In Memorium

I’ve recently returned from a funeral. We flew to the western hub of the U.S., and then drove several hours south to a small town - population 600.  I didn’t accidentally drop any zero’s. The numbers have fluctuated to a whopping high of 700 once or twice in the last century. Unless the winters get markedly colder, they may not be able to meet that record again. I guess we can blame the reduction, along with everything else, on global warming. 

No stores. No gas stations. No television reception. I once asked someone who lives there what the people did if they got sick or had emergencies after hours. The response was, “we call our neighbors and if they don’t have what we need, we call the pharmacist in the town twenty miles away.  He goes in and opens up to help us.”

The flags were all at half mast. It must be comforting to live in a town where people  notice when their number is diminished by one.

So what are the chances I’d have two friends who retired from the city to the same obscure hamlet in the middle of nowhere?  I met them thousands of miles from each other and decades apart, yet they ended up living across the street from each other. The night we arrived, my girlfriend held a picnic in the park for us. The gathering was like a family reunion because if you know one person in this town, you know their relatives. I felt privileged to be absorbed with such sweeping generosity and hospitality.

Paul’s friendship with me was unique for my experience.  The friendship he offered my husband or any of the hundreds of people who attended the two days of viewing, memorial and graveside services was different for everyone who knew him.  He was a big enough human being to love each of us in the way we needed and understood. He met us where we were, walked with us and blessed our lives.

In my case, he taught me to carve stone. The day we spent in his workshop sculpting a sandstone piece is one of the shimmering highlights of my life. He had his chunk of rock and I had mine. We each wielded a die grinder hooked up to an air compressor. We looked like aliens in our eye protection and muffs – the evidence supplied by our spouses who took the pictures. He taught me the principles  and occasionally offered a suggestion or pointer. The rest of the time we existed in the solitude of our personal dopamine, serotonin induced high of creativity. For weeks afterward, nothing negative could touch me. This man gave me a jumpstart for my, then faltering, artistic abilities.

The other legacy Paul left me was posthumous and offered in concert with all of the people who were taking care of us and making sure our needs were met.  I didn’t have to do anything except feel. Didn’t need to be strong for anyone. Didn’t need to make decisions about any details. All I had to do was show up for the experience.  My mind turned off (or tuned into observer) and I stayed with my body and honored how it was trying to express. For the first time in my life, I was able to experience sadness instead of stuffing it somewhere in the physical suitcase only to have the emotions creep out and blindside me at some inopportune time. I also laughed a lot remembering Paul’s propensity for stumbling into incredibly funny situations and celebrated his life.

Paul was a lawman as well as a gifted artist. He started with the FBI and worked for the Sherriff’s department when he died. When the memorial was concluded, the honor guard was excused from the chapel.  A phalanx of men exited the church for several minutes.  My sense of humor has no impulse control in even the most somber circumstances; I wondered who was minding the store. I felt better when my girlfriend later said she thought it would sure be a good time to be out on the freeway with her new car. Paul would have been the first to agree and race her in his little  sports model.

Four motorcycle officers accompanied the hearse and four escorted the family car. The other officers in their duty vehicles fell in behind. No sleek cruisers here. Sturdy pickups and Suburbans for getting into and out of rough country – mostly on calls like the one that summoned them when Paul died. I realized these men aren’t out chasing hardened criminals all day. They assist  the people who live here and their work is predominantly search and rescue. I lost count after twenty-five vehicles, probably because I couldn’t see anymore for tears.

At the graveside, the officers formed a wall against intrusion. I noticed their dress uniform pants were Wranglers. Durable and unpretentious as the people in these parts. I also marked the incongruity of their weapons at a funeral.  Stetson hats and worn boots. In some ways it’s still a very wild west and yet these men wept as they presented arms for the passing of their brother. A twenty-one gun salute fired and the flag was solemnly folded and presented to Paul’s widow. A slow round of taps sounded sweet and poignant from all corners of the cemetery.

 After the meal and the catch up visits, we drove back out a long, dry road to the graveyard and stood at Paul’s plot. I marveled that the mortal life of one human being could be reduced to a patch of displaced sod and flowers wilting in the desert sun. What really counts about his life, the spiritual and energetic influence of this man’s time on the earth, is immeasurable and infinite. Same as my life, or yours. We can’t ever know the influence we have for good on the planet - or farther.

On the flight back, I pondered some powerful insights from this experience…

We experience grief because an event has occurred that is irrevocable. No matter what we do, we can’t change what has happened. In our can-do, recycle, a pin here or an artificial heart there world – we are powerless to effect any modification of the event. Dead is dead, at least to what we presume is our physical body. Grief comes until we learn to let go of the ones who transition before us. I sincerely hope for a day when we learn to manifest as the ancients, raising those who want to come back. Until then, we deal with the irreversible.

Grief is indifferent. We can rage and weep in an attempt to force grief to react to us, however, it remains unresponsive. Grief is the master teacher of acceptance. Acceptance is the instructor of peace.

We always thought there would be more time until a stretch of soft sand closed the window of opportunity. An ATV rolled over and crushed the life from Paul. I’ve always tried to say what I really mean, and let those I love know often how I feel about them. Paul’s death heightened my awareness of the need to consciously keep in touch, to let people know we cherish them and to make the time to communicate our affection. Caring is a matter of priorities. We don’t remember our favorite crime show or what isn’t getting done at work when a beloved lays in state at their funeral.

This little town makes time for the people it embraces. People there know they are cared for and that they can count on each other. No matter how large a city we live in, we can create community in a smile and with a simple act of kindness we can acknowledge another presence on the earth.

I learned that somehow, no matter how metropolitan the place we live, we need a body of bonded people to form community and someone to witness our lives and miss us when we’ve moved out of our body.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for standing witness.