FITTING FINAL FAREWELLS

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FITTING FINAL FAREWELLS

When the former leader of our country shed tears on live television this week, I shed them, too.  He was saying goodbye to his father, another former leader of our country.  At this moment, his most important role was that of son, and the purpose of the funeral was to celebrate the life of a father and husband first—perhaps even a friend—before the life of a former United States president.

I had a lunch date with a home health patient at the time the funeral was televised.  He was watching it, and my job was to watch him eat to make sure he was not having problems swallowing.  So, with a few sideways glances to lessen the feeling I was indeed staring at him—its my job, I, too, watched the funeral.

This man was almost as old as George H.W. Bush.  He, too, had lived a long and storied life.  Unlike George Bush Jr., though, he didn’t shed tears when his own father died, he told me in between bites.  When he was thirteen years old, his father died suddenly.

From that point in, he was taught, boys and men don’t cry.  A series of further tragedies befell his family.  Still, he reported, he never cried. I tried to hide my obvious tears as I, too, held my hand over my heart in a salute, just as they did on TV.  Unlike him, I wasn’t very good at not crying.

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The next day, George H.W. Bush’s body arrived in Houston by train for burial.  It was noted during the television coverage that the last president to be transported to his final resting place by train was Dwight D. Eisenhower, 49 years ago in 1969.  He was carried by train to his boyhood home in Abilene, Kansas, the very place I was at that moment.

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71-456-279 Funeral of Dwight David Eisenhower – Abilene, Kansas 2 April 1969 The funeral train arrives at the Union Pacific Station 2 April 1969

I tried to imagine this small town of less than 7,000 residents alight and alive with glory, respect and honor for their hometown boy; a meaningful, but sad parade of people from far and near.

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I was three years old in 1969, living two hours away from Abilene.  Now that I am aware enough,  I wish I had been old enough and close enough to Abilene to witness the history of Eisenhower’s burial.

Now, in 2018, this town still resonates with the spirit of the Eisenhower presidency.  I see it around town, especially when I visit or drive by his museum, which includes his final resting place in a small chapel.

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I wrote about Abilene in Someplace Special (September 10th, 2017). If you have never visited Abilene—and especially the Eisenhower museum, I highly recommend it.

 

 

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I recall a funeral procession I was part of in Wichita in 2006.  My aunt Jeanne—my mother’s sister—passed away, and her funeral was on the east side of town.  Her burial was on the far west side of town.  For a nominal fee, she was allowed a grand police escort on her final ride, with the procession cutting all the way through this city, stopping all traffic along the way.

And it was grand.  I wish you could have seen it.  I wish she could have seen such a procession while she was alive.  You see, she couldn’t see.  She was blinded at 18 months of age from retinal blastoma—cancer—in both retinas.  She never knew sight, but it didn’t stop her from leading a full and vibrant life.

Then, the day before our parents died, we were back in Wichita for our grandmother’s funeral.  Gail, Suzanne, several of our brothers and I were in one vehicle in her procession to the cemetery from the church.  In his signature dry, monotone comedic style, our brother Ryan posed this deep question: “If a funeral procession meets a fire truck or ambulance, who has the right of way?’

We laughed it off, knowing such humor was his gift to us.  We left the cemetery after the burial to go back to the church for a dinner, no longer in procession.  It was a large cemetery, and yet another funeral procession was headed to the cemetery as we left.  Then, as if he had sent out a freak vibe with that question, a fire truck headed swiftly toward the oncoming procession.

Apparently, urgency for the living supersedes respect for the dead.  The procession had to pull over.

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We paid loving respects to our grandmother, celebrating her 90-year, long and blessed life.  We had one day of reprieve after her funeral before we started planning another one.

Now, we are not a family to brag or gloat over our achievements, but we will hold fast to the honor of having received the most floral arrangements for any funeral ever in the lone church in our small hometown—95, if I got the number right.  Granted, it was a double funeral, but it was still one funeral, so we will argue that should the record ever come into question.

We had to find joy in whatever small ways we could.

