These things happen in threes. It’s what they say. “They” being people like my father, a man who actually owns a book of funeral home and cemetery locations. Who owns something like that? He also reads the obituaries daily. This past weekend Flora, the mother of my father’s wife, passed away. She had been living at home with 24-hr care; they knew this would happen “any day now.” On our drive to the family-only graveside burial service, I asked Phil if we had any tissues.
“To make hand puppets. What do you mean ‘for what?'”
“What, like you’re gonna cry?”
“Of course. Everyone’s going to cry!”
“She was in her 90’s. She lived a full life. She’s at peace now, not suffering. Believe me, Stephanie, no one is crying.”
“Listen, everyone cries when they hear ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.'”
“Wrong religion, Stephanie.”
“No, it’s not! Jews totally say that.”
“Never. You’re wrong. Besides, I’ve never heard anyone read in English at a funeral. It’s always all in Hebrew.”
“You’ll see. And I bet you anything that everyone cries.”
“Oh, I’ll take that bet. No one’s crying. Except maybe for you when you realize you’ve lost the bet.”
We arrived as my step-mother, her brother, and my two step-sisters walked up to the hearse to identify the body. I was asked if I wanted to join them. Just the thought of it had me in tears. My step-sisters were crying before the ceremony began. I was rummaging in the glove compartment, left with crisp brown Starbucks napkins to sop up the emotion. People cry at funerals, I tried explaining to Phil, despite all the intellectual peace we’ve made, even if we didn’t know the person. You think of your own mortality, of the people you’ll leave behind. You play ‘what if?’ And sometimes, it’s just the energy, seeing other people grieving, saddened goodbyes, you’re pulled in.
We don’t cry for the person who has left us. We cry for the survivors, the people living and grieving, missing, wishing they had answers, second chances, reliving events and moments, wanting more. True, when you’ve had a full life, been there for the wedding of your grandchild, hung out with your great-grandchildren, it’s not a tragedy. It’s a gift. There’s less “reason” to cry, as if that makes any difference.
A tight knot of us stood squinting behind sunglasses at the cemetery as the rabbi commented on Flora’s life. “A college graduate even in her day, a teacher, concerned most with her family, and described by her daughter as ‘her best friend,’ there’s no greater life, no greater testimony or success than that. To be a mother, to teach and to give, to be a role model that shows how important family is, over work and career and money, it’s what really matters.” Family dinners. Homework. Paying attention. I felt proud and felt myself nodding. YES!
It’s impossible for me to attend a funeral without thinking of my own life, appreciating what a gift I have, that my legs both work, that I can breathe without the assistance of machines. That I can see and have a keen sense of smell and glorious taste buds that work! So, it’s only natural for me to ask, “Am I making the most of my life?”
I used to be achievement-focused, hungry to prove myself, wanting to be someone extraordinary. I was featured on the cover of newspapers, published books, sold options, wrote for TV. My middle-school self was proud, the kid who stayed up studying, striving for good grades, the best college, honors. I don’t think I have that drive anymore. It’s why my “ideal” and “dreams” have been so much harder to identify. I sometimes get a twinge of anxiety, worried that it’s some kind of race, that I’ve been slacking off and falling behind because I’ve been frolicking (watching beauty videos, testing out new recipes, cleaning and organizing, arranging art projects for the kids, planning dinners, viewing movies upon movies upon movies) in lieu of writing toward a goal, a book, a proposal, an article, a script, anything. Am I wasting a gift? Where has that drive for achievement gone? I mostly don’t feel competitive (I do sometimes). And I have to wonder if I’m on or off the right path. Are the competitive anxious feelings that occasionally swell up just old-habit me, the me who wasn’t evolved enough to know what mattered most in her life? Or do they bubble to the top as a reminder that I’m on the wrong path, that it’s time to do, not say? I need help figuring this out.
When we left the cemetery, after the rabbi read Psalm 23 (aka ‘The Lord is my shepherd’), and we were all in tears, I confided in Phil that I felt so thankful, so so fortunate for it to even be an option, felt so good about being home at 3pm for the kids, to suffer through homework, that I’d feel proud of my life if, like Flora, my kids one day considered me their best friend (just not when they’re young, because tough-love ‘I’m not your friend’ parenting is the way I try to go). It was then that he looked me in the eye and said, “You were right. I was wrong.”
To which I responded, “What’s that now?” Four or five times. Being right doesn’t happen in threes.
Like it or not, we’re all going to suffer at one time or another, and a lot of it, we can’t control. And while I don’t have my work-life-balance / career moves figured out, I know one thing for sure. Do whatever makes you feel giddy. Indulge in simple pleasures, surprise your friends, pay attention to your kids (which isn’t always pleasurable). Gaze at the stars, ride the carousel, fill your home with fresh flowers, lick your fingers, and drink cold peach sangria while you can. Most of all, love people with the kind of love that’s there win-or-lose, and you’ll always win.