and in the end
This is a long one, folks - several different tangents converging here. Funerals do that to you.
When we arrived at the church for the funeral mass, there was still another funeral in progress. We waited outside, talking amongst ourselves and reminiscing about Aunt Jo and her sisters.
After a while, the other funeral started to let out. It had been for a man who was hit by a car while crossing a busy street. He was a New York City police officer, though it wasn't clear whether he was active or retired at the time of his death. What was clear, however, were these facts: He was recently divorced and homeless.
What struck me about that was the amount of people who came to mourn him. A mother, a brother, what appeared to be young grandchildren - all crying, all obviously very upset. I looked around at the mourners and thought how was this man homeless when all these people seemed to have loved him so? It occurred to me that he was probably homeless by choice, as most of these stories go. That made the mourning that was taking place, especially by the children, even sadder.
And there I was, ready to enter the church for a mass for Aunt Jo, who was 85 years old when she died and never let a day pass her by when she didn't live to the fullest. I was sad, but not mournful. I was glad for the life she had, for the children she brought into the world, for the love that she showered her family with. There are so many different kinds of mourning; so many ways to accept or deny a death.
As an atheist, I am almost always uncomfortable in a church. The ritualistic nature of Catholicism, the imagery scattered throughout the church - it leaves me uneasy. Many years ago, I had joined up with my church again in the hopes of filling a void in my life. By the time I turned heel and left, the void had become larger and my unease with the church led to me to face the fact I always believe but, due to my Catholic guilt and fear, never verbalized: I was an atheist. I did not believe in God, in Jesus, in any doctrine the church holds to be true.
So now, here I was, sitting in the church pew once again, facing another hour long mass. I looked aroud me at all the friends and family there. Few know about my atheism. My family is a religious group for the most part and quite judgmental. My parents know, my sisters know, but none of the cousins or aunts know and I choose not to reveal it because frankly, it is none of their business.
So the mass begins and the priest comes out. Now, you have to understand one thing about my Aunt Jo. She was devoted to the church. She went to mass every day, sitting in the same spot, with the same people. She belonged to prayer groups and particpated in everything the church had to offer.
I don't know if you've ever been to a funeral mass, but you can always tell when the priest giving the mass did not know the deceased. They tend to read from a script provided by the family, but the warmth and depth of the loved one never comes through. With Aunt Jo, there was no need for a script. Not only did this priest know her, he thought very highly of her. He gave a warm, wonderful eulogy for Aunt Jo and choked up enough a couple of times that he had to stop and gather himself. As I listened to him, I found that I was no longer squirming as if I was sitting on a bed of nails being tortured. I listened to him with my heart.
As the mass went on, I watched my family members and I realized something. All those things I don't like about the church - the rituals, the imagery, the symbolic gestures - were the things that were giving comfort to Aunt Jo's family. The familiarty of the hymns, the bringing of the gifts, even the constant kneel down-stand up-sit down rythmn of the mass was like a comfortable blanket of compassion to them.
For some, religion brings peace and comfort. To believe that loved ones are in the hands of God or just the act of reaching out your hands and saying a prayer over their draped coffin can do so much for someone in emotional pain. I don't begrudge my relatives their religiousness at all, nor do I envy it. It is not for everyone, most certainly not for me, but the comfort it gives to others in turn comforts me.
It came time to receive communion and I panicked. What do I do? If I sat in the pew while every other person -save for my Jewish brother-in-law - went up, they would know. I know, this should not bother me so much, but I didn't feel this was the time to call attention to myself and my non-belief because, believe me you have no idea what my relatives are like. I would be the talk of the day. So I asked myself, what would Aunt Jo want me to do? Well of course, Aunt Jo wouldn't want me to be an atheist to begin with. I figured she would want me to go up and receive communion and just play nice. So I did.
When I got back to the pew, my sister was furious with me. I realized then what a mistake I made. I don't know what I was thinking. I should have stayed put and let everyone else go up, but I acted selfishly. I worry endlessly about what other people think about me; I didn't want the tongues to start wagging. I'm already a black sheep as it is, I didn't need to be pushed out further. I was wrong, I know this and I apologize to anyone who is offended by a former Catholic turned atheist accepting communion to save face.
Later on, at the cemetery, Aunt Jo's son talked about the four sisters. Aunt Jo, Aunt Louise, Aunt Anna and my grandmother Millie. They are all gone now, every one of them. Chip looked around at the people gathered by the gravesite and said (paraphrasing for lack of full memory):
Many years ago, two immigrants came to this country with nothing but one suitcase. They gave us four daughters who in turn gave us all this (looking around at all the relatives). The daughters gave us sons and daughters who in turn gave us more sons and daughters. My mother was part of that; she and her sister brought so much joy and love into this world. You are what they have left behind.
And it's so true; we are our parents' legacy, just as our children are ours. From life comes more life and in death, love and joy are left behind. At least that is what we all hope for.
No, no sappy ending here about how I learned today to live each day to the fullest. None of that. Just that we are more than our paychecks and our toys and our jobs. What we leave behind is so often measured in money and belongings, scattered among relatives. I believe if you instead measure it in love and joy and comfort, you will find people are richer than they know.
In my high school yearbook under my picture is this quote:
And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make
22 years later, that belief is still with me.