Posted by: nedlnthred | October 26, 2014

Death, funerals, and shorter-term histories

Many of you who know me know that I’ve been to a few funerals lately.  That this summer and autumn have been rough periods for a lot of my friends.  6 or 7 friends have lost a parent recently, one friend died while training for a triathalon, and another in a car accident.  I am not a morbid person, but even I have been weighed down by these, and what it means to be the survivors.  And, even more so, what it means to be the eldest generation in the family, instead of the youngest.

A few years ago, the elder women in my life died in pretty quick succession, and I wrote about them here:

Losing these women in my life was sad, but not unexpected.  Each was in her 90s, and not in great health.  It is less painful to see someone go when the person is elderly and has been ill.  And certainly some of the losses this summer have been in this category.  One of the parents lost was my friend Lauri’s mother, who was 93 and had been in a nursing home for a while, after a couple of strokes a few years back.  This makes sense to me.  The woman who’s service I attended yesterday wasn’t quite as elderly, at 83, but her health had been failing and she died in her sleep.  This seems an ideal death: not to know because one is already unconscious.  No pains, no fear, just a gentle drifting off.  My friend Kasia’s father had been in and out of the hospital for a couple years, with pneumonia-related illnesses, and my friend Chris’s mother with kidney and arterial issues.  While these seem like a relief in one sense, from the perspective of the outsider, there is still that recognition that suddenly, me and my peers (even though some of these friends are a good bit older than I) have become the Grownups.  We are the generation whom all the kids (theoretically) look up to (or are bored by).


Wait! My cousins and I are the grownups, all dressed up. The kids are the ones playing in the yard. Huh?

We are now the generation from which senators, CEOs, judges, and presidents are chosen. To whom the staid cars, like Cadillacs and Buicks, are marketed to.

How did this happen?  I don’t remember a day when I stopped loving new music or fast cars, or nights out with my chums.  Although it is certainly true that these days the names of bands to explore are passed to me by student aides I work with, and the nights out are expensive and artisanal cocktails instead of the wine coolers bought by the oldest guy in our group.  I work in a fashion college, and I still wear babydoll dresses and funky high heels.  But oh, yeah, right.  A lot of days I opt for comfy shoes, jeans, and a “cute-to-middle-aged me” T-shirt.  And I do have a Pandora station simply called “1977”…which consists of comfort tunage from my high school days.  Much of which I didn’t even like when I was actually there.

There is slippage, then, between the people we are in our heads and what we look like to the people around us.  This is hardly news, but it’s hitting me more dramatically these days.  My friends are the ones organizing the funerals while their kids cry about Grandma, taking me back not to events I have planned, but sitting in the pew at St. Anne’s in Mt. Lebanon, waiting for tears and trying to make sense of my grandfather, his illness, and never seeing him again.

In some of the cases this fall, the loss has been augmented by shock.  My friend Joe Arcoleo was swimming along, but practicing for a friggin’ triathalon, for heaven’s sake!  What crazy circumstances conspired that he couldn’t get himself out of that water in time to continue on to that run?  I cannot imagine, and I wonder about the moments when he knew he wouldn’t, and he gave in, despite, or perhaps because he had raised a great family and lived a good life with the same woman for 34 years.  Perhaps he’d simply found enough toxic stuff and saved enough other people to be at peace with withdrawing himself.

He couldn’t know that *I* miss him every time I walk down 27th street first thing in the morning, or when I look at sealed up factories in the swamps from the train home.  And compared to that wife, son, daughters, and grandkids, I surely have the merest of places at the circle of “missing Joe”.  But he wasn’t that much older than I, and I am rattled.

And even more am I rattled by the death, in a car crash, of someone I knew briefly, many years ago.  But she was younger than I am, and kind.  She brought me food I could warm up for myself when I was ill with malaria, and too weak to cook.  And according to many postings on FB, she was responsible for many, many kindnesses to other friends more recently.  And her spirit was quenched while on vacation, in the simplicity of a car crash.  Metal on metal, screeching, and that’s that.

Grief and the fear of death are somehow cumulative.  Every time I stand at a graveside or sing hymns at a funeral service, I am not just in this present funeral, but somehow thinking the thoughts I’ve dully worked through, making the resolutions,  and feeling the loss of every other person I have mourned, formally or informally.  I’m lucky that there haven’t been that many of my own family, but I have been witness to the tears and breaking down of many a friend.  This is what it means to be a friend.  To go, to dress formally, to make whatever trek, to be seen if needed, to help put out food for guests, to have one’s support present, regardless of need.

These latest funerals make me mourn again my dear friend Shaun, who stupidly took his own life a few back.  And who’s humor and creativity I miss constantly.

Shaun, his wife Cas, and my pal Tori, the spring he helped me paint at our shore house.  We were supposed to be able to do this the rest of our lives, I'd hoped.

Shaun, his wife Cas, and my pal Tori, the spring he helped me paint at our shore house. We were supposed to be able to do this the rest of our lives, I’d hoped.

The funerals I attend remind me that I couldn’t make it the day my friends waked this man.  Although I have tried to be there day in and day out for his widow, who is still a friend.  A colleague told me one never gets over the suicide of a close friend.  I can see how that will go.  After all, grief is cumulative.

And all these funerals are different.  The Witness ones, so plain, with their scriptures and few speakers.  Others, like my boss’ father’s, where family members read favorite poems or speak of their father/husband/cousin.


My bestie Kasia’s father got to watch, from wherever he is, his family and friends toasting his live with dzubrowka he’d made himself.  That’s a celebration of life, is it not?

At Oleg Wasilewski's grave, August, 2014

At Oleg Wasilewski’s grave, August, 2014

It seems to me that that is the best of how we humans have to remember the joys we’ve had with friends and family no longer with us.  Several funerals I’ve been to spoke of how the beloved person had taken the opportunity to say goodbye to every friend and relative.  Others as they faded, reaffirmed their bond with their beloved wives again those last few days.

Here's Connie, modeling the shrug I made her, at her mother's gathering, Voguing at her hammiest.  <3

Here’s Connie, modeling the shrug I made her, at her mother’s gathering, Voguing at her hammiest. ❤



But we, the grieving, need the memories of times spent in laughter and warmth with him or her to sustain us, here, still.  I went to one such funeral yesterday.

There was love and laughter and joy.  New friends and old, and we celebrated.  The sadness was still there, but so was the future, without the woman of the day.

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