In those four days between their deaths on Tuesday and the funeral on Saturday, we clung to each other; cried mostly, but laughed some, too.  We propped each other up and picked each other up, with grace and faith ensuring that a majority of at least four of us seven were relatively strong at any given moment to pick up the other three or less, both literally and figuratively.

The only good thing about the time between the deaths and the funeral was the fact that our actions were already prescribed.  We didn’t have to figure out what to do.  We simply mourned, made arrangements, accepted food, flowers and friendship, and waited.  We were in the socially expected shroud of mourning, and we did that well.

Still, knowing exactly what we had to do, the pain was unparalleled for all of us.  No one is prepared for such soul-searing pain, but I am glad we weren’t warned.  That would have been worse.  We loved them fiercely, just as they loved us.  We collected ourselves for Saturday morning, and even found ourselves comforting some of the mourners who had come to comfort us.  We were experts at comforting each other by this point, so we had it down.  We found strength to make it through the funeral.

Since then, we have all became stronger than we ever dreamed we could be.  They are still with us, and we celebrate them in our own ways now, every day of every month of every year.

Their funeral helped us do this.  There were tears, of course, but just like President Bush’s funeral, there were happy moments, too.

When George W. Bush eulogized his father, I felt his pain.  I recalled the eulogy we delivered for our parents.  All seven of us composed a written eulogy before the funeral, and Gail, Suzanne and I delivered it.  We agreed ahead of time that we would take turns reading, and if any of us were to become emotional and unable to read any further, we would simply step down, handing the baton to the next one, even if it were mid-sentence.

None of us faltered.    I suppose we were perceived as strong, at least at that moment.  I suppose we were strong, at that moment, anyway.  This isn’t to say that anyone who does falter while delivering a eulogy is not strong.  We simply were given grace and composure to get through this difficult moment.  We know where—or shall we say who—provided it for us.

At this moment, let me interject my expert advice on how to comfort the mourning.  I hate to brag, but we are sort of authorities on this subject:  It is not accurate to gauge how the bereaved are handling the loss by the way they are acting at the funeral.  The real test comes in the days, weeks and months—perhaps even years—after the funeral.  Trust us on this.  Trust me when I say that it is never too late to express condolences.  There is no statute of limitations.  For me, I found some of the most meaningful expressions of sympathy arriving not immediately, but after some time had passed.  It let me know that not everyone in the world had moved on, there were actually some people who knew that we were still suffering.

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Because funerals really are joyful celebrations sometimes cloaked in heaviness and sadness, it is important to keep a positive perspective regarding them.  Which is why I asked Gail for her contribution of funeral humor.  This is what she came up with:

A woman is sitting at her deceased husband’s funeral.  A man leans in to her and asks: “Do you mind if I say a word?”

“No, go right ahead,” the woman replies.

The man stands, clears his throat, says “Plethora,” and sits back down.

“Thanks,” the woman says. “That means ‘a lot.’”

Just before press time, I asked Suzanne for any large or small contribution to this post.  I wanted to keep it light, I told her.  And she is just the person to give me that.

Um, you are writing about five funerals, five funerals for six different people.  Good luck.”

I knew she would give “light.”

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We did cry a lot.  But more important than that, we found joy in those early days, even laughter.  Ryan, our dry-witted younger brother was 34 when Mom and Dad died.  Gail is his godmother, one of two adults appointed at baptism to be a spiritual leader to the child as he or she grows.  In earlier times, this meant also that they would be the guardian to the child should something happen to the parents.

At the wake the night before the funeral, Ryan was seated next to me.  He leaned in and whispered, “Does this mean I have to go live with Gail?”

As we greeted people arriving at the wake, our childhood dentist, who lived across the street from our parents then, arrived with his condolences.  He re-introduced himself to me very seriously, thinking perhaps I would have forgotten him.  I hadn’t; he was a good dentist and is a good man.

“Of course!” I said.  “I remember you.”  Then I flashed him a wide smile, and asked: “Do you remember these teeth?” 

“Yes, yes I do!  They still look great,” he replied.

Thank you,” I said.  “I floss every day.”

“I can tell,” he said, smiling as he walked away.

