ELEVEN YEARS

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ELEVEN YEARS

Beautiful.  Perfect.  Awe-inspiring.  A gift from Above.

I struggle to type these words about another snowfall blanketing our area.  Yet, this morning, as I take in the brilliant white splendor of the snow in the bright sun, I must say they are the most apt words I can use to describe the outdoors this morning.

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What I wanted to type, and what I said to myself as I braced yesterday for yet another winter storm—in early March, for Pete’s sake–were these words describing our winter so far:  Interminable.  Ugly. Painful.  Never-ending.  Soul-draining.

While I thought those words, and I fight not to continue to think them, I am choosing to stay positive.

Because, after all, it is always a choice.

Choosing to relish these weather conditions has always come easier to Gail and Suzanne.  Especially the wind.  The cursed Kansas wind, in my book.  Not in theirs.  As Gail says, “Embrace it.  There is nothing you can do to change it.”  Wise words.

“People of the South Wind” is the translation of our state’s name from the Kanza tribe of Native Americans.  This wind, however, sculpted a beautiful scene in our backyard this morning.

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It is early March in Kansas.  It could be 70 degrees, or it could be 4 degrees, with a sub-zero wind chill.  We take what we get.  We have no choice.

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I WISH spring would hurry up and arrive.

Interminable.  Ugly. Painful. Never-ending.  Soul-draining.  These are the words I would use not only to describe this winter, but the deep grief we endured when we lost our parents.  Eleven years ago today, March 3rd, 2008, we saw our parents for the last time at our grandmother’s funeral.  It was a beautiful celebration of a long and blessed life, and we shared a wonderful afternoon with them, not knowing it would be our last moments together.  The next day, March 4th, they departed on their three-hour journey home, but never arrived.

We needed and accepted any and all expressions of sympathy immediately after they died, and for a long time after.

We have come a long way since then.   We will be forever grateful for the support we received from so many people.  We no longer need it, though it helped sustain us through the darkest days of our lives.

Since then, we have turned that black square on the calendar into March Forth.  With that support, time and continued perseverance, we now see their lives in full splendor:  Beautiful.  Perfect. Awe-inspiring.  A gift from Above. 

For those of you who were at their funeral—there were so many, and we remain so humbled by the obvious love and respect they earned—please recall Mom’s message.  And please continue to take it to heart.

For everyone, please use every moment of every day you possibly can to make the relationships in your life all they can be.  If you have either, or both of your parents, let them know how much you love them.  If you need to make peace with your parents or anyone, do it now.  They may not be here tomorrow.

Make your life all you want it to be.  Start today on something you have always wanted to do.  Put a jigsaw puzzle together.  Learn to play the piano, even if no one ever hears it.  Write the poetry, even if no one ever reads it.  Travel to the place you always wanted to travel to.

Or, maybe, like Gail is learning to do, simply slow down.  Take one or two things off your plate, like she recently did.  Let go of some of the meaningless busy-ness.  If Gail can learn to slow down, anyone—even you—can.

I attended a funeral this week for a beloved patient.  She left a legacy that reached beyond what most of us realized.  She lived and loved, and left a model for living life to its fullest.  Funerals are a time of sadness, but also a catalyst to keep moving forward to honor the memory of the one we loved and lost.  They would want it that way.

We weren’t ready to let her go, but we don’t get to choose when.  And the when for all of us is only a matter of time.

I struggle to fully grasp that it’s been eleven years since our parents died.  Four or five, maybe…six tops.  But eleven?  Why has the time gone so fast, and where did it go?

A wise woman once told me this:  The reason time goes faster with age is because when you are ten, time goes ten miles per hour.  When you are twenty, it moves along faster at twenty miles per hour.  At fifty…at sixty five—you get the idea.  It only moves faster.  No matter what your age, I don’t think you will disagree.

Age is a gift, just as I wrote several weeks ago.  The corollary, then, is that time is a gift as well.  Use it to do the things to make your life as full as it can be, and to celebrate the relationships you have with other people.

Enjoy the Monday mornings, the Thursday evenings, even the hour in the grocery store at the end of the workday on Tuesday.

I need to take this one to heart more than most people—more than Gail and Suzanne, anyway:  enjoy the cold, the snow and the wind.  Enjoy the gray, slushy melting snow two days later.  Enjoy the cloudy days—even long series of gray, cloudy days on end that we seem to have had multiple times this winter.

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It’s much easier to enjoy the fun times, the getaways, the days off; the vacation.  Which is exactly what Gail and I will be doing in several days.  With Suzanne’s blessing, but without her, we are heading west once again to our favorite Rocky Mountain town.  It is our original celebration destination; we started going there nine years ago to celebrate our parents lives, and ours as well.

And we continue to do just that.  Their legacy lives on in so many ways through their seven children, and we have chosen to celebrate and enjoy our lives, thanks to the love they gave us throughout their lives.

Life is too short to not have fun.  So, whatever fun looks like for you, get out there and have it.  Or stay home and have it.   Find what works for you, and give yourself the gift of time to do it.  Let some time-sucking obligations go if you need to; Gail paved the way for you to do the same.

And tomorrow, as my siblings and I March Forth, we have but one favor to ask of you:  If  they are still here, let your parents know how much you love them. Show them if you can.   And next time you get to see them, be sure to take a picture.

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Gail and I will have a partial report of the fun we had on our trip when I write again in several weeks.   We never tell all.

 

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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