Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Happiness and sadness can coexist

Pam posted this on Facebook three days before she died.

Aaron’s aunt Pam died recently, just two days after her oldest son got married in Hilton Head, South Carolina. She was very sick (lupus and lymphoma cancer), although I don’t think anyone ever thought she wouldn’t make it home after the wedding. She was surrounded by her parents, her five children, her husband of 30 years, and even a beloved priest who had flown out to officiate the wedding (at the funeral, he said she told the family right before she died to ‘get out of the room now and let me sleep. It’s time for me to go to Heaven.’) ((But not until after she gave everyone instructions about what attractions to visit in South Carolina, and what to remember about the flight home.)) She was a mom until the very end.  
She was as Catholic as they come, she was very outspoken, she was fun and loud and outgoing and kind. She always knew the “right” thing to say to lighten a mood. She had a great laugh. 
Hers was the most well-attended funeral I have ever been to, speaking volumes about her involvement with the church—choir member, liturgist, church organist (“Pam chose these songs,” the new organist announced to the congregation. “Sing loud so she can hear you”); her role as her kids’ No. 1 Fan/proud community booster (she rarely missed a game, and that is a lot of games for five athletic kids); her impact as a piano teacher, a mentor, a friend. 
I knew Pam as well as you can know someone you see on holidays and special celebrations, and while I enjoyed our conversations over the years (it’s hard not to have a lively conversation when you get two naturally inquisitive women together), I didn’t know her the way so many others did. I got choked up watching her kids and husband during the funeral service. The oldest son (who was just celebrating his wedding not even a week ago, hard to wrap my head around that rollercoaster of emotions), would occasionally put his arm around the youngest son, or tenderly rub his back, just like a mom would. Her husband looked straight ahead, even when his wife’s casket was rolled into the aisle beside him. He doesn’t like to be the center of attention—that was where Pam shone brightest—and while you could tell he was gracious for the outpouring of love and support, it was clear that he was uncomfortable in the spotlight.
They stood in solidarity, all six of them, ranging in age from 19 to 54. This was their “new normal,” and the reality probably hasn’t even hit them yet. I imagine the grief will come in waves when they least expect it. I kept thinking their mom is gone; his wife is gone, leaving behind a void only a mom or wife could fill. She won’t be sleeping in the bed beside her husband, she won’t be there for holidays or birthdays, she won’t be there when her other kids get married, she won’t be there when her grandkids are born. She won't be there when something good happens and they want to call her, or when something bad happens and they want to call her. She won’t be there.  
The finality of a person who was once so alive, suddenly no longer being of and in this world … I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.  
Aaron and I spent a lot of time explaining the weekend events to the boys. First there would be a visitation, and we’d see Pam one last time. It would look like she's sleeping, but “her body is just a shell now,” Aaron explained. “She's not in it. She doesn’t need it anymore.”
Because the boys don’t grasp the concept of a soul, we told them all of her happy thoughts are in Heaven. “The life is out of her,” Ben said. “The life went up to the sky.” (Yes.)
“If all of my happy thoughts are in Heaven, then you and Dad will be there, because you’re two of my happy thoughts,” Adam announced.
After a minute, Ben said, “In Heaven, I want my blankies and my milk.”
(He’s not quite as sensitive as Adam.) 
We waited in line for an hour to share our condolences. Adam and Ben hugged every family member, but Aaron took it up a notch by saying in his sweet voice, “I’m sorry for your loss.” (He can be an old soul, that one.)
I felt for the family, having to hug everyone for three hours straight, a seemingly never-ending line of well-wishers, having to nod after every “I’m sorry” and “This is so sad” over and over and over. I know it’s closure for the survivors, I know it's a testament to how much she meant to this community, but it still feels so inconsequential. “I’m sorry” doesn’t really cover it, ya know? I mean, you say “I’m sorry” when you bump into someone while getting off the bus, how can it have the same meaning when someone dies?
After the visitation there was a one-hour prayer service, and I didn't expect the kids to sit still through that, so Pete (Jay's fiance) and I brought Adam, Max, and Ben back to the hotel to swim. We met up with Josh’s girlfriend Becky, who had just arrived, and talked about wedding plans and religion and Pam and school and work. There may have been a few drinks consumed later that night.
