I took the day off today.
I lay in bed a bit longer than I should have, procrastinating the moment when I'd have to get out of bed and begin getting ready for what the day was bringing, but I finally got up and did what I had to do.
I dressed carefully. I slid on the new, navy blue dress that I'd bought for a special occasion, but today it would be serving as a mourning dress. I suppose a funeral is still a special occasion, but not the one I had intended the dress for. I had to be careful about the jewelry I chose, because so much of what I have is big and flashy and inappropriate. Luckily I found something subdued, my earrings and bracelet both reflected the occasion, having tear shaped pendants attached. I only realized the significance later on.
I drove back to my home town, if you can call where I'm from a town. I've been gone from there 17 years, but driving the old roads that I traveled so much when I was a teenager is still second nature. I know where I'm going without even thinking about it. Things have changed, of course, but not a lot. In places like that, change isn't much of a priority.
I arrived at the church, which I'd been to before. Half the people I grew up with had attended it at one time or another so I was familiar with where I was. I walked through a smattering of people, somber men and women and teenaged boys wearing football jerseys, and was ushered inside by the same smiling man that had presided over my own father's funeral almost 10 years ago. He hadn't aged very much.
I thought I was running late, but the crowd inside was sparse. Not knowing the man who sat by the coffin, I found a seat in the back of the church where I would be out of the way, not wanting to intrude on the people who had known the deceased better than I had. I hadn't been sitting long before I felt someone walk up behind me and put their hand on the pew. When I looked up, I saw my friend.
His eyes were red and his face was swollen, but that was to be expected. His mother had passed away after a long battle with cancer. However, it's clear that even when you know death is inevitable, the knowledge doesn't dull the pain. I stood and wrapped my arms around him tightly, hoping, in my way, that I could squeeze away some of the hurt. My immediate question was "How are you doing?" which we both had a quick laugh about. He wasn't doing great, obviously, but it seems like that is the question you ask first, no matter what the situation, doesn't it?
We stood in the back of the church and talked for quite a while. How long had it been since we'd done that? I'd met him in the band room one random day a hundred years ago. He was a tall, skinny kid who played the bass drum and suffered from Pectus Excavatum. Me, in my unfailing tactlessness, made a silly joke about his sunken chest and despite my bad taste, from that minute on we were fast friends. That's how it was with him. He was easy to know and easy to love, and I did love him fiercely in the way one does when a friend becomes more like family than anything else. Of course, knowing how way leads on to way, we lost touch after I graduated high school. I've seen him twice, maybe three times since, but I've always attacked him with a hug because to me, at least, nothing ever changed. We talked of other things than his mother, catching up, and I hoped that taking his mind off of the elephant in the room for just a few minutes might help. I never really know if that's the case, but we joked and chuckled for a bit as more people came in.
He introduced me to his best friend from college, and a steady stream of people from our days in marching band also went in and out of the church. There was a lot of hugging and chatting, as if this had become a combination funeral and class reunion.
The service was lovely and full of music. His mother was a wonderful lady. I remember her as a top notch "band mom" who was at every band camp, football game and competition. She gave of her self tirelessly, taking us all in as her kids at one point or another. She worked hard to make sure we had what we needed and helped where she could. She loved our school, and had more school spirit than most of the students. Her grandsons played football and she was very involved in the booster club. In fact, her pall bearers were all football players and the two coaches. She was loved at the school. Her fight with cancer was long and hard, and after a year of remission, it came back with a vengeance. I sent her hats that I'd made so that she could keep warm during her treatments. Her final days were painful and her family rallied around her, but ultimately she passed away in her sleep, surrounded by the people she loved and cared about. You can't really ask for more than that, can you?
When the service was over, we watched as her casket was wheeled out of the church and the procession headed towards her burial plot. I didn't accompany them, feeling that I didn't really belong at the more intimate service. I feel bad that I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to my friend, but I was glad that I'd been able to see him and offer what tiny but of comfort I could.
Funerals are hard. They are like parties you desperately don't want to attend, but can't get out of. I used to never go to them, but in recent years I've come to understand that the support you give those left behind can be a lifeline to someone who is hurting. Chances are, they will never remember who didn't come, but they'll remember the person to hugged them, who encouraged them, who made them smile, and the person who breaks through the shell of sadness and makes them laugh a little, even when their heart is hurting. I hope I managed to do some good today, even if it was just a little bit. As I drove back towards home, I thought about my friend and his family, and how they are going to have to heal from their loss, and I thought about all the people who'd been there to show their love and support. I know that ultimately, with all of those that gathered around them in their time of need, they'll eventually find peace.
Rest easy, Ms. Charlotte.