I’m standing just outside of the chapel at the funeral home in Columbus. The crowd is flowing into the room like a herd through a cattle gate. I stop at the guest book to sign my name. Just inside the door I stand for a moment to see if I can find a familiar head in the crowd.
Over on the left side, I spot David. Seems like the last three funerals I’ve attended he and I have shared a pew. I stop at the outside end of the row.
A gracious couple waves me in. He gets up. She moves her knees to one side and clutches her purse in her lap. David and I shake hands.
“I wasn’t sure you were going to make this one.”
I speak in hushed tones. “I had to come see Mr. Neal off.”
“Seems like we’ve been to way too many of these lately.”
I remember my dad talking about seeing the day when funeral gatherings came along more frequently. Which is the way it goes. The older you get, the older your friends get. Someone dies and the crowd turns out to pay their respects.
You’ve probably said it yourself. “We really should get together for some reason other than a funeral.” Seems like we only see some folks at funerals, especially family. The preacher says that we are gathered here to celebrate the life of the one who has passed on. I know what he means, but I’m thinking that if we really wanted to do that we should have done it before now.
I was driving through the country toward Woodbury a couple of weeks ago. It was a Saturday. I had a long list of things I wanted to get done. I wasn’t on their road but not far from their house. I’m not saying I heard a voice, but out of nowhere I had this feeling that I should drop by and visit with Mr. Neal and Miss Doris.
I shrugged it off and told myself I’d do that one day the next week. When the news came to me about his death, I realized that he had passed the very day I had the thought to go visit.
Mr. Neal was a huge help to us when we started our business 21 years ago. He was retiring and closing down his shop in Columbus. He wanted us to have some of his stuff. The metal work bench and vise we have in the barn came from him. The stainless-steel wash sink in the barn came from him. Some of our office furniture came from him.
“I’d rather somebody I know end up with this stuff,” he said. “Otherwise, some sorry so-and-so is gonna scrap it out. Folks were awfully good to me when I started, and I want to pass that along.”
I visited Miss Doris a couple of days later. Too late to do Mr. Neal any good, and all I had to offer her was a hug and a few memories.
“You know what it’s like, don’t you Hon.” She was referring to me losing Beth.
I guess I know a little bit, but not like them. They made it together well into their eighties. His absence will leave a life-long hole for her.
I think I am more tuned in to a person’s loss now than ever before. It’s like I have some sense of obligation to share their grief. I’m not saying I have any answers, just that I have an urge that comes from someplace deep inside to try and do something. Most times I have no clue what to do.
After the funeral service I drove home, ate a quick bite for supper, changed clothes and headed out on my second mission of the day. It was a Wednesday. An old college buddy of mine lost his wife the day before. I had called him a few days earlier. I knew her time was close. A few days later she passed quietly at home while the Hospice nurse was in route to their home.
My internal sense of obligation was telling me I needed to go see him.
If I could get to his house like the crow flies, I could be there in 30 minutes or so. But he lives on the Alabama side of the river. An old fishing camp house on Lake Harding that his mom bought in 1974. There’s only two places to cross the Hooch near me. Northwest to West Point, or south to Columbus.
I chose West Point.
Two exists down from the state line, I get off the interstate and start to meander southward. The system for naming county roads over here is complicated. All the roads have numbers and not names. The house has a numbered address. You find yourself looking for something like 42387 Lee Road 149. Or 309 Lee Road 188.
I found myself turning off the pavement after dark and wandering through the woods on a county dirt road through the swamp. There was evidence of heavy rain where the washes ran across the road, water still standing in the ditches on either side. I’m glad I have 4-wheel drive if the water gets any deeper.
My instructions were, “when you make that last turn, just follow the pig trail all the way ‘til you get to the water. You’ll be here.” Which proved to be accurate information.
I sat opposite the couch with my friend. Though we didn’t speak much of it, I could feel an emptiness familiar to me. I didn’t know his wife all that well, but I know the loss. I know what it looks like in a person’s eyes.
We spoke of our common experiences though they were different is so many respects. I often thought of my own situation as if I had lost her in an automobile accident. Sudden and without warning. His was slowly coming at him like a train on the distant horizon. She was so young for Alzheimer’s. He had been her care giver for almost 10 years. He knew it was coming for a long time, just not when.
I’ll be going to her funeral in a few days. I’ll sign another guest book. Because most of the folks in their circle hold on to a Faith and Hope that is eternal, there will be laughter and relief and loving memories of a wife and mother.
I think our obligation is to share this life to the fullest and to embrace the grief that is inevitable for all of us. Nothing on this earth lasts. Cars don’t last. The house you grew up in doesn’t last. Jobs don’t last. Even marriage doesn’t last forever.
And because a part of me is gone and I can see a world that is passing before my very eyes, I see my obligation more clearly. To stand by those who suffer loss.
Not to speak. Not to say, “It’s going to be alright,” though it will.
But just to be in the presence of their grief.
Sometimes, that’s all they need.