In my life I have attended many wakes. Growing up Irish-Catholic they were a near weekly event that I was morally obligated to attend. If I had so much as brushed shoulders with the recently deceased at the supermarket, while they were alive of course, I was expected to be in attendance. By the age of twenty I had been inside of every single funeral parlor in my town. Each one with their own set of professional mourners. Each one rated by this same professional mourner society. See and be seen, was the Rule of Wakes. If you did not attend Jim O’Donnell’s wake you had better have been on your deathbed otherwise your absence would be duly noted and gossiped about.
With all of this experience under my belt, attending wakes, for me, is something I am not unfamiliar with. I expect crying and uneasiness. I know that sometimes a silent hug is better than trying to say the right thing. And for God's sake please don’t mention how peaceful the deceased looks. All of these wakes were for people I knew and had witnessed at some point living and breathing and walking around,so you would think going to the wake of someone I had never met would be a bit “easier”…
I was surprised by how much it was not.
I recently attended the wake for the mother of someone I work with at school. A month ago her mom had suddenly taken ill. At first the doctors thought it was pneumonia. Tests were done and it turned out to be much worse than that.
Cancer had very aggressively made a home in her lungs.
My friend put on a very brave face throughout her mother's brief battle. Whenever she was asked about her mother's condition she would say, “she’s holding on”, and then change the subject. What she really wanted to say, she just could not say out loud.
The night before her mother died she told me that she had a feeling that she would not be coming to work the next day.
Her mother died the next morning.
I did not really know my friend's mother, other than the stories she would tell about her.
She sounded like a real hot ticket, someone who enjoyed a good laugh and a cold Bud Light from the bottle.
She sounded like my kind of people and so attending her wake was a must.
I walked into the funeral home and took note of the white and pale green walls, the dated gold carpeting, the strategically placed boxes of Kleenex and the mahogany furniture. The “just like Grandma’s house” feel of funeral homes must be an industry standard.
Walking into the viewing room, the family, the flowers and the photographs were all testaments to a woman who had lived and loved life and who was not ready to give it up.
I tried to get to know her by looking at all of the photo collages that lined the room.
There she was, so full of life in her kitchen.
Beaming with her family.
Sunning herself in her lawn chair.
Present and in the front and center of every holiday picture. In that same Christmas sweater I bought for my Mom.
How could this lively person not be alive anymore?
This was so awfully unfair.
Seeing her at rest, the first time I had ever laid eyes on her, I was struck by her beauty and that she almost appeared to be smirking...like she was laughing at an inside joke.
I felt an overwhelming urge to laugh, right along with her…but that feeling changed to one of anger…it really was unfair, she had so many more pictures to be in.
I pulled myself together for what seemed like an eternity and finally said a prayer. And I made a promise, inspired by her smirk. I promised her that I would encourage her daughter to think of something everyday about her mother that made her laugh.
Small task. Big promise.
I sought out my friend amidst a sea of navy and black and gave her a hug. I said nothing. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth something very primal would have come out.
When I finally got into my car I became a heaving, sobbing mess.
I was getting angry.
I was in no mood to be consoled with that it was "God's will" or any of that "circle of life" garbage.
The more I drove the harder I cried…so I had to pull over.
I pulled into a nearby parking lot and just sat in my car, ugly crying.
It was a beautiful afternoon and there was nothing going on.
A woman was sitting on an old folding chair, outside of a laundromat, chatting on her cell phone in either Spanish or Portuguese.
The tone and rhythm of her voice had a musical quality to it and it soothed me.
I just sat there listening. It didn't matter that I couldn't understand a word of what she was saying. It was doing it's job and comforting me.
She could have been reading a shopping list, cussing out someone or settling an argument.
Quite possibly she could have been consoling someone.
After I pulled myself together I thought of my friend and her family, I remembered how I got through my father’s death with my family.
And we get through these times… together. Family, friends, acquaintances, little old ladies who read the obit’s and plan their day accordingly and strangers who unknowingly help in the process of healing.
There is a time, yes, to mourn the sorrowful…but that time soon passes and gives way to celebrating the joyous.
And keeping promises inspired by smirks.
Peace - Rene