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To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”—William Shakespeare

It takes a strong man to lead a country, especially the United States.  I think George W. Bush’s tears as he bade farewell to his father were a sign of strength.  I cried with him at that moment, sweet-bitter tears for a life well-lived.  Sweet-bitter tears that recalled fond memories of my own father.  Tears of strength that keep me going through my life, reminding me of all I have to be thankful for.

And all I have to keep laughing about.

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SOMEPLACE SPECIAL

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SOMEPLACE SPECIAL

When I was perhaps nine or ten years old, our dad loaded all of his children—I think all seven of us were there, unless our oldest brother was already gone—and took us on a Very Special Trip.  I remember it well, because we went on very few Special Trips.

He packed us into the white, wood-paneled Plymouth Volare station wagon that was the family truckster back then.  We spilled into the back seat and into the way back, no seatbelts were expected or used then.  We were going two hours away, so this was Someplace Very Special, because we rarely went anywhere.

We went to Abilene, Kansas.  Abilene is the boyhood home of Dwight D. Eisenhower, former U.S. president.  His boyhood home, presidential library, museum and final resting place are located there.  It is a Kansas jewel.    Our parents wanted us to experience this piece of history.

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It is an experience that is imprinted in my long-term memory.  The historical significance was coupled with the sure knowledge that this was indeed Someplace Special because we were making this four-hour round trip.  Abilene, Kansas then became Someplace Special to me.

I now travel to Abilene at least several times every week, sometimes five days a week as part of my work.   It is 30 minutes from my home now. It is still Someplace Special.  When I drive into town, that old, warm familiar feeling of being a ten-year old kid on a special trip fills me.  It hasn’t waned in forty years.

Today, I was called there late in the afternoon.  I hit the road at 4:00 to see a new patient.  I had the time, and even though it is typically the time I start to think about heading home, I headed east, and it felt good.

Typically, around four in the afternoon, I feel a funk settling over me.  I have never liked that time of day.  I think it is because the sunlight is starting to wane, and I love sunlight.  I get a little sad thinking about the sun leaving me, yet again.  Today, however, the thought of heading to Abilene at this typically blue time of day perked me up.  I was going Someplace Special.

 

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Our mom grew up in Wichita.  Her parents and three sisters lived there when we were growing up.  Our dad was an only child, and his dad lived in town close to our farm.  Visiting Mom’s family in Wichita was the only other traveling we ever did.  We would pile in the back seat or the way back, watching Dad navigate those three hours on the road from our farm right to the door of our grandparent’s home without a map.  He was so brilliant; he had to be to find his way each time.

Driving to Wichita became a profoundly memorable experience for me, just like Abilene was.  It still is.  Every time I drive to Wichita—perhaps ten times every year—I still get that feeling I had as a kid.  And, I can drive there without a map.  I’m not as brilliant as Dad was, but I do have a sense of where I’m going, even if I don’t know the exact direction I am traveling in.

 

Traveling by car now, while it is an everyday occurrence, can seem like a routine and mundane event.  That is, when I am traveling alone for work.  When I am in the car with my sisters, however, every trip becomes Something Special.  Much like a trip to Abilene or Wichita when I was a kid, a road trip with my sisters is always a special event.   As we continue to take more road trips, each holds special memories that are built upon the experiences from all the previous ones.

Traveling with someone can be an art form at best, and hell on earth at worst.  It is a delicate balance; a nearly-perfect blend that must be achieved in order for a trip with others to be a success.   I know this for sure, because I have travelled with people whom I would prefer never to travel with again.

Then, there are my sisters.  I could travel with them every day, and I would be a better and happier woman for it.  We know how to read each other, how to make our needs known, how to respect—and sometimes ridicule, in good faith, of course—each other.  We feel at ease in the car with each other, even if we don’t always agree where to go first, where to eat, when to leave, when to move on, or how to fit in all the fun we came for.

We make it flow, and we make it fun.

