I spoke at church today, as part of a "remembrance service."
When we had been together about a year the man I was dating, DH, had a heart valve replaced. Complications brought him a few near-death experiences. We felt that we had been confronted by a huge force and it hadn’t defeated us. In the face of eternity, love mattered. I proposed to him in a hospital bed.
For our honeymoon, we took a “hipsters’ holiday” to Mexico for the Day of the Dead. In Oaxaca, we visited ancient hillside graveyards, where families were spending the night, picnicking, playing music. Kids ran among the humble stones, joyous with sugar and chocolate. Color and crafts and flowers were everywhere.
The Mexican tradition treats death as an extension of life and something that is neither negative nor final. On the Day of the Dead, the veil between the worlds grows thin and spirits come back to visit their families.
This pagan/Catholic tradition is celebrated on Nov. 2, known around the world as “All Souls Day.” So today is perfect timing for this service of remembrance – your loved ones are listening.
Years after my honeymoon, in this home, I hosted a memorial service for LH. This church was a help to me in a thousand ways, great and small, in the two years preceding his death and in the more than two years since.
Two ways stand out, elements of the structure our church provides for mourners, two ways that helped me tremendously.
First, the quilt. After about a year I embroidered LH’s name on the “Summer” quilt at my young widow’s and widower’s grieving group. The next morning I brought the quilt in to daycare with our 4-year-old daughter.
Her friends were dazzled. “Wow! That’s your Daddy’s name?! Cool!” They were pretty blown away. Their tiny fingers explored LH’s name. They couldn’t meet SS’s Dad, but they could see evidence that he was loved and that he was something special.
I had had doubts about showing the kids, but it was right, so listen: Your children will show you the way.
I had more surprises over the year when I responded to the invitation to stand during the moment of silence.
At first it was so, so hard to stand. I was broken and broken up and I felt I was being stared at. There was something okay about being public with this injury. I stood as an emblem but was thankful most of you couldn’t see my face. My lips were clenched tight. Often I cried.
After a time it seemed self-indulgent to stand – there was so much going on outside this peaceful place. I cared for my mother-in-law and my young daughter. I had a financial emergency plan, but no bridge to a normal life. I got really low a couple of times.
One evening in grieving group, a Jewish friend spoke about the one-year unveiling at her husband’s grave. After the guests had left, she cried and went to bed… but the next morning when she woke up she started to work out. She said she felt a new chapter had begun. I was jealous…. but I DID have a religion with a meaningful ritual.
I hardly missed a service that year when I stood. I think every single time it was different. Always the relief and release of singing “When I breathe in…” afterwards.
As time went on I started to feel I was playing a social role as I stood – I was the church’s “official widow.” I considered creating cool black armbands and I was a little proud of my loss. My face relaxed gradually. Sometimes I looked forward to standing. Sometimes I did it to pay tribute to LH or to acknowledge to myself all the challenges we were surviving at the time.
And then it arrived -- one year -- the first Sunday when I didn’t have to stand up. I took it lightly at the time, but slowly or suddenly, things changed. Standing up marked that time in a way I couldn’t deny. The anniversary became a positive step instead of a negative one.
And it was through these simple things that I realized I had found not just a home but a whole family, with creative solutions, and rituals, traditions and a future. A family in which I could choose and play different roles.
Thank you, every one of you.
It was inevitable that watching others speaking of loss, and crying, together in that place reminded me of LH's memorial service. How big an impression Rev. L made when she said it would be perfectly okay for me to give the eulogy, and people would be fine seeing me cry. But I couldn’t do it; I didn’t know what to say, couldn’t have generalized to all his different audiences. It was an invitation to be part of the mourning at the service, not apart from it; but I did not want to be a mourner at all. I didn’t want to expose my injury; I didn’t want to have one.
Plus, some special words I wanted Rev. L to include in the service, I couldn’t find.
Almost a year and a half after LH died, on the Day of the Dead 2007, I hosted a big crazy artsy party and ritual to invoke and remember him. I wanted to make something and give something. In his studio, scrambling my ideas, I found the words.
Suddenly everything fit together. Over LH's 30 year art career he had drawn many lamps, but the paper was the source of the light in his artwork, that soft light which struck people so quietly. So I cut up the last piece of Arches, which he had hung and ready, and gave it out to all the guests, with an essay, and these words from the Buddha which I’d wanted to include in the service:
Therefore, be ye lamps unto yourselves, be a refuge to yourselves. Hold fast to Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the truth as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourselves. And those, who shall be a lamp unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and holding fast to the Truth as their refuge, they shall reach the topmost height.
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