Well, back home and all unpacked after spending the better part of the last ten days driving back and forth to Grafton. Cheri’s mom died late last Monday night. You might think that was the end of everything, but I had forgotten that the death of a loved one only triggers an entire protocol of activity that is almost more like a three-act play.
Act one – the first trip north. Without a real plan, the morning after Cheri’s mom died, she and I headed up to Grafton, along with others in the family in their own cars. The trip up was filled with lots of stories and remembrances, and unraveling questions that had been politely hidden until then. Questions like when the funeral will happen, what we need to discuss with the funeral director, what about the service itself, and loads of “logistical” stuff. We ended up gathering at Cheri’s folks’ townhouse in town, since that became the headquarters. It was odd for Cheri and her siblings especially, that that was the first day in their lives when their mom’s presence was gone. It was almost as if the remnant of her life was gathered in the place, with lots of sentimental things set around the place, almost frozen in time. Even on the dining room table were the piles of crossword puzzle dictionaries, and birthday and mother’s day cards remained displayed on the buffet from month’s past. It was almost as if she just went out to get the mail, and would be back in just a few moments. But she never came back.
Everyone headed to the funeral home, where we sat in little uncomfortable chairs while the director asked a million questions from data for the death certificates, to what kind of casket to buy, to how the obituary was to be published to how much it was all going to cost, and when the actual service would happen. I’m sure most of you have gone through that business, as I have unfortunately now that this was the last of Cheri’s and my parents to die.
When it was all done, we headed back to the townhome – just to chat and to begin to think about next steps, including what it was going to take to distribute everything that filled the place. Cheri’s sister is staying there for the rest of the summer, so it’s not an emergency, but to look around and see an entire life spread out is pretty daunting, and made me almost want to go home and start throwing and selling things, just to make our own home a little lighter. Except – those “things” help to fashion the dwelling into a home, and we knew then that this death meant that our home was going to get a bit more crowded as we would bring to our home pieces and parts of the one that Cheri’s mom no longer needed.
We headed home that evening. Fortunately, Cheri was able to take the entire week away from work, since her focus and thoughts were certainly not on going to a clinic for 8 hours a day. For the next two days, I really never dreamed that a phone could ring, or a text message signal go off, or an email ding as much as it did on Cheri’s phone, as she and her brother and sisters seemed to be in almost constant communication about details, and just seeing how each other was doing. Even sleep was restless, as we realized we were only the middle of a job to be done.
Act two brought us back to Grafton on Friday, with the funeral scheduled for Saturday morning, before the summer heat filled the church. This time we came up for the duration – we got a hotel room, and spent two days going from there to the townhome. Although we packed some things that Cheri’s mom had earlier left a list saying should go to each of us, more time was spent with coffee and sitting at the table, and still wondering about things into the future. It was also during that time that we were reminded, apparently, that when someone in your family dies, the rest of the family must be nearly starving to death, because the response in a farm community like Grafton is to every refrigerator of the family to overflowing, most often with salads and meat and cheese trays. Of course, the counters were then left to sag under the weight of the gooiest and richest bars and cookies ever created – and the food came and came and came. It was as if the family numbered in the hundreds. Sometimes, the expression of love and care is nearly overwhelming.
Strangely, but not to unusual, by Friday night about 8pm, we were back at the hotel, and asleep about a half hour later. Of course, we then saw the clock at 12:30, 2:00, 3:15, 4:20, and finally we got up for good at about 5:45 – not because we had so much to do before the funeral at 11:00, but simply because there was nothing left to go back to sleep for. The boys came up early from Fargo, and all changed at the hotel, and then we headed over to the church, since the two of them were pallbearers, and needed to help carry the casket into the church and up the 13 stairs, like most all churches have, to the sanctuary.
I had been tapped to offer the eulogy from the family. I guess that’s the hazard of being a pastor in a family – this was the fourth time, on both sides of the family, when I had the chance to paint the picture of someone’s life. There was music and preaching and prayers, and then downstairs for MORE food for lunch, this time also including potato salad and jello, and lots of conversation from the many friends and extended family. I’m not sure what was the more worshipful setting – whether it was in the sanctuary, where so many baptisms, weddings and other funerals had happened for the family over the years, or in the fellowship hall, filled with noise and chatter and laughs – I think both are pretty holy places, and both where the Holy Spirit dwells.
We lined up for the funeral procession ten miles out of town to the country cemetery, where the August sun decided to remind us that summer was here, as lots of fellows at the gravesite sweated like crazy wearing the unfamiliar suits of the occasion. More quiet moments, and then, as it happens in this land, lots more conversations and chatting, and hugs and greetings, almost around the casket, as life is found even in a graveyard.
Back to the hotel, and then back to the townhome, where we truly began to live without the matriarch anymore, and the children become the elders… and we remembered. Each family has its stories, and each story identifies and claims that family’s place in the world. Bit by bit, different family sections left to return to their own homes, and we finally went back to the hotel to sleep far better than the night before.
Act three – the new week and the new life began. More of the house was dismantled, as treasured things made their way into cars and trunks. We spent the morning with some of that work, and then dividing more of the meat and cheese and bars and jello – a weeks’ worth of feasts went in each car. Finally, the last round of hugs spilled out into the front yard, as the men went to start the cars and cool them down, waiting while the sisters continued chatting, and saying goodbye (knowing that we probably would be back up next weekend to continue sorting!), and then finally, Cheri and I said goodbye to that time of life, and headed home.
Our history of this past week I’m sure is nothing unusual or even terribly noteworthy – lots of tears, lots of laughter, lots of disagreements about things that didn’t matter, but also lots of incredible and simple agreement over the important things. This too makes up the textile of a family, some that we are born in, and some that we fall in love with.
It’s just always good, and important to remember that we need to remember. We need to claim and hold – not too tightly, or with a panicky grip, but with a firm, head-nodding understanding that even the past week makes us who we are, as will the week to come, and the experiences of the coming years of life, as we anticipate eternal life as our promise and claim. Blessings to you.
Word of the day: saudade. Pronounced sew-DA-duh. It’s a tender word, that is actually Portuguese, but without an easy English translation. Some believe it arose from the Portuguese voyagers in the long-ago past who went around the world, perhaps for the first time, and had the longing of what and who they left behind. It’s close to the idea of the “presence of absence.” It’s a deep emotional state of being melancholy as you long for someone or someplace far away, or long gone. It’s not a harsh or agonizing feeling – just the feeling of remembering, and for a moment, giving your whole self over to simply being with what is now absent.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.