This Christmas marked the end of an era. The end of a generation, even, for our clan on my wife's side. Our matriarch, "Big Vivvie", died peacefully Christmas Eve morning after health setbacks in August then more extreme ones at the very end.
I always wonder at times like this which emotions to focus on; joy for her life, sadness for her passing, anger, guilt, relief. I sometimes tell people that a trauma like this is like pulling the level on an old-fashioned slot machine. All the symbols on the wheels represent emotions and they fly by in an indistinguishable blur. They may become momentarily identifiable as they whizz by, but it's impossible to focus on any given one. Then, as the wheels slow down, we can start to see things more clearly. The "jackpot," which, metaphorically, would be complete understanding and acceptance of our emotions, is elusive. But I believe when things settle down, we can look at what's there and begin to deal with it.
Early memories of people dying are foggy. I think I saw my great grandparents, or maybe it was great-aunts and uncles at their funerals when I was young, pre-school or early elementary age. Then, it was all about sneaking a peak at the spooky scene, the body in the coffin, the strange room, all the flowers, but running around outside the funeral home with cousins was the major focus.
I guess I avoided funerals for a while and then started going again as a young adult when closer relatives and my own elderly friends started passing. It was tough when grandparents died. I was very close to them. More on that in a minute. But the closest folks I've lost are my in-laws. They were absolutely wonderful people. I learned so much about family, hospitality, hard work, generosity, friendship, and humor from them. They were just good ol' salt-of-the-earth folks.
Every death of an important person in our lives should elicit some thought about our own mortality. This leads to one of the most basic questions of mankind: what happens after we die? There are people who will miss us, right? People will laugh and cry over us, won't they? They'll talk about how wonderful we were and all the great things we did that's how it will go, isn't it? I can only hope so.
These aren't just my questions, either. They've been on people's minds forever. Every culture has its rituals and beliefs about death. Almost all cultures have some concept of afterlife. Sometimes it's a spiritual thing and sometimes more concrete, like reincarnation. That's an interesting one what might you have been in a former life? What might you be in the next one?
An enduring concept for us Christians is the idea of the soul. Sure, our bodies wear out and we either fade away, physically, or just keel over at some point. But the soul, well, that defies the physical limits we know and it goes on. Want proof? No problem. I know what you're thinking. The greatest minds of religion, philosophy, metaphysics, etc., have pondered this forever, how could Lester possibly have the answer? Okay, maybe I don't. But I never hesitate to share my ideas, do I? Why should ideas about an afterlife be any different?
I do know this much. There is not a day that goes by that I don't hear or think of a snippet of music that reminds me of my Grandpop. Then Grandma comes to mind, then Uncle Rich and all the fun we had "back in the day" playing music and teasing each other. There is not a day that goes by that I don't see a program on the Food Network, or pick up a head of garlic, or step up to the stove that don't think of Nonna and her amazing cuisine. Then I think of Nonnu and the family feasts and frivolity that they hosted. Jim Keller was a primary mentor and we are blessed to have a painting of his hanging in the kitchen. Not a day goes by that I don't see it and get reminded of his good advice and bad jokes. My father-in-law's legacy includes the valuable lesson that there is a time to be serious and a time to be silly. He managed those extremes as well as anyone I've ever known and I am delighted to follow in his footsteps. And Viv, well, she showed me and everyone blessed to know her the value of even-temperedness. I'm sure she had moody moments, but in the 40+ years I knew her, I never saw that. She was an absolutely friendly, happy, and lovely lady, day in and day out. When I feel like being a grouch, I'll bet the image of her perpetual smile will be there.
To me, all these things prove that these people are still with me. Maybe their "afterlife" exists because they're part of my life right now. Maybe this is the true definition of "soulmate." Whatever it is, I'm now in the middle of the transition. Viv was here a few days ago, and now she's gone. Or is she?
Gary Lester, M.S., R.T.C., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County, a charitable agency the helps people with counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.