Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Time to Mourn, Part Three (Of Three)

Even before she realized she was sick, Mom C. had taken note of the little country cemetery near the kids' school and our church. It is not anything special, really, just a few acres adjacent to a farmer's field--no beautiful rolling hills or rugged old shade trees. But it is a part of our community, and wandering through it, one can piece together a history of the immediate area, going back about a hundred and ten years.

Her only hesitation, once she found out that her condition was indeed terminal, was that it is right on the little road that leads to the church and school, a road that we travel nearly every day of the week. Dad was reluctant, at first. The constant visual reminder would be difficult. But in the end, that little cemetery was what the two of them decided on.

Two days after Mom passed, we took Dad there to meet the caretakers (people with whom we go to church) and we tromped through the snow to select two plots, side by side. Looking at the plot map, with names written in of who is currently buried and who has purchased spaces in advance, we saw that Mom's remains would be in good company. We know these people. This is our community.

When Saturday's memorial service was over, the hearse and our family's vehicles led the way to the cemetery, only about a half mile from the church. The deep snow around the grave site had been shovelled the day before and only a couple of inches remained, just what had fallen overnight and that morning. Green astroturf extended a few feet in all directions from the grave itself and a row of eight to ten chairs had been set up for the family to sit in.

We didn't feel like sitting. We carried the casket from the hearse to the grave site and set it on a metal frame above the hole. Then we huddled together for warmth and comfort as the other guests moved in and joined around us. Some had hats and gloves and even boots, but most of us were bare-headed, bare-handed and cold, ill-equipped to be standing out in a snowy field. The kids and some of their young friends helped themselves to the chairs when they saw we planned to stand. I covered them with the heavy blankets that the funeral home had thoughtfully provided.

Just two days before, I had nervously mentioned a poem to the rest of the family, one I'd written about a month prior, knowing the inevitable was upon us. It is just a simple poem, not terribly deep or insightful, but it summed everything up in a way that seemed appropriate to the moment. It was inspired by a combination of things, Mom C.'s love of hiking beside the lovely mountain streams, the Philippians 3 passage about pressing on toward the goal, and the backpacking trip my husband and son took this summer, the one I wrote about here.

The family liked it and opted to have me read it at the grave side. I didn't know that the pastor would call upon me to start with it. Caught off guard and not really ready, I was glad I had it written down and didn't have to recite it from memory. My voice quavered on the first line, but I quickly recovered. The moment was too beautiful to be lost to a shaky voice and I was able to offer my simple poem like a gift, strong and slow and clear. This is what I read:

The Final Mile

The path was lovely, through the wood
With gentle stream beside
The water’s music, shadow’s dance
Gave rhythm to her stride

But ‘round a bend, the path grew steep
With snags and boulders strewn
The docile brook now raged and frothed
She strained to hear the tune

The final mile was all uphill
And arduous the climb
But on she pressed, and at the top
Lay rest and joy sublime

When I'd finished, the pastor began to talk. His tone was different from what it had been in the church. He had been sentimental and sweet then, not sappy--as that is not who he is--straight-forward and matter-of-fact, but sensitive and kind. His words now were powerful and confident--almost triumphant, and the friends and family gathered around us were clearly moved, echoing their agreement and quiet amens, significantly more than usual for this crowd, gathering courage and strength of conviction as his talk continued on.

When he read the classic line, "O grave, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" it sent chils down my spine--and not from cold. In fact, I realized that I wasn't cold at all anymore. I nudged Andy and whispered for him to look around while we listened. Fat flakes of snow were drifting down, landing on jackets, hair and eyelashes. Little clouds of steam marked each person's breath in the icy air. The children huddled together under the blankets, also dusted with snow. But people were not stomping their feet or shivering. All were intent on the victorious words the pastor was speaking. All were there because they wanted to be there, in the cold, with us. That scene, with the snow swirling all around us, was the most beautiful thing I think I've ever seen. I wanted to memorize it and keep it forever.

He finished his brief words and prayed, and then we sang the Doxology--deliberately, passionately--our voices muffled only slightly by the snow.

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

And that was that.

Several family members knelt next to the casket for a final word, a final good-bye. Dad C. spread his arms over it and shed a few more final tears, a last embrace through a closed oaken box.

As we tromped back to our cars, I was suddenly reminded of my skirt and nylons and inappropriate footwear and I shivered against the cold again. The spell was broken.

We drove back to the church, to the luncheon that the ladies had set out for us, a simple potluck of sandwiches and salads, and another entire luncheon, it seemed, of only desserts. I love our church family. They know nothing comforts like good food, and just looking at it and smelling it, we were all suddenly ravenous, as if we hadn't eaten for days.

We smiled and laughed and hugged one another, and ate. And ate. The time for tears had come and gone, and would come again another day, but this was the time to enjoy one another and feast in celebration of a beautiful life.

But when it was over, and the displays had been taken back down, and the leftover food packaged up and the flowers loaded into cars, we were tired.

It was only about two o'clock in the afternoon, but we were very, very tired. As brief as her struggle with cancer was, it has been a long couple of months.

To start with Part One, click here.


Sherry C said...

Please know, family, that this account is not meant to be a comprehensive family historical record of the event. This is just my memories, my impressions, the view from my eyes.

I would love to hear or read everyone else's various takes on the same events. I'm sure they would be identical in some aspects, and would vary widely in others.

Mister Ed T said...

Thanks for letting us look through your eyes, and your heart. A most fitting and moving account.