Sustained reflection on another’s life

The death of an elder in the family circle pulls us out of our ordinary routines and obligations (including the blogs we write) and forces us into sustained reflection on that person’s life. In this case — my aunt’s death (see previous post) — it was a good experience.

M. Harder burial, Aug. 16, 2010

Not that this reflection was particularly organized as a formal activity, though some parts like the eulogy and service certainly were. Most of it happened in the course of planning, hosting siblings from out of town, and attending the viewing and funeral and burial. The reason we were doing out-of-the-ordinary things such as coming together was (Aunt) Margaret’s end, and so of course we shared round the death stories, and gave voice, for several days in a row, to our memories, questions, even speculations. When a few of us met, ostensibly to work on the eulogy, one cousin did most of the work (you can’t really write by committee) while the rest of us combed our late aunt’s photo albums and swapped stories the pictures provoked. On Sunday, with siblings and my mother gathered at our house, we pressed Mom for opinions about her late sister (and also her living ones), and we paged through some diaries Margaret left behind, reading nuggets aloud to one another. The open mic time at the funeral lunch yielded a further variety of reflection about this one woman’s life.

My brother who emceed that session reminded us that we really don’t know other people very well. It’s true. Even in the case of those we feel we know, the communal sharing and reminiscence that the rituals of death “force” upon us can enlarge and fill in the portrait. It’s an old saw that it’s too bad all this, especially the nice things that are said, happens only after the person dies. Yes, also true, but then again, perhaps because life is multi-faceted and necessarily busy, it’s the only way it really works. Death compresses the exercise of knowing, intensifies the reflection. For one week, it was all about someone else. The stew of things I’ve remembered and heard about my aunt will nourish me now as I pick up my regular routines.

Unexpectedly

Unexpectedly, yesterday, and for the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege of keeping company at the deathbed of an elderly relative.

My aunt Margaret Harder, 84, was admitted to hospital from the personal care home on Saturday; yesterday morning, tests revealed she had a blood clot in her lungs. Her last years have been a continuing story of failing health and memory, an unhappy story of changes and losses of all kinds, and it was determined that the best course — and the one she wanted — would be to respond with palliative care. She died at just before nine in the evening.

My aunt was a teacher. Once, as a young student, her hair got caught in the teacher’s jacket button when he bent to look at her work. Was he cross? At any rate, he frightened her, and Margaret decided then that when she was a teacher, no student would ever be afraid of her. I’m sure no student ever was. She was not without authority, but above all, there was gentleness in her. She also lavished on us, her nieces and nephews, and our children in turn, great kindness and generosity.

For many years, my aunt taught special needs students — those with physical challenges like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. Yesterday afternoon, George, one of her former students with whom she remained in contact, came to the hospital. It was moving to watch him express his gratitude and affection for her and to see her lift her hand to his, the only time in the day that she made a gesture of this kind. He held her hand a long time.

During my aunt’s last hours, I couldn’t help but think of the next-to-final scene in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian and Hopeful must cross a cold, rushing river to reach the Celestial City. Margaret was not in pain, nor did she seem uncomfortable, but my, what a great deal of hard work it was to get across that last cold river! Yet she seemed to understand what it was for, and where she was going, and as far as we could tell, she was not afraid. And she got there, finally, resolute and well.

I thank God for the life and death of my aunt Margaret Harder.