Musings: 4,500 Miles and Five Funerals
Affirming Life in the Midst of Grief
Have you ever flown into the sunrise on the other side of the world?
My phone’s clock, still on Eastern Standard Time, read 12:00 AM. My gritty eyes and aching body felt like I’d been awake for 20 hours, but the narrow red band along the curve of the earth, barely visible from the tiny plane window, meant the sun was inexorably rising.
We’d just flown from Miami across the Atlantic Ocean, nine hours of nothing but jet black outside my window seat just past the plane’s left wing. I didn’t have the best view but it was absolutely unreal to be racing with the rising sun. Flying at 500 miles an hour parallel to what looked like the edge of the earth, I watched in stunned silence as the world turned and the red band got thicker and brighter beneath an unearthly blue, shading all the colors of a rainbow as the sun slowly lit the eastern sky. My ragged emotional state, so close to the surface anyway, was further shredded by the ridiculously Technicolor sunrise somewhere over Portugal. I imagined my dad watching it with me, smiling, happy that one of his youngest daughter’s fondest dreams was finally coming true.
This was my first trans-Atlantic flight, my first trip to Europe. It was the morning of August 5, midnight at home, 6 AM in Spain. Twenty-nine days before, my beloved dad had died and my mom and brother were both very ill. Holley and I had planned this trip nearly a year earlier and when I’d told my mom that I was going to cancel it, she’d been adamant. “If you do, I’ll be really upset with you. Your dad knew how long you’ve had this planned and how much it means to you and I do NOT want to be the reason you don’t go. Don’t stop living your life! Please go, I’ll be here when you get home.”
Of course, I wanted to go – born under a gypsy star, I’m never happier than when I’m seeing new places, learning new things, meeting new people. But my mom’s birthday was August 7, when I’d be in Madrid, and it didn’t feel right to not be with her. But she insisted that it was just another birthday, so we celebrated a few days early and Holley and I flew as scheduled on August 4.
I felt my dad’s presence many times during our trip, but never more strongly than on Montserrat, in the ancient Basilica and again when I lit a candle for him and my mom in the Ave Maria Path. Although we’re not Catholic, for me it’s impossible to be in such a holy place, where many millions of prayers have been uttered since the 12th century, and not feel the presence of God. The tears that fell that day were healing and cleansing, not tears of sorrow and grief, but tears of gratitude for the past and hope for the future in the face of crushing loss.
There was no dramatic sunrise on the way home but we arrived safely shortly after midnight on August 15, exhausted but happy, with new stamps in our passports. My mom, that tiny powerhouse and anchor of our family, succumbed to her illness five days later on August 20, only 44 days after my father. I believe she just didn’t want to be here without him; theirs was an epic love story, 62 years in the making, and I’m incredibly grateful to have borne witness to it.
My 55-year old brother was in the hospital when Mom died, told by the docs that he had only a few months to live. In the next three weeks, I lost two more great friends; one was 59, the other 53. Then my brother died on November 7, four months to the day after my father.
Having watched five people that I love seemingly evaporate in the last five months, I’m forcibly reminded of the capricious and ethereal nature of life. My dad lived for 92 years, my mom for 79, but my brother and friends lost their lives much younger. I’ve been wondering if imminent death appeared differently to my parents, at their ages, than it did to my brother and friends at their younger ages. Did they all think, before the end, about things they wished they’d done?
My brother struggled to accept his terminal diagnosis at first, telling us, “I never thought I’d go out this way. I thought I had time” - and I knew exactly what he meant. We always think we have more time: “Someday I’ll _____”; “I’ll ______ next week/month/year.” Lately I’ve been asking – who? God? myself? – what if I don’t have ‘someday’? What will I regret not doing? What will you regret not doing? Why aren’t we doing those things now?!?
If you’re lucky enough to still have living parents and siblings, go hug them and tell them thanks. And if you’re an adult orphan as I now am, or missing your brother and/or sister, light a candle at sunrise in their memory. Either way, dust off an old dream or two and live your life to the max, in gratitude to them and to God for their gift to you – LIFE – through love and loss, joy and pain, laughter and tears, it’s still a miracle.
Live like you believe it.
See ya next time and love on ya!