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Gail and I just returned from Colorado six days ago–another Someplace Special for me.  The morning of our scheduled return home arrived, and while the sun shone bright and warm—it felt warmer than 58 degrees beating down on us as we sat on the porch and drank coffee—the dark cloud of we have to go home today hung low and heavy around us.  We milked it.  We drank another cup of coffee, talked and laughed even more, finally packed up and went to see Christine at 9494 again for one last perusal of her baubles and jewels (maybe we each bought one more) and stopped at the casino one last time—I pulled Gail away when she was $10 up with that hand.

We departed an hour and a half later than I said we had to.  Since I was driving, and I had 200 more miles to go after I dropped Gail off, I tried to make the rules.  Even though she is the big sister, I laid down the law—at least I tried.  She mostly respected it, but given our mutual affinity for the mountains that enveloped us, we lingered, and I didn’t fight back much.

We bade adieu to our favorite mountain town, and began the initial ascent out of the valley, followed by a descent out of the mountains.  We continued to talk, laugh, reminisce and dream.  We spoke of things we don’t normally speak of at home.  Things that the mountains and their rejuvenating air breathe into us, and then gently coax back out of us.  Things that are more grand than those we normally discuss, things that the mountain grandeur inspires us to talk about.  Heavy, but positive and important things that we may not say otherwise.

And all because we traveled.

I know it is a gift to be able to travel with anyone harmoniously. For some, traveling with one’s sister is the greatest challenge.  For us, however, it is joy multiplied.  We recognize this as a gift, and we give thanks accordingly.

We know too that it is a gift to have the resources of time and money to travel.  We know not everyone has these gifts.  Besides these resources, it is also a matter of priority.  It is each of our individual decisions to spend the necessary time and money to travel, because it is a priority.

It is a harsh, but true fact of life that we spend our time, money and energy on that which we value.  For many, and in the past for us too, this trifecta of time/money/energy was nearly 100% focused on supporting our families out of necessity.  In large measure, we have realigned our priorities after the loss we suffered in our family, realizing that this time together is necessary for our own support.  We choose to spend our time, money and energy on this time together.

And we are all richer for it.

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I was in Abilene two days ago.  When I drove into town, I got that special feeling, the one I have had for forty years when I arrive there.  All because my parents took me Someplace Special.

Take yourself and/or your family to Someplace Special, even if it is only a few hours down the road, and especially if it will leave a lasting memory of why the place is indeed special, just as Abilene is to me.

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Abilene is also rich with Cowtown history as an important part of the Chisholm Trail.

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Your kids may still be thanking you forty years later, whether or not you are here to hear them say it.

Today, I am in Wichita, another Someplace Special.  We have the privilege of spending the day with this delightful family.

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My stepson, his wife and almost-two children are only 100 miles from us, and we are so thankful.  It is yet another reason to feel excited when I travel to Wichita.

I still get that warm feeling when I enter the city, and today, it was even warmer when I drove through the neighborhood where my grandparents once lived, the place my dad could always magically find without a map.

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Another Someplace Special from my more recent travels with my sisters is mercilessly being ravaged by Mother Nature as I write.

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My heart breaks for everyone in the state of Florida and northward as Hurricane Irma relentlessly pounds the entire area.  Our new friends in St. Pete Beach are in my heart today, as are all the residents and visitors in Florida and all the areas affected by this nightmarish hurricane.  Those affected in the Caribbean, as well as those affected in Texas are in my thoughts and prayers too.

No matter what happens in the next few hours and days, St. Pete Beach will always be Someplace Special for me.  My sisters and I made golden memories there last year, and Suzanne and I returned with her daughter not even two months ago, creating more memories.  We hope and pray that we will all be able to go back soon.  More importantly, may the lives,  pets and treasured possessions of all affected be safe, and may everything else be replaced in time by the grace, strength and generosity of the rest of America.

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If you have a sister or sisters, may you consider a trip to Someplace Special, if you aren’t already traveling there.

May you take your children Someplace Special that they will remember forty years later.

May you consider a day or a weekend in Abilene, Kansas.  I think you will agree it truly is Someplace Special.

May you find a way to balance your desires to travel with your responsibilities to others.

May you find a way to balance your time at work and at home with time spent going Someplace Special.

May you find balance.

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This post is dedicated to my Abilene friends–may you realize you live in Someplace Special.