I recently took a new job that allows me the opportunity to "hear" what people say about those who have died and the things they say to the bereaved. For the most part, what is said is overwhelmingly positive - many superlatives, sweet remembrances, funny stories, abbreviated (but sometimes extensive) genealogies to explain kinship to deceased/bereaved. Occasionally, and usually jarringly, I come across the odd spectacularly negative comment - "she was a horrible person", "Glad he's dead - what a jerk." or "oh well!". While completing household chores, trying to fall asleep or watching a movie, an unbidden but insistent thought pops into my head... "what would I want people to say about me after I die?" (will I even know or care about what is said once I'm dead?). A (big) part of me would like people to say wonderful things about how kind, selfless and funny I was. I certainly wouldn't want to be remembered for the me of my weaker/weakest moments when my fatigue, frustration, impatience, less than brilliant utterances and selfishness in thought or deed paint me with an ugly brush. What would I want my loved ones to hear about me and my new state? Would it be helpful to them to hear that I am in heaven, that I am now an angel, that I am pain-free and will no longer experience unhappiness? Death is a funny business - a mysterious certainty for all. My brain chugs along trying to make sense of it all and makes no headway. I guess I just hope that, when I go, people who care enough to comment on it have had the good fortune to have parents somewhere in their pasts who taught them "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all".
There are icons throughout the church where I am a parishioner. One of the women who attends the church wrote much of the iconography that adorns the sanctuary of the church. I sit in the same spot every Sunday and have noticed for some time that, depending on how the light hits one of the icons near my seat, kiss marks are visible on it. I have been attending this church for many years and find myself wondering if some of those kisses were from people long gone who, at some time in the past, venerated the icon with a kiss ~ a show of reverence. When I think back on all the people who populated, animated and grew this church community who are now gone, I get a lump in my throat. One of the men in our parish died recently. Mr. K. was well into his nineties and had been very active in the church for many years. Attending services for him and seeing his children, his widow and the many people who can no longer come to church every Sunday due to age, poor health, punishing work schedules, I was reminded of a very happy memory. Mr. K., when we were young, drove a Volkswagen Bus. There was a hill with a great "tickle bump" on the road heading to church and every once in a while after church, Mr. K. would pile some of his kids and other children from the parish into the bus and drive around the block and down the hill so that we could get that great, slightly nauseating feeling of our stomachs dropping out the bottom of the vehicle. While I looked at him in the coffin, that was the image that kept coming to my mind ~ a bunch of goofy kids, screaming with laughter, feeling about half sick and begging to go again as soon as it was over ~ and Mr. K. obliging us. Later I wondered if some of the kiss marks were from Mr. K., his wife or his kids. I hope no one ever washes those icons.
Today was a beautiful Midwest late-winter day ~ temperature in the low 40's, insistent sparkling sunshine, blue skies feathered with wispy, white clouds and a steady but gentle wind ~ enough to keep the hair out of the eyes and kiss the cheeks with pink. I was walking by the river being led by my faithful canine companion of the last 10 years and drinking in the rich brown-grey color all around ~ the still naked trees, the ashy, broken leaves on the ground, the wilted,washed out weeds and grass, the rushing water of the St. Joseph river ~ and recalling other walks I have taken in this life. I've walked into and out of difficulties, up to new challenges, away from love gone cold, towards adventure and with an array of tasks, people, worries, plans. During walks I've held hands down a path, survived terrific embarrassment, enjoyed the soft fingers of rain on my face and not given a darn about what it would do to my hair, shared secrets, had a kiss stolen and said final goodbyes. I've walked to get myself motivated, calm down, figure things out, pray... And as I walked this afternoon, I couldn't help thinking that this walk, my companion and the weather were near idyllic.