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March 09, 2005

A full life celebrated

I won’t pretend I have many, if any, answers for the way these last seven days have gone. All I know is that some events were very painful, some unfortunately necessary, and a few were both cathartic and also educational.

My uncle's vital organs had shut down in his final hours, and even if the surgeons could have restored them, there was honest doubt as to the quality of life he would have led. His family made the best decision possible, following his wishes to not be kept alive by protracted methods. They accepted that this man — who had devoted his life to the subject of final transitions — was completely ready to make his own.

From start to finish it was a relatively quick period of time. Four days, from admission to the hospital to his interment. No chance for protracted arguments, no second guesses, no lingering doubts. Four days was "about right," in the tempo of such things — a time for the rest of us to draw together and console the family, share our memories, and embrace our own mortality.

There was an 18-gun salute by the American Legion, at the graveside service. He’d been a member for 50 years. "Taps" was played. Prayers were said. And then we went back to the church in a record turn-out at what the funeral director called the “fellowship” gathering, but even us non-Irish call the wake. Lots of food and coffee and other church-safe beverages. A chance to see old friends and new, and gather with our own families, if only for a while.

My father's branch of the clan at a long banquet table, my father at one end and me at the other. Between us on both sides, my sister and her husband, her daughter and son and his wife, and my nephew’s mother-in-law — another in my graduating class, whom I hadn’t seen in years. My wife directly across from her, and me in between. A relative roar of conversation in the large room of tables jammed with people. Me focused on hearing from someone I knew but hadn’t really kept up with in the years since we grabbed our diplomas and ran.

More from our class were also there, at other tables. Lester's son and his wife. Gary, the funeral director as well. Here and there a few others, these classmates my frame of reference on a day where transitions were officially made.

Gary had worked for Lester for years before ultimately buying the business. This service for this man was his supreme challenge of professionalism, and he met it with total competence. Cosmetology and casket arrangements were perfect. Masonic lodge apron and cap carefully placed, along with Lester's military ribbons and the coveted Paul Harris Fellow award from Rotary. The folded American flag, reminder of Lester’s time with the Army Air Corps in Africa. Everything simple — direct. Not one thing awry. I’d seen hundreds of funerals and Gary knew I wasn’t speaking just to fill time. I meant it when I told him he’d done damn good work.

But that morning, Gary made a remark to me about a topic I can’t now recall, and ended it with, “like us old farts.” An hour after that, Marisa, Lester’s granddaughter, up at the podium, reading one of the funniest, truest funeral addresses I’ve heard from anyone of any age. I sat marveling at how much more self-assured she was, compared to what I would have been in the same situation.

Continuity. A full life celebrated for its many successes, but quiet assurance this is not the end but only a bookmark on a continuum. Lester’s grandchildren, with their lives still ahead — reminders that 39 years have passed since I was about their age, or Kevin’s, my wife’s son seated at this same table.

Us old farts had a lot to think about, talking to old friends, from the magic years of our own youth, when everyone but Lester’s clan (and those like me who worked for them) all thought we would live forever.

Posted by Weaselteeth at March 9, 2005 10:57 PM


Sounds like you all gave Lester a lovely final party. He'd have loved it, I'm sure. :)

Posted by: LadyBug at March 10, 2005 07:56 PM

Well written...your uncle would've appreciated your sentiments. My condolences to your family on the loss.

Posted by: Mixed Humor at March 13, 2005 11:40 PM

Beautifully said, WT. My condolences on your loss.

Posted by: Damian at March 14, 2005 11:54 AM