emptiness that is left, the deep grief that never again will we hold that hand or hear that voice or kiss that cheek. And then after the body is lowered into the grave, the music kicks up, the band starts swingin’ “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and everyone’s dancing joyfully back to the reception where good food and drink await. Now they’re celebrating together that such a person has been and we were fortunate enough to know them and feel how they touched our lives. So there in one ceremony are the two poles of proper respects and everything in-between— the joy and the sorrow, the gratitude and the grief, the empty hole and the perpetual fullness.

That’s what I hope for in this simple ceremony. It starts with gratitude— after all, without my Mom, none of us family members would have existed! But beyond the mere biological fact is the whole drama of how she helped shape our lives. This is a time to tell her story and a time to tell stories about her, all those tender, poignant, silly, wacky things that only she could have said or done, the things about her that left a scent in the air and her signature on our hearts.

If we do this well, we should offer comfort and condolence, invite the tears and laughter, help each other figure out how to endure without her physical presence, to “learn acquaintance with the invisible form of the dearly departed.” According to many ancient traditions, it is also a way to help her in her journey on the other side. We know nothing of the afterlife, but most agree that remembrance from us folks still here is essential to keeping a spark of life lit. That’s why our rooms are peopled with photos of those we once knew and why all those little moments when we live on their behalf— thinking of them as we cook their favorite dish or tell one of their signature jokes or wear a shirt they used to wear or listen to their favorite song.

So, Mom, I hope you’re listening out there and receiving the love we feel for the miracle that was you. We want you to know and hear yet again what so many of us told you many times over— how you blessed us with your love and enriched us with your character. And so here we go…"

From here, my sister spoke eloquently and movingly about the basic facts of my Mom's life. I followed with my own remembrance and then 3 our of her 5 grandchildren added theirs, two more chiming in with letters read out loud. Then an open mike and some beautiful words from some of the staff and residents. In between, various songs as palette cleansers— my friend Sofia playing Bach and flute with me on piano to open, my Jewish Home friend Fran singing Embraceable You with me on piano and Joshi Marshall on sax, all singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot, nephew Damion singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and all singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the end. A few closing words, refreshments and the chance to look through photo albums. 90 minutes total and I believe we did well. Sometime soon, I'll share a bit of my remembrance, but now it's time to read Zadie a night-night story. 

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