I know I just wrote, but something has happened and I can’t stop thinking about it. Perhaps telling someone will help. Will you listen Gentle Penguin? And what will you make of my story? That I’m a mean person who doesn’t understand people. Or a sentimental snob who’s too big for my britches. Or an ignorant idealist who’s read too many fairy tales.
Regardless, this is what happened. Make of it what you will.
It was already dark when I pulled into the hospice parking lot to help them with their remembrance event. I’d arrived earlier than I intended hoping to take care of the orientation for the evening quickly. Then I set about helping people find their loved ones, fetching hot cocoa or coffee, comforting those whose loved one had just died, listening to those whose loved ones would soon die.
Death, I’ve learned, teaches you a lot about life. Especially in the darkest hours before dawn or as night sets in.
The quiet whisper of bells signaled that the event was about to begin, so I grabbed my flashlight, handed out a few more to steady, sturdy people who would be walking with us and helped the group of rememberers out the heavy door into the courtyard where the most silent, peaceful lights of a hundred luminaries lit the way. Then I watched over them.
A tissue here, a bit of extra light there, an ear to hear their story, a hand to hold. Tears began to cloud my vision as I watched a woman—perhaps my age—lose her composure as she sank to the ground in front of a luminary with a man’s name on it. Was it her husband? Her brother? Her father? Her child? It didn’t really matter, her breaking heart shattered the silence with a thousand piercing sobs regardless.
I looked to the heavens wondering why death must happen, but knowing it was a stupid question.
“Look,” I suddenly gasped, tapping the arm of the elderly lady I was helping down the path. Earlier she lamented that the weather had been so dreary of late, that it just made it harder to go on without any natural light.
“The clouds have cleared! I can see the stars!” I know she must have thought me a silly child, but it’s true. I hadn’t seen the stars in almost two weeks…not for not looking. And suddenly, there they were.
She looked up, wobbled a little, then smiled. “Ah, a little light at last,” she whispered.
We clipped her deceased husband’s name to a luminary where it also lit the darkness, and I let my tears fall at the simple, but powerful beauty of it.
This is what I wanted the night to be, Gentle Penguin. But the Fates have an uncanny way of reminding me that what I want isn’t the point.
Back inside, I helped people find their way through the brightly lit corridors to the entrances, then returned to tidy up from our event. Two of the luminaries were gone. So was a flashlight. And one of the reindeer decorations that had been near our post.
I lifted the tablecloths and peeked around the corners.
“Let them go; they’re gone. People have taken them.”
“What do you mean, ‘people have taken them?'” I asked confused.
“It happens all the time,” I was told. “People come to events like these and leave with more than just the memories of the evening. Perhaps they find some solace in the tangible. Perhaps it’s something that reminded them of their loved one. Or perhaps they’re seeking to fill a hole. Or perhaps this is another way for them in their grief.”
“What, to be a thief?” It was only the unintended rhyme that caught the harness of my anger. Feeling it start to slip, I said out loud, “is thieving part of grieving?”
Believe it or not, it seems it is. The stories I heard for the next twenty minutes from people who have worked and volunteered around death shocked, dismayed and amused me. Bibles, water pitchers, bedpans, pillows, clocks and even a telephone were all subject to disappear if a dismayed family member assigned it sentimental value because of the death of their loved one.
My mouth hung open as I listened, and I tried to understand. How could a telephone be sentimental? It was the symbol of the last time a loved one spoke to them. Okay, how about a clock? It was a symbol of the time he last spent alive. Okay, a bedpan?! It held the last bit of their life before they became an empty body.
I walked back toward my car in a fog so that I almost didn’t notice the dark shadow on the other side of the side door. It swung open blocking my path and breaking me out of my daze.
It was the covered casket of the undertaker. I’d seen him many times before, and normally I wished him “hello” with a smile, then said a silent prayer for the freshly freed soul and the family. Tonight, I did neither of those things. Instead I broke down right there and then and cried.
“What’s this?” He asked me looking concerned then put a hand on my shoulder. “Has death gotten to you tonight, Monica?”
“No,” I sobbed wetly. “Life has gotten to me. I think it’s stolen my hope for humanity.”
He looked relieved, straightened up, put his hand back on the casket, began to push, turned, looked me in the eye, winked and said “then take it back.”