These things happen

I spent Mother’s Day afternoon at a funeral home. The visit stretched into several hours because of two things. The person who had passed away was well known and much loved and so the reception line to offer condolences to his widow was long and moved slowly. And then, after my husband and I had greeted the widow, we had extended conversations with the deceased’s father, mother, and aunt. We were, in fact, at the visitation because of the parents and aunt, who have been dear to us for a long time.

The person who passed away was nearly our age, in his 60s, but we had never met him. We knew his parents best in a period that ended almost 20 years ago. At a crucial time in the church community to which we belonged, they served in a kind of parental role to us and to the entire congregation. They were elders in age and in function and brought exactly the kind of wisdom, perspective, and grounding that one hopes to receive from elders.

Although we have not had much contact with Ivan and Lola in the past 20 years, throughout our conversation yesterday it was clear that they had not changed. Now in their 90s, they still have something to teach us. However, these two teach more by example than by instruction.

The example before us yesterday was the most heartwrenching situation for any parent: the death of one’s child. The death was sudden and tragic, the son was dynamic and gifted. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what age the child or the parents, parents should not have to attend the deaths of their children, not on Mother’s Day, not on any day of the year. And yet, attend they did, keeping vigil through a week in the hospital with their son’s family and friends and in the aftermath, with hundreds of mourners.

Lola said she declined to be taken for lunch on Mother’s Day in order to save her energy for the visitation at the funeral home. She was present and attentive. She asked about our children and grandchildren. And she responded as she always did when I told her, as I often did in the past, how beautiful she was: with a little laugh. “Oh, I never thought of myself as beautiful.” I am sure this is true. Despite what the self-esteem instructors tell us, it is possible to be beautiful without trying and without the least bit of awareness of your own beauty. The kind of soul beauty that shines in one’s face and carriage is truly rare and valuable. I would like to be that way but I’m afraid I’ve already spoiled it by being self-conscious.

The aunt wanted to know, in detail, about my own health crisis of three years ago, a pulmonary embolism episode similar to the attack that precipitated her nephew’s fall and fatal head injury. Miriam had followed the unfolding crisis with intelligent concern and wanted to know what might have happened if her nephew had recovered from the head injury, whether he would have recovered from the PE, or whether that, too, could have been fatal. I suppose I was the living proof that all, indeed, might have been well. I wished for a better phrase than, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The better phrase came from Ivan, who always had something to say about difficult situations. If you waited for his words of wisdom–which often came later rather than sooner–you were never disappointed. This time we didn’t have to wait. His first words to us were, “These things happen.”

He added, “They happen more often than you realize.” He was speaking of sudden deaths, family tragedies, the loss of children. He pointed out that his family now numbered more than 40–children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren–and this death, untimely as it was, was the first in the family. The implication was, it happens to others. It can happen to anybody. Why wouldn’t it happen to us? It was an expression not of fatalism but of humility. Although he is deeply religious, he did not offer “the will of God” as an explanation.

Ivan went on to describe his son, whom we knew only by reputation and from previous conversations with these parents, with great affection and pride. It is possible to be proud and humble at the same time. It is a fine quality in a parent.

I cannot bear the thought of the death of my children. But if any tragedy should ever strike my family, I would hope to find my way through it with the kind of grace shown by these people, my elders and role models.

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