We went to the funeral service at the church the next morning. I wasn't sure how the boys would do during a long Catholic Mass (sing, stand up, sit down, kneel and pray, repeat), but as it turns out, they did great. I was so proud of them. They only started complaining towards the very end "When is this done?!?" ... and I gotta be honest, I was starting to wonder the same thing. Adam only embarrassed me once, when the priest was waving the ceremonial incense over the casket, and he loud-whispered, "Mom! That STINKS!" (I personally thought it smelled good.)
Aaron, Josh, and Max were pallbearers, so they sat in a separate area of the church, and took their roles very seriously. Max, who is only eight, doesn’t exactly have the strength of a grown man, so Aaron carried the weight for both of them, using both hands. (Aaron later said that he didn’t realize what an honor it was to be asked to carry Pam’s physical body to its final resting place until he was in the process of doing just that.) 
We were part of a funeral procession that drove out to the cemetery, blowing through stop signs and everything. A group of family and friends stood beside her grave and listened as the priest said a few final words. The family tenderly, gently, carefully removed single roses from the elaborate "Husband, Mother" bouquet atop her casket  ... such a simple gesture that meant so much. There were a lot of tears. 
We agreed that the family needed their privacy, their last goodbye, so we returned to the church basement, where the "church basement ladies" had prepared a luncheon. The kids shocked both Aaron and I by asking for seconds of the goulash. Goulash? Really? (I should probably try to find a recipe, even though I’m sure Adam wouldn’t eat my version, because we're talking about Adam here. If the recipe isn't EXACTLY the same, forget it. He won't touch it.) 
We never really had a chance to visit with Aaron’s uncle and cousins, there was just so much going on, so Aaron and Josh decided to extend their stay at the hotel one more night. We were all invited to the house, and you could tell Aaron's uncle so appreciated having his family there. It was 100 percent the right decision to stay. 
 [*Sidenote: There was a freakin’ Saint Bernard staying in the hotel room next door to us (why would you bring a Saint Bernard to a hotel?!), so I was glad to be leaving the hotel for a few hours ... every time that ginormous beast of a dog heard Adam or Ben’s voices, she barked her deep, loud, wall-shaking bark. I hope the people in that room tipped the housekeepers generously. Can you imagine the slobber and fur everywhere?]
When we got to his uncle's house, the boys played football and baseball in the backyard for hours—even after the sun went down—and I honestly think the family was grateful for the distraction. (Our kids were the only kids there, and Josh, Aaron, and all four of Pam's boys took turns playing with them.) Adam and Ben loved it.
In some ways it felt like any other celebratory event—people around the kitchen table talking and joking and sharing stories, people in the family room watching TV, people talking quietly in the living room—but there was always an undertone of sadness, of absence, of loss. Friends from Pam's faith group dropped off two big pans of lasagna and told everyone to “Eat, please, eat.” It was obvious that people had been dropping off food for awhile—there was a meat and cheese tray, a bowl of fresh fruit, plates of brownies and bars, a bag of chex mix, a batch of puppy chow (Ben couldn’t get enough. He first asked for more of “that white cereal,” and then for a plate of “dog food”). 
I'm guessing Pam was the hostess in the relationship, because Aaron's uncle seemed a little lost when trying to direct people to the food and beverages. 
“If you want, there's beer in the fridge,” he said. “And there's a lot of food here. Just … help yourself.” 
Everyone ate. A lot of people drank. People laughed. The ambiance was dramatically different from the cloak of sadness at the church and in the cemetery. 

In some weird way, it was reassuring to know that even when saying goodbye … maybe especially when saying goodbye … happiness and sadness can coexist.  
This weekend was also a powerful testament to the love of family and friends, of community. The way people rally together to take care of one another … wow. That is selfless love.   
It was a shift in perspective—no one is promised tomorrow, so we better appreciate today. (If you really want to do something, DO IT. Don’t put it off. It sounds so cliche, until you're at a funeral, wondering what that person wished they would have done when they could have done it.)    
And THAT is why I decided to do my own version of my friend A’s 40 x 40 list, only—you know—my own version since I can’t go back in time (“obvi” – as my friend Alex would say). 10 in the next 10 (or five if I’m really ambitious).     

1.    MOVE!!
2.    See Wicked, Lion King, or Phantom of the Opera
3.    Visit San Francisco
4.    Take the kids to Disney!
5.    Visit T’s new house in Idaho
6.    Get a dog
7.    Go cc skiing (stole this one from my friend Em)
8.    Volunteer
9.    Try paddleboarding (yoga?!)
10. Create something beautiful