Calvin Trillin once wrote that when people die, windowshades go up. We learn incredible things about them, no matter how well we might have known them in life, that surprise us. Of such discoveries we usually say, “Well, who’d have thought it?”It’s a cliché to say that death comes for us all. We personify the unknown because it is unknown and to say of something as final as death that is as if it stalked us and hunted us down, as if otherwise we would live forever, is an effective way of making the grief we feel when others die more palatable.
But that it’s a finality we all face is true nonetheless. We all die. That’s the thing about life; not one of us makes it out alive. Our lives are intimately tied up in others, for better and for worse. So when the others die we’re tempted to think it’s for the worse. Someone we love, we’re accustomed to seeing or talking with regularly, someone whose face or voice or touch has become a given in our lives is gone now. The chair she sat in is empty. We grieve that emptiness. We will never get her back. It’s hard, grieving. It should be. Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed. Nothing will be the same and everything is all too familiar.
When Marie died a few weeks ago, the shades came up. But that image suggests we’re privy to nasty secrets we shouldn’t have known, and sometimes that’s true. But it’s not that what we newly find out about people is bad. What we find more often than not is that someone we thought we knew like the proverbial roadmap of our hometown, and whose moods and ideas we thought we knew so well they could have been tattooed on our brains, was someone entirely different with other people. Perhaps more easy-going. Perhaps angrier. Perhaps less judgmental. Calmer. Icier. Happier. More frustrated. A different Marie for different situations.That’s not unusual. Most of us are what used to be called “social butterflies,” chameleon-personalities flitting here and there, changing our moods with our change of circumstance. It’s not a bad thing. It’s how we are. Human beings are complex, erratic creatures, and frankly, as I can testify from experience, none quite so as middle-aged people.
If we’re fortunate, while we do finally face death alone, we don’t face life alone, and life is scarier. After all, we don’t know anything about death—it’s the last great unknown territory and it’s that very ambiguity that powers both our grief and our acceptance—but we know everything there is to know about being alive and what we know should scare the pants off us. Surviving is easy—breathe in, breathe out—but living is difficult.
If we’re fortunate we collect companions to deal with this frightening life with us. We get them from multiple places and do that by multiple means. Take a moment to look around you. The results of such a collection by Marie can be seen here today. If you read her obituary you might have noted that Marie is survived by nineteen different people. Looking at the memorial pamphlet, I count over thirty. And those are just her immediate family.If it’s true that every person’s death diminishes us, then the opposite must be equally true: that every life expands us. It’s natural for an animal, when it’s hurt, to withdraw from others, to curl in on itself and not let others know it’s weak. If there is something that separates us from other animals, it’s this: That we gather together when we’re at our weakest to share our pain.
We gather together to share grief. We gather together to pass love. We gather together to look into one another’s eyes and hug one another’s shoulders. We gather together to hold one another up. We gather together to mourn and cry. We gather together to celebrate life.
We gather together today to honor the Marie each of us knew. The mother who raised us. The mother figure who took us in. The friend. The co-worker. The little girl we grew up with. The woman we loved. There are as many Maries in this room as there are people. Whether we knew Marie only as an occasional figure hurriedly glimpsed at the other end of the adult table at family get-togethers or as a woman we knew all our lives, we come together to pay attention to the impact she had on our lives.
In lieu of a spoken prayer I’ll ask you to take the hands of the people on either side of you. Feel the warmth of each other’s hands, the coolness of some, the moistness of some hands, the crisp dryness of others. Concentrate for a moment and you’ll find yourself feeling the insistent thrum of other peoples’ heartbeats. Our lives are as fleeting and as real as that sensation. We’re each allotted exactly the same amount of time: a lifetime. No more, no less. Enjoy it. It fades all too fast.