I know it sounds like the title of some humor book or self-help book. But it was actually my reality today.
I attended my first real funeral today.
I skipped my grandmother’s funeral in 1982. Her loss was so devastating to me that my sister and I chose to stay at home instead of attend. I have no regrets to this day. I attended my grandfather’s funeral in 1984. He had been mentally gone for decades and was living in a group home. The only people at the funeral were my family. My immediate family. Mom, Dad, brothers, and sister. It was not devastating.
Nobody likes funerals but I always have a knack for avoiding them. It’s intentional. I don’t deal well with those things. My empathy overwhelms me. I feel like I absorb the energy of the situation. It’s too much. So I avoid them. I send flowers and condolences and the most beautiful cards you can find.
It was 5 years ago I attended a memorial service for a former co-worker. He wasn’t much older than me and had fought a good long battle with cancer. The service was at a very spirit-filled church that was absolutely packed. I took my place right smack in the middle of the church. I held up okay when his friends and family got up and shared stories. However, I lost it when they pulled up a video montage showing clips of him with his young children and wife, laughing, singing songs.
There were certainly moist eyes in the house but I became a sobbing wreck. I stood up and excused myself to the back of the church. My husband finally joined me and since it was close to the end, I told him I simply needed to leave. And we did.
There have been a few circumstances since then where I could have or should have attended a service but again, I managed to avoid it. Today was not that day.
My mother lived in Raleigh once and became close friends with Betty. I’ve met Betty only on a few occasions but enough to know that she is a gentle spirit with a kind heart that truly cares for my mother as a friend. Since my mother has known her, Betty has taken care of her elderly mother. I didn’t know this until yesterday, but Betty is an only child and a widow. So in recent years her mother, Miss Estelle, had become a large part of her daily life.
It sounds odd but I thought of Miss Estelle a bit like my dog Emma. My dog Emma is always by my side. She often just lays on the couch by me, or under my desk in her doggy bed. When I leave the house, she wants to go with me, even if it means sitting in the car seat while I run errands. I sense she just wants to company. She wants to proximity.
Betty took Miss Estelle with her everywhere. Betty came to my house once and Miss Estelle quietly sat in the car while we talked out front, content to just be sitting there.
My mother came to visit me last Christmas. While we were running around, she wished she had the time to stop in to see Betty. It was out of our way and not on our list of things to do but I knew Betty was an important friend to my mom. While Evan slept in the back of the car, my mom visited Betty and Miss Estelle and gave them Christmas presents and lit them up with joy. We said our goodbyes and left.
My mother called me on Friday to let me know that Miss Estelle has passed away. I felt bad for Betty. But Miss Estelle had been in failing health for a year and had reached the age of 92. She had lived to see her children’s children’s children. That’s a pretty good life.
My mom also told me that she really wanted to come down to attend the service but wouldn’t be able to. Then the words came out of my mouth before I knew it, “do you want me to go?” She said she was hoping I would. That it would be nice to go on her behalf since I lived locally and Betty always asked about me. She told me it would mean a lot to her if I went.
Those are the kind of words that normally come from my mother so I knew it must be important. And I decided to go.
What to wear? I didn’t know what to wear. I could wear black but is that too dark? Plus, Betty is a spirit-filled Christian and I knew she must somehow see this occasion as cause to celebrate. I squeezed into my black pantsuit leftover from my professional days. Clearly, I was thinner then. And I selected a scarf to wear around my neck with butterflies on it. I think I’d like someone to wear butterflies to my funeral.
Then I asked my husband what to do. I was going to the visitation. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. He gave me the lowdown on a typical Catholic wake. I was hoping I could head in, say a few nice words, and head out.
I was fine all the way there. I didn’t feel sad or anything. Just a little apprehensive. Then I walked into the funeral home. My heart started racing. I felt like I didn’t below there. I was surrounded by old people casually greeting each other. There were regular people just chit-chatting and catching up. This felt wrong to me.
I got in the line. I assumed it was the line I was supposed to be in. I looked at what everyone was wearing. There was a lot of black. And black and white. And gray. One woman wore red earrings and a necklace. Most men had a white rose pinned to their lapel. I stood in line wondering if I should have left my big purse in the car.
I literally sat there thinking why did I bring my purse with me? So I had a place to put my phone. But I didn’t need my phone during a funeral. My mind thought of wanting to capture the moments for my mother. So she could feel like she was a part of it. But I was pretty sure that would be inappropriate. What about my car keys? Where would I have put them? But would the purse get in the way if I reached out to hug?
I signed the guestbook.
I looked at pictures.
I wondered if these people were friends or relatives. Did they know Miss Estelle? Were they here for Betty?
I rounded the corner and could see the casket. Oh God. It’s open. I couldn’t see anything at that point but I could see it was open. I saw the huge spray of pink roses over the top of the casket. I passed a photobook that had been made of Miss Estelle. It was a picture of her riding on the back of a motorcycle sometime in her 80s.
I got closer and saw flowers from the family saying “We miss you Mama.”
I saw a single pink rose from her great-granddaughter with a handwritten note about how special the times were that they spent together.
I could feel emotions forming in my chest. Stealing my breath. Making tears well up in my eyes. I fought it.
Then I saw Miss Estelle. I stared at her for a long time. She looked like she had a glow. I suppose it’s the hair and make-up. I guess it’s meant to look like you are at eternal peace. She looked peaceful. She looked like she was sleeping. But her chest didn’t move. She wasn’t breathing.
I looked down at her hands gently resting on her stomach that was not moving. Her hands were lifeless. They weren’t asleep. They weren’t peaceful. They were lifeless. And it bothered me. Her body looked strange to me. It didn’t seem to be the right shape.
And the whole while, I kept thinking, almost in a panic, how can everyone shake hands and be casual when there is a dead woman laying here?
I do believe our bodies are vessels. I do believe there is a soul or spirit that leaves that vessel upon our death. And maybe everyone in that room felt comfortable in that fact. I didn’t feel comfortable. I felt overwhelmed. And just as I reached the family to extend my condolences, I lost it.
Thank God, it was simply tears streaming down my cheeks, and not full-on sobbing. My voice was strained. I struggled to say “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Instead, I found myself apologizing for my tears and having family member get me tissues. Yes, get me tissues. I come to provide comfort and then I take it from them.
I made it through the line. I spoke to Betty who was so happy I came on behalf of my mom. I gave her a hug, continued with the other family members, and then hightailed it out of there.
I did not want to stay for the service. I did not want to be at the cemetery. I came to pay my respects and I did that as best I could. I walked out of the funeral home and just sat in my car for a few minutes. I had to let the emotion pass. And it did.
Tomorrow is another day. But for today, my heart and mind were elsewhere. Rest in peace, Miss Estelle.