God Is In The Details

The morning after our Mother died, it was just me and my sister; bound by love, blood and the telephone line.

We had called our cousins.  We had started to reach out to friends.

What do we do now?

It is not an existential question.  It is, in fact, a quote.  The morning after our Mother died, I said to my sister,

What do we do now?

Our Mother had never talked about her funeral. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that she made it to her 95th year and never once mentioned it. None of us had mentioned it. There were no written instructions; no prepaid burial arrangement; no reserved plot.

But there was a meeting of the minds.  Without specific directions, my sister and I essentially re-created the rituals our Mother had designed 35 years before when she planned the services for our Father.  And while my sister and I conferred on every decision, we ultimately followed the path she had forged all those years ago.

But all those years ago, I was young; distraught; overwhelmed. I was numb during my dad’s services. I remembered only the broad brushstrokes. The details were a blur.

For 35 years, I had nothing to hold onto.

I was determined that it would not happen again.  The funeral was designed to honor her, but it was also for me. I was keenly aware that I was making my own memories.  I needed something to hold onto.

We debated where her service should take place. After ten years in the nursing home, my Mother was no longer an official member of the parish where she had worshipped for more than forty years. But we decided to go back to the church of our childhood, and one step into the cool, dark space answered those doubts. I had attended the elementary school; she had devoted countless volunteer hours to the “Mother’s Club.”  We had walked up this aisle to mourn our Father; it was right to mourn here again.

As we entered the church, her casket was waiting in the vestibule. It was adorned with a richly embroidered red and gold folk art tapestry that our parents had loved; thirty-five years earlier my Mother had draped this same cloth over our Father’s casket.

And thirty-five years ago, she had placed three white carnations on his coffin; one from each of us. A gentleman of the great indoors, he could readily identify only one type of flower: a carnation. Our Mother had a trademark flower too; for the last decade we had sent Hawaiian orchid leis to celebrate every special occasion.  Our last gift was here; a single white orchid lei rested on the scarlet and gold.

As we stood with our cousins in the church vestibule, the priest began the prayers.  He removed our family tapestry and replaced it with the traditional white cloth pall, part of the prescribed funeral liturgy. He continued the prayers, but suddenly stopped, motioned, and directed our cousin to put the tapestry back.  We were surprised and moved by the priest’s impulsive decision to break protocol, remove the church’s symbol and incorporate our family tradition into the ceremony.

As our cousin stepped forward with the delicate red and gold weaving, she swiftly leaned over and kissed our Mother’s casket. Spontaneous, poignant, seared in my memory; already our sweet cousin had given me something to hold onto.

As the sound of bagpipes filled the air, our Mother was carried into the church by her beloved sister’s grandchildren; six men she had adored since they were little boys. They in turn had lavished her with attention and affection.  We followed in procession; her family together again; a gathering she would have relished.

The architect Mies van der Rohe is credited with the expression: “God is in the details.” And to this day, I think of the details of that day; the enveloping embrace of friends, the glorious Pie Jesu from the Faure Requiem, a cousin’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:

“Finally brethren, whatever is true,

whatever is honorable,

whatever is right,

whatever is pure,

whatever is lovely,

whatever is gracious,

if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, think about these things.

The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

It took me 35 years to get here.

The memories are a gift.

God is in the details.

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Be Careful What You Wish For

Every time I saw my Mother, I knew it could be for the last time.

I guess that statement is always true, for all of us, everywhere.  But our goodbyes are usually not underscored by such tremulous thoughts.

But with my Mother, I thought it every time.

In fact, I prayed for it.

I remember one day, twenty-five years earlier.  I picked up the phone and heard these words:

Hallie, I do not want any extraordinary measures to keep me alive.

Not even a hello!

She was healthy then.  She was also clear and determined and firm. I am doing a Living Will and I do not want any extraordinary measures to keep me alive. I want you and your sister to know and I am writing it here so there will be no doubt.

And there it was, on the bottom of her typed Living Will, written in her clear, cursive hand:

I believe in quality of life, not quantity of years.

But there were no extraordinary measures. There were, however, extraordinary genes keeping generations in our extraordinary family living to extraordinary old age.

I visited those ancestors.  Or at least I stood by their graves.   I stood by the graves of her parents and siblings and I asked them to take her:  She is ready. She is tired. Your youngest–your “dearest, sweetest Pico”– wants to go home.

I thought that when the moment came, she would finally have her wish.

And I thought that when the moment came, I would feel relief;

Relief that those beautiful almond-shaped hazel eyes would no longer be shrouded in confusion;

Relief that my once dignified, smart, sparkling mother would never again hit a nurse…

Or throw her food…

Or scream obscenities.

For the record, I had never heard my Mother even murmur an obscene word under her breath. Never

But the nursing staff was blunt:  Oh, she knows them, all right!

She would not want this.  She was 95.  She believed in quality of life, not quantity of years.

She even wrote it!

When the moment came, I expected relief.

I was in for quite a surprise.

How did I not know that this loss would be harrowing? 

That despite her condition, her wishes, and her Living Will, I would not be able to grasp what had happened.

It was simple: my Mother had died.  I was completely unprepared for the paroxysm of grief that engulfed me.

Grief; that word had little meaning for me.

Does it mean you can’t taste food…think in complete sentences…sleep?

Does it mean that the things that you have always loved, like the Sunday paper or a World Series game, are suddenly annoying intrusions?

Do ordinary conversations, with a friendly store clerk or taxi cab driver, seem to demand superhuman amounts of energy, stamina and concentration?

And as you slowly, gingerly, try to put one foot in front of the other, does the slightest curveball–from a lovely, familiar scent to an angry fist-shaking motorist–deliver an unexpected knock-out punch?

Grief.

Be careful what you wish for.