A few weeks ago, I met some old-but-far-flung friends halfway between their distant homes and mine. My friends, Lauren and Mica, are sisters; we’ve been friends since grade school for real, though. We drove out after work, exchanged happy greetings and unloaded at the farmhouse where we would be staying the night.
And then, we started making food.
There is something to be said about the friends who make food with you. Now, I have nothing against going out to a good restaurant or whatever with friends. That’s fun, too, of course. But, there is something about getting together and I have a few vegetables and you have a variety of herbs and we just start making this excellent food.
Mica and Lauren made roasted root vegetables and applesauce while I made zucchini noodles sauteed with red pepper and onion and garlic and lemon juice and dill.
The stuff hippie dreams are made of.
Over dinner we talked about many things…but also this: death. Gruesome? Not really. Mostly we just remembered our friends, our family, those who have gone before us. Back in my senior year of high school, they came to my grandmother’s funeral. Years after that, I attended their grandfather’s funeral. If memory serves, his wife, their grandmother, died a few weeks later, as sometimes happens with old married couples. I went to that one, too.
We all remembered their grandfather’s funeral with distinct memory–things people said and shared. Even though I had met their grandfather before, I didn’t really know him too well. Only, I cried inconsolably all the way to work (I came in late that day, because of the funeral mass), and cried a little bit at work until my coworkers were like, “Did you know him well?”
And I was like, “*sniff* No. *sniff*”
And they were like, “Why don’t you go home?”
But, I didn’t. I finished my work day.
A few years after that, at a talent show, my brother was playing a few songs on his guitar.
“This one,” he announced to the crowd, “is one of my favorite love songs.”
And he played a song, The Dutchman, that we had first heard at that funeral.
To this day, it is one of our favorite songs, my brother and I. We sing it around campfires, this song about love and death and Alzheimers, until our friends eye us suspiciously. Somehow, it links all of the very important things, and we first learned it there: at our friends’ grandfather’s funeral.
When I was a child, my mother would take us to funerals. (My friends shared that their mom would, too. Something to do with being homeschooled?).
You know how little girls plan out their weddings? My sister and I did not. We planned out our funerals, probably because (1) as children, funerals were more accessible than weddings, so we attended way more and (2) there is no guarantee that you will be married, while odds are in the favor of you dying at one point or another. <– This was our logic.
At one funeral mass that we attended, the grandchildren brought down the deceased-woman's baptismal gown, communion dress, and wedding dress, and they laid them all on her white-draped coffin–a testament to her life fully lived. We noted that one, two little girls sitting in the pew. We talked about it later, over Barbies.
I like touching songs post-Communion and rowdy after-parties. (Mark it, die after I die, and attend my funeral so you can pray for me and stuff. Oh, and eat my pizza at the after-party. Yes, after-party. Kid-me plans a hearty funeral).
There is something to be said about raising a child with an understanding of death.
One time, in college, a girl in my class who served as a middle-school cheerleader coach on the side said that she kicked a kid off of her team for missing a practice.
"What was her excuse?" I asked, willing to hear the other side.
"Her grandma died, and the girl attended the funeral," my fellow-student replied.
I was shocked.
"Actually," I said, "that is a very, very valid excuse for missing a sporting practice.”
It was her turn to be shocked, and her face communicated her disgust in my general direction.
“I don’t think any kid should be taken to a funeral,” she said, “What’s the point of exposing a kid to death? I don’t think that I have ever been to a funeral.”
“The thing is,” Lauren said, “death is something that is going to happen. You don’t have to be afraid of this.”
She said this on the weekend when we were all together, looking at fall colors and eating freshly created applesauce.
We were talking about our quests for health and wholeness–eating clean, carving time for exercise.
But, as she pointed out, even health is about balance. We will still die. You can eat raw foods and stretch every morning and floss religiously and keep running marathons until you are 83 but…you will still die.
Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have people who will make you a posterboard of snapshots and send you flowers and pray at your mass. One can hope.
Years ago, I felt like a call in my heart to take a group of people with me to Spain and Italy. I felt like, maybe, it was from God, but, I also KNEW that I didn’t (don’t) speak Spanish or Italian or have any connections in those countries.
I wrestled with this–back and forth and back and forth–should I do this, organize a trip to Europe? Should I not? Should I rely on God’s provision? Will I just take a bunch of people to Europe and then will we all die there? All of us? Together, dead from pestilence and unforeseen circumstances and bandits?
In the middle of these frenzied prayers (for weeks. Weeks of God-wrestling), I decided to take a bike ride. It was a beautiful fall day, the kind where the sky is the bluest you can imagine and the faded yellow leaves pop against the full-blue saturation, and it’s simultaneously warm and cool and the best day you can imagine.
I ended up in a cemetery, the small kind, that’s only a half-lot wide. I parked my bike and walked through, through the graves of the founding fathers of the city, long since forgotten. I touched the crumbling granite of their gravestones gently, pulled leaves off of tombstones, wandered the rows.
I asked myself: who were these people? I didn’t know. I had no idea. And yet, somehow, they lived lives with dreams and favorite holidays and people who they loved. And now, they are dead. And no one remembers them, really.
I left the cemetery that day convinced I would plan the pilgrimage. After all–if I’m going to die anyway, why not do the tiny things (one day forgotten) that at least help people get to heaven? Yo, you might not remember me, friend, but I would love to see you full-time in eternity. Things worth investing in? People. Their lives, their love…their eternity.
Give freely, and work hard at loving. Or, do whatever you’d like. But, one day, forgotten under a stone, I’d like to rest knowing that that’s what I did with the feeble, frail years I had here.
I was in a Hispanic home last weekend. The mom asked me, “Did you want to see my altar?” and I told her that I did, so she led me to the table draped in colorfully woven cloth and tissue-paper flowers and photos–so many photos!–of loved ones: family members from her side, her husband’s side, old neighbors, old friends.
I’ve heard of a tradition that, only when someone is forgotten are they truly dead. It’s not a Catholic tradition, I don’t think (Jewish? Maybe?), but looking at the images I thought of that saying and smiled a bit. On the table were some over-the-counter meds on display, for this man who was a doctor; or a doll’s replica of a bottle of Coke, because that ancestor loved her cola. We talked about the Hispanic-mama’s family, her friends, her memories. She asked if I wanted to take a picture of her altar, so that I could show my mom. And so, I did.
I took a picture of her Day-of-the-Dead altar and showed my mom later.
Tomorrow, Saturday, is Halloween. Or, traditionally, “All Hallow’s Eve.” Blah blah blah, no one cares. But, it means that it’s the Eve of a more special day. And that day is “All Saints Day.” And then the day after that is “All Souls Day.”
Sometimes, in culture, people hold on to the traditions without really understanding their meanings. That’s OK to me. I’m happy that people celebrate what I love, even if they don’t fully know why. So, on Saturday (and even today) people are dressing up and going to parties and eating candy. What fun. Happy Halloween.
But then, on Sunday, I will go to mass (Lord willing), and maybe I’ll just sit a little extra in church and thank God for all of the heavenly friends who positively pull me to be a better woman.
And, on Monday (if the Lord wills it), I will return to a small cemetery. And I will walk up and down the rows of the people, long since forgotten. And I will finger through my rosary beads, praying for their eternal rest.
Death is not something to be afraid of. It, too, is a part of life. But, how you live impacts how you die and, even, what happens after you die. So, in that small cemetery (if the Lord wills it), I will pray again, wrestle with God’s will a little more.
And I’ll thank God for those who have gone before me, mentioning them to Him. And I’ll pray for me a little, too. That His grace sustain me to live well, die well, and (in the end) PARTY LIKE A ROCKSTAR WELL in the heavenly kingdom.