On an evening such as this
It's hard to tell if I exist
If I pack the car and leave this town
Who'll notice that I'm not around
I could hide out under there
I just made you say "underwear"
I've never been comfortable with funerals or memorial services, perhaps very few people are but somehow I've ended up attending too many.The first personal death that made an impression on me was my great grandmother in 7th grade. She was, as is the nature of grandmothers, always old from my perspective so in a different category of humanity as me, still growing, in our youths we tend to be a little less mindful if not downright in denial of our mortality.
The first one that made an impression of that was in college. There was a friend who literally died on her job between in my early college years, the same age as me, not even old enough to drink. I intended to skip the funeral but went and even spoke briefly at it, quickly and quietly learning the lesson that a lot of people say at funerals what should have been said before the person was in a casket. This was as close to justified as I've ever seen it because it was someone young and a sudden death.
In the Marshall Islands where I volunteered as a teacher after college, funerals a big event and I attended too many (is there a right amount?). It's a continual ceremony over several days with one group entering the family room where the casket is there and everyone sitting in silence for a while. There is some interaction between the family and the most important person in the group (this often defaulted to me as I went with students) and then leaving of cash or soap directly on top of the open casket window.
The challenge though of the vast majority of funerals and memorial services I've attended over the last few years is that they have been friends who I've met through cancer circles. They are friends who our denial of our mortality had become, depending on the individual, sometimes much stronger and sometimes much weaker as they dealt with the disease. With only one exception, I've actually passed up any formal part in a funeral, big or small, other than attending. The things I need to say I say as long before as I can. The fact that I do not part take in the formalities says something but perhaps just as telling is the reality that the first time I got a babysitter after becoming a single father was so that Kiana would not have her first memorial service be that of a stranger to her. And while I'm less than 4 months from marriage, a few days ago was the first time I took Elaine with me to a memorial service. In far too many of these services, I am the only or only one of a few people in the audience that came out of their cancer circles. I've worried if perhaps I'm doing a disservice by attending, a reminder that cancer has been unfair and taken far better people than me faster.
The memorial service we attended was for Minerva, someone who I've written about before. Like all good memorial services, there was laughter and tears expressed the exclamation parts throughout years. There were gaps that left question marks. Like all individuals there were moments that made the death a little too mistimed, her receiving her cancer diagnosis on the same day her daughter got accepted to MIT. She wouldn't even make it to her daughter's graduation but MIT was kind enough to have a private in advance ceremony video to send to her mom for her to view back in Austin hospice care. There was a slideshow during it, of a picture of the race we did together. I pushed her in a stroller for a 10k, where she own her age group. I always wear the 'you just got passed by a survivor' shirt to that race but that picture was somehow a great memory of remembering exactly how I had Minerva's back. But in total frankness, it was also a guilty moment that being shown at her memorial service where I was still standing and she was gone. Cancer changes many of us, especially brain tumor survivors where we lost part of who we were, because we literally lost part of our mind. Listening to those stories while someone is recovered or recovering from cancer can be inspiring when you've met someone after they had to relearn to walk or talk. Hearing them at funerals can have a comforting or discomforting effect, sometimes both simultaneously.
It was a Christian ceremony, my own church was intrigued to see me in dress clothes at church but it was because I was going to the ceremony afterwards. There was the usual talk of heaven and some beautiful singing. But it did and has thrown me off since her death and memorial services as many of them do, this one more than most. She was a friend who I'd gone to her house, her hospital, her hospice, who I had cheered on in races. And yet when I was at her memorial service, there was literally about a handful of people I knew in the room. It can be odd at ceremonies where see that someone's circles are strangers to each other. At my wedding, I hope to bridge some of those gaps. At memorial services, I don't quite know how to approach it so the only people I talked to where the family members of hers I had already met, the person who introduced us and Elaine and even with those I didn't say much.
I mean no disrespect to how anyone handles death and anyone who is easily offended should probably never read my blog or be my friend. But it seems at funerals and memorial services or perhaps the subconscious of this blog is to try to narrate, make sense of the story. It's what the human brain is literally wired to do, take points and weave them into a tapestry. At night when the brain does this we call these dreams or nightmares. During the day, it's a bit more complex and sometimes we call it history or politics, religion or philosophy, excuses or justification. There are some of those I think are true while others would believe the opposing belief is the real truth. I hold my convictions with conviction but I've been wrong enough to where I haven't achieved the arrogance to think 100% about anything. But when funerals or memorial services come, I listen to the ideas being proposed out there to make it a little easier to accept someone being gone. On some of those, I absorb the reality that the universe was around long before I came into it and will be around long after I'm gone. There are moments where, me the guy with a religion degree, remembers his comparative religion class where we all had to talk about if we knew we were going to heaven/hell, which religion's heaven or hell we would pick? (I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours.)
But oddly enough, the song that has recently been stuck in my head is the one quoted above. Making dramatic gestures at funerals can be comforting, our ideas and religion can be where we hide as well. Humanity wishes to control our destiny, even after death sometimes, or at least delay it. I mean I'm a guy who walked out of ambulances, put off brain surgery to run a marathon. It's why we like great doctors like mine and some would argue why certain religions were made up (this of course applies to every religion except the one you or I subscribe to, that one's universal truth). I long ago gave up trying to impose too much meaning in death. It's beyond my imagination to make logical sense of it. But when I ran behind Minerva when I walked next to her, when I visited her in her home, in her hospital room, when we went out for breakfast, I knew that knowing her for just a few years due felt much too short. If I'd known her my entire life, it would still not be long enough. But I also know, that in the heartbreak of it all, like the greatfulness of the privilege of knowing her at all, those connections don't make death any easier for me but they do give meaning to life itself.
How we handle different things says something about us and the things we're dealing with. I wish to be cremated and flushed down the toilet and hope there is no funeral or memorial service. Or that if there is an the wish above is respected (the executor of my will has said he intends to ignore it) that everyone just line up to use the toilet sea that's already prepared for it. But ultimately funerals and memorial services are for the living, for self comfort, to tell and hear memories. I left Minerva's funeral and went home and then Elaine and I did a run/bike workout that we'd never done before with both of us going to places we'd never been in parts of it. Then we went and climbed a tree house.
I also got home and sent some texts and emails and made some calls and with only one exception they were all people I regularly stay in contact with already, just wanted to make one more connection point. Yesterday Kiana and I went on a run and then went and climbed the same tree house. Those have been primarily the places I've hid to deal with my mortality, in exercise and in working on the relationships I want to keep to try to figure out what all this is for and seeing the humor in the situation. I am not suggesting that's a universal truth but if it ever rhymes with something you're interested in doing, you too can come hide with me under there. I hope you just said underwear.