In the past, I have thought that my life has been remarkably untouched by death. I have been at times possessed by the fear of it, but have been brushed by it very seldom. During my childhood, I only remember attending one funeral, for a neighbor woman who was the mother of our down-the-alley playmates. I still recall the bright red dress I wore. The sorrowfulness of the event was apparently lost on me.
My presence was not required at a funeral again until I was twenty seven, when my great-grandmother, who functioned more as an actual grandmother and who helped raise me, died after 97 long years of life. I wore appropiately sober colors but was late to her memorial service because my new born son was excessively fussy during the three-and-a-half hour drive to my hometown. The needs of the new life in my care interfered with my duties to the departed and insulated me somewhat from the loss. Besides, it seemed appropriate and acceptable that she should leave a life that had become what she had explicitly never wanted--an existence in a nursing home fed by a tube. I felt no tearful resistance. It was her time.
In the ensuing years, I attended a few other funerals for acquaintances from work or church, still insulated from grief by the space between their hearts and mine. Each time I would marvel a bit that no one really close to me had died yet. I knew my time must surely come.
Then I got one of those phone calls. My mother, crying (she doesn't cry often) and saying that Jerry was dead. In my shock, the dumb question I could form was whether she meant my father or my brother, for they share the same name. She answered that it was my brother. There followed information about the circumstances, arrangements. I remember none of it. But I will always remember her voice saying "Jerry is dead." Forever, echoing in memory. It's been years now. I'm pretty sure it's here to stay.
That funeral had me. I was no longer in the outer circles of loss and grief. I was the family member in black standing in line by the casket, greeting the visitors, recognizing faces from childhood, crying, laughing, remembering, touched by the loveliness of those who came to say goodbye and comfort us.
My brother was only 37 when he was found dead on his bathroom floor. We waited for six months to find out why from the autopsy report, which turned out to be weakly conclusive at best. I will never know why he had to die the way and when he did, just as I never really knew the heart of him. It turns out we can grieve what we don't know as well as what we know intimately. We can grieve what wasn't as deeply as what was.
Since my brother's funeral service--my initiation into grief--I've been more tender toward loss. I know how quickly it can come. I know how important it is to pay those respects. I find it a privilege to sit with the mourning, to conduct what rituals we have to mark the ending of life. Which was a good thing these last two weeks. There have been two funerals, both oddly enough for men named Gary that I barely knew but was honored to help memorialize. I've sung and baked gladly because these are the little things that we can do for each other while we are here. They are sometimes bigger than we think.
When my brother died so unexpectedly, I reached for meaning and sense among the wrongness of it all. I tried to let the pain pass through me and accept what undeniably was, but I wondered how we could peacefully memorialize a life that didn't seem to us to be done. He hadn't had time to do great things, to win the victories that by all rights should have been his. He was just, like most of us, a good, hard working person trying to defeat the pain this world can sometimes deal out--not rich, not overtly "successful." What was there to report of this abruptly ended life?
I got my answer when my brother's neighbor stood up to tell the story of how Jerry came over and fixed his heating unit when it went out one winter and the repairman wasn't going to be available for days. He was helpful enough that this casual aquaintance chose to speak at the funeral and mowed his lawn for the years that the house had to sit empty while the estate was settled. My brother wasn't rich or famous or powerful, but he was good to someone while he was here. As far as I know, he never really hurt anyone except himself. Not many of us can say that.
Hearing that story at Jerry's funeral led me to make a new habit. Every night since then, when I say my prayers, I think of my brother and ask that God help us to be better people so that we may be better to each other while we're here. The little things we do matter: Lending a hand to a neighbor. Showing up to express sympathy. Sending a card or note. Saying that positive thought out loud. You never know what it might mean to the recipient.
That's why I feel privileged to attend funerals, bake lunch for the free medical clinic, pray for those requesting it, hug those I love. If there is nothing else brave and grand we can do in this life, we can all leave love behind. It's the best legacy.
Baking doesn't hurt either. The cake I baked for the second grieving family that it was my privilege to feed is not my gourmet fantasy, but it did make use of part of a two-liter bottle of Coca Cola that my son's friends left in my refrigerator. I don't drink sodas, so I turned it into a sweet gift of love. Like dealing with death, it's good to make the best of what we get, even if it isn't what we wanted. It just might turn out sweet in the end.
Coca Cola Cake
Yield: 12 servings
1 cup Coca Cola
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows
Combine Coca Cola and butter milk; set aside.
Beat butter at low speed of an electric mixer until creamy. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat at low speed until blended.
Combine flour, cocoa, and soda. Add to butter mixture alternately with cola mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended.
Stir in marshmallows. Pour batter into greased and floured 9- X 13-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Remove from oven; cool 10 minutes. While cake cools, make Coca Cola frosting. Pour frosting over warm cake.
Note: Do not make the frosting ahead. It needs go on the warm cake while still warm itself.
Coca Cola Frosting
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup Coca Cola
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 lb powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Bring first three ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring until butter melts. Remove from heat; whisk in sugar and vanilla.