Thanks so much for all the wonderful good wishes for me and my family. I'd just written this long post about my grandmother, and the funeral and the viewing, but my computer ate it. A post about death died a very sudden one.
The viewing was as odd as they usually are -- there's something spooky in the sight of a body lying lifeless in its coffin, looking as serene as an afternoon nap. My grandmother wore that familiar brooch from her 90th birthday, a blue shirt that would've matched her now-closed eyes, and carried a rosary whose beads spilled over her folded hands. Watching my mother and her sisters kneel together in front of the coffin, shoulder-to-shoulder and arm-in-arm as they said their final goodbyes, moved me profoundly. Intellectually, it's easy to understand that the ties that bind them and Grammie are the same that bind my sisters and me and Mom. But because we've always known them as The Adults, you forget that they're trading on a shared six-decade history of being children and siblings, saying farewells to a woman who adored them so faithfully all that time. "Losing someone who loves you unconditionally, and without question, always leaves a void," Mom mused to me later. "I don't know if that will ever go away."
Still, all I could do was smile when I went up to say goodbye and wish her peace. She was Grammie, but she wasn't, not any more. And while it could have been very easy to give myself over to how much that can hurt, I just... didn't. She looked like she'd drifted off in the middle of a wonderful dream, and in my mind that's exactly how it happened -- Grammie took her leave of this world with the same grace with which she inhabited it, looking as radiant as a person can be in their coffin, resting so gently you almost expected her to wake up and ask what she'd missed. Mourners who knew her still gasped in awe at the assembled photos of her in a school uniform, in her wedding dress, in the familiar sweater and slacks of her later years, and lauded her remarkable beauty. My mother gently stroked the lid of the coffin and remembered my grandfather making all the arrangements for their final rest. "He was very concerned with how the inside would be," Mom grinned. "She picked the coffins and he insisted on taking care of the rest, because he said he wanted her to be comfortable. 'She HAS to be comfortable,' he told me, and so he tweaked their plans over and over until he was completely sure."
Even the funeral felt a little like a bunch of hoo-ha for someone else. Intellectually I knew it was her body in the coffin I escorted up the church aisle -- I was a pallbearer, along with Kevin, Dad, Julie, and my uncle and a cousin -- but throughout it felt more symbolic than actual. The priest knew her, told some stories, remembered how Grammie would sit to the right of the altar so she could stare across at the stained-glass window that had looked so familiar to her when she first attended Mass in Naples -- and which she later realized was the same marvel that graced her high-school chapel in Ohio. It was a personal service, a lovely one, but because it felt like it honored her spirit rather than her actual body lying prone inside a box, somehow the emotion of it didn't overwhelm me into sobs. It felt more like a bittersweet hug. We loved her, but we were letting her go, and she was off someplace she fervently believed in, and which she was certain would reunite her with her husband.
Twice, I did cry. My mother sings every hymn at every Mass in top voice, her gorgeous, lilting soprano gently caressing every note. As we sang the last hymn, we recessed into the vestibule and waited there until the song ran out of words. On the last couplet, I looked at my mother, singing her heart out until she chanced a glance at the coffin. Her voice cracked, faltered. She stopped, bowed her head, and rested it in her palm for a split-second before shaking it and rising again with a shrug and a wet smile. My mom always finishes the song, but here, she couldn't. Her emotion swallowed her whole, and it got me, too.
The second time, we were at the mausoleum. As the mechanism raised Grammie's coffin to meet the mouth of her tomb, my mother peered in and saw the shining edge of Gramp's tucked away in the back and gave a little wave and blew a kiss. Then in Grammie went, and the old man -- working his last day on the job before retirement -- caulked the opening, closed it, and sealed it with the marble plaque that bore Gramp's name, Grammie's, and the dates of their births and deaths. Seeing a bookend on my grandmother's life brought out my tears at last. That final date, a visual reminder of The End, means more than just one chapter has closed. It meant no more visits to Naples, no more Christmases, no more hearing her easy laugh.
But as my mom noted, there was no tragedy here. She was not the younger person whose wake took place down the hall, and she didn't fall on the wrong side of a prognosis's odds; she was not the baby entombed a few spots away. This was a woman who gave the world 96 years and then left exactly the way she wanted to go. As death goes, this was a blessing. And that's why we allowed ourselves to enjoy each other, to tell some stories about her, and Gramp, and their wicked sense of humor -- like the time a groomsman showed up to Alison's wedding apologizing for not getting his shaggy hair cut, at which my grandmother innocently smiled and said, "Well, I have my needlepoint scissors in my purse" -- and to make the weekend as much about love as we could.
In fact, my mother said it best. As we raised our glasses at dinner the night after the funeral, she said, "To a life well-lived, and a woman well-loved." We clinked. We cried. We smiled. Amen.