The Circle of Life

Lately, I have been dealing with the loss of three people I have known for a long, long, time. Each of these women died within the last week. I am not bereft or wailing inconsolably; death is the end of the circle of life, and I recognize that as I get older, I will be having more experiences with this situation.

The circumstances are…

…Sr. Pal Mary who I took grocery shopping for about eight years, got a diagnosis of cancer about a year ago. She was 85 years old. She was treated well by doctors and managed a bit of a bounce-back to her usual spirit of good humor in July. I showed her my photos of my most awesome Utah motorcycle adventure, and she was very happy for me.

Shortly thereafter, her health took a turn for the worse. She had to be moved to a nursing home. Her two daughters and a son live out-of-town, with six grandchildren scattered about, so I helped organize things at Mary’s house to clean it, make minor repairs, and get the house ready for sale. Mary was good with that — she knew that she would not return home. The house sold in five days and provided financial support that Mary’s family needed to pay expensive nursing home and medical bills not covered by Medicare.

Last time I saw Mary was three weeks ago when I stopped by for a visit. Her family arranged to space out visits so one of them was there about once a week. But when I visited, she was alone. I held her hand and read her a favorite passage from Michener’s Chesapeake about Onk-Or the goose. I am not sure that she knew I was there or heard me, but doing that gave me, at least, a sense of peace and closure.

Mary’s daughter called me last Friday to let me know that Mary died peacefully. By her wishes, there will not be a funeral, but there will be a memorial service at some time in the future when the entire family can be there.

Also last week, I received a message from the wife of a childhood friend who told me that my friend’s mother had died. His Mom was like other moms in the neighborhood. She was kind and nice to me. She was a gifted piano musician. I remember her playing piano almost all the time I visited my friend’s house.

Later when I got a piano for the house where my spouse and I live, my friend’s Mom stopped by several times to give me some lessons. She was patient and helpful. Though I did not practice much, I appreciated the experience from a gifted artist.

I found her obituary in the local paper last Friday to confirm the time of the funeral. While I was reading it, I noticed the obituary of another old friend who had also passed away. That old friend was the school secretary for a school where I did my student teaching while at University, and where I taught school (2-1/2 years) after I graduated.

My school-secretary friend had quite a funny sense of humor. I always enjoyed laughing with her. After she retired and I moved on in my career, we kept in touch. She lived in a retirement community right around the corner from where I lived. She became an early “guinea pig” for my second Senior Safety Saturday event. I also took her grocery shopping and did minor home repairs from time to time.

However, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. As the disease progressed, her family had to move her to a “memory care” facility nearer their home. I gave them some advice from my past experience in caring for my aunt through her seven-year battle with this unforgiving illness.

Last Sunday morning, I visited my friend’s family, shared stories and had another laugh to remember our better and brighter days.

Then back to my childhood friend’s mother’s funeral… it was Sunday afternoon. Why Sunday? My friend is Jewish.

I was asked to be a pall bearer at the funeral. Apparently the rabbi is rather easy-going with the rules and said that a non-Jew could serve as a pall bearer because it is an honor to the family to have someone they knew for some 50 years to be with them.

I attended the service in the synagogue. It was lovely. I learned a bit more about Jewish traditions and faith. Most of the readings from the Bible were psalms that I recognized, and could even recite one of them in Latin. My friend heard me and smiled. (He also took Latin from the same teacher that I had and we studied together way back when.)

I learned that it is expected and an honor to the family to escort the body to the graveside. As a pall bearer, that meant helping to carry the casket out of the hearse, place it on a cart, and wheel it across wet and muddy grass in the cemetery to the grave. The rabbi stopped along the way and said some chants in Hebrew, then proceeded to the grave.

The weather matched the somber mood — grey and drizzly. My boots got muddy. So what.

There was a short graveside service, and my friend’s mother’s body was lowered into the grave. Unlike Catholic funerals and graveside services I have attended, for a Jewish person, she is actually buried right then.

At the grave, everyone was expected to use a shovel and throw 3 shovel-loads of dirt into the grave. I did that with the others.

We returned to the synagogue to begin sitting shiva — the beginning of a traditional seven-day mourning period for a first-degree relative. I shared a few stories with my friend, his brother, and his father, who were all appreciative that I came to honor their beloved mother and wife. I left soon thereafter.

Again, I am not bereft. Death is part of life, and I honor it, however it comes to those we have known and loved.

I cherish that my beloved spouse knows my heart and how sensitive I am. When I got home, he sat with me for a while, listening to the piano (nice that a disclavier Yamaha plays beautifully by itself), held my hand, and let me reminisce. His deep compassion and love soothes my soul.

Please keep your hollow “thoughts and prayers.” That phrase drives me insane. Just think about those you love, extend kindness and grace, and remember what I often say,

Life is short: show those you love how you love them. Every.single.day.

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