As She Wanted It (after Death)

©2009, Ramona K Silipo. All rights reserved.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a group of friends and acquaintances gathered annually on Christmas Eve. We decorated a tree, ate a fabulous feast, caught up –some of us saw each other only at this gathering– and told stories. Late in the evening, when the house was uncomfortably warm from all the bodies in activity, we stopped. We quietened. We gathered around a round table with a candle in the middle. Each of us lit a candle from the one on the table. Each of us remembered a friend who was not with us that night. Some of us spoke several names, others only one. But each person there had seen someone die that year.  The last year I attended, our group had shrunk from 14 or 15 to eight.

In that time, when AIDS was still a pandemic killer, I knew dozens of people –young and old and middle aged– who died of it. I saw so many die, said good-bye to so many, that I came to terms with death because I had to in order to survive in some sort emotionally capable state. I learned the power of mourning through the various stages of grief, and of allowing grief to consume me for a brief time, to emerge from it able to move forward. None of these are easy lessons, and I think many of us never allow ourselves to let go and wallow in grief when we need to do it. But with literally dozens of people I knew dying around me, I had to learn to deal with death.

So this year, when we had to deal with three family deaths in rapid succession, I was able to cope with the aftershock.

I have always, even with the deaths of my parents, found repugnant and a bit stomach-turning the common rituals after the event, with the expense and ostentation and superficiality of the typical church funeral.  So as a rule I do not go to funerals. A memorial gathering in a theatre, with shared memories and readings from plays or a few songs was about as far as I  go. My husband knows that I want no fuss and no expense when I go, just cremation and scattering the ashes around the rose bushes or wherever. I’ve said he might go as far as a Memorial Meeting for Worship, if he thinks people need it, but I’ll get back to him on that closer to the event.

Even so I hold in compassion and patience people who do believe in that sort of thing. There’s no denying that the pomp and religiosity of a typical funeral allows many people to grieve in a way they would not permit themselves to do under any other circumstances.

My husband’s sister died early in May. She had cancer for five years, and had gone through all the various treatments to extend her life. She had planned a full production number of a funeral, complete with matched black horses drawing a Victorian carriage with her polished casket inside it, songs she selected (including, I thought slightly perversely, Leaving on a Jet Plane), a huge limousine for the family, an official mourner in Victorian costume and a reception afterward with good eats. She took care of every detail. And as her brother’s wife, I attended the performance. Everything went off without a hitch; Sister would have been very pleased with the way her plans went off like clockwork.

I did not know Sister well. I’d been married to her brother for only six years, and I saw her perhaps four to six times a year, for lunch with the family. We were acquaintances who had been at family gatherings and shared pleasant conversations, enjoyed laughing together and exchanged gifts neither of us really wanted. We liked each other, but never had a meaningful conversation that lasted longer than three minutes. We were so very different we would probably never have met had I not been married to her brother.

But I watched her journey with more than a little admiration, as she pushed through the powerlessness, anger, frustration, struggle and fear, to acceptance. She ran a huge emotional and psychological gamut, with her good days and her bad days. But she lived well right up to the end, and she left people with fond memories and loving good-byes.

The only bone I would pick with her is over my husband’s children. There was a history there, in that my husband’s first wife had a habit of sending vile letters to people; and Sister did not want the children to know of her illness because she did not want to deal with any nastiness from her former sister-in-law. I understood this completely, having read some of the calumnies and attacks by Ex-wife in other contexts. But I felt strongly that the children had a right to know that their aunt was ill, and that they had a right to say good-bye to her.

My husband talked to his sister about the children’s visiting her many times during her illness and treatment, but she did not want to make herself vulnerable to unpleasant letters from the children’s mother. So my husband felt that he had to honour Sister’s wishes. Finally, when she knew that she had little time left, Sister wanted to see the children. My husband tried to arrange it, but Sister died before he could arrange it.

My husband’s dad, his only surviving parent, was gratified to see so many people in the church. So was my husband. The place was packed with people, hundreds of them, who knew Sister and needed to say good-bye to her. Her step-children and her husband were devastated, of course, and allowed themselves deep, wrenching weeping which would not be acceptable in any other context.  I think that’s the most you can expect from a funeral.

Oddly enough, the reception afterward gave me a chance to meet family members I hadn’t met before, and to talk with some whom I’d met only a year ago at Sister’s 50th birthday party. The reception had a lightness about it that Sister would have enjoyed, and virtually everyone commented that everything had been as she wanted it.

Driving home, I thought again how sad it was that the children did not get to say good-bye to their aunt, but I didn’t say anything about it. It had, in fact, been a pretty good day, all thing considered.

My objective is to write fiction that feels completely real –snapshots of life, fleeting moments of insight, unexpected realizations– that sort of thing. I hope you enjoy reading these brief stories.

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