When my mother-in-law May passed away at the end of December, our family lost our matriarch, the last surviving parent between my husband and me. At the age of 87 May’s infirmities finally caught up with her and after six months of terrible suffering she succumbed. I’m sure I’m not the first to think about the incongruity of the mercy we show our dogs and cats when they are suffering and how the same act of release is, in most countries at least, not legally granted to Homo sapiens. But when death came to her, he came not as the Grim Reaper, but as a friend who carried her away to a place from where pain is banished.
Another incongruity about death is the family reunion that often follows in its wake. In the normal course of things, it’s hard to find time to overcome the appreciable distance that separate us both physically and mentally. But for May’s send-off we gathered in a small town in Essex, England, from points as far away as Germany and Connecticut. Even the Australian branch of the family was represented by a cousin who lives and works in London.
We celebrated May by sharing our memories about her lust for life, her love for her sons and grandchildren, and the many friends and canine companions who filled her life once her sons left to create their own. We talked a lot about Dad who’d gone before eleven years ago. We didn’t cry all that much, mainly laughed and joked about this or that incident. It was good to reunite with relatives we see so seldom, to see old friends from former incarnations of ourselves, even though we know we cannot, and probably wouldn’t want to bring back the old days.
Every day my daughter and my son unearthed more and more piles of photos and old letters that helped us reconstruct a life lived for family. So many times we wished May were still there – well, we always wished she was still there – to tell us who that person was or where or when the picture had been taken. Unfortunately, she never dated any of them.
I couldn’t get the poem out of my head that I’d written a few years back, also after a funeral, when I was helping my sister re-hang family photos after the house had been painted. Here it is:
THE PORTRAIT GALLERY
Grandma’s clock ticks.
Its pendulum measures past and future.
A hallway becomes a museum,
A passage through time.
Faces ancient and unknown,
Arrayed on a snow-white field
In a photographic graveyard.
Eerily familiar, those eyes, noses, chins,
Yesterday’s dour expressions,
Foretelling future faces,
Countenances sweet of sons and daughters.
Did our forebears ponder
What wall their images
Would one day grace?
Or who would inherit them?
Grandma’s clock ticks,
The pendulum apportions lifetimes.
When only fading photos remain,
Who will hang our portraits
On walls of what hue?
So why am I publishing this very personal but really quite ordinary experience to my blogosphere? Because you are friends, and as human beings, you will have had similar experiences in your own lives. You can identify with this. And as John Donne concluded so many centuries ago in his (obviously far superior) poem “No Man Is an Island”:
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.