image via *Paylsmaginaire*
The pews filled and filled and filled. The ceilings were distant, vaulted. The air, though, was low, thick: sniffles and incense and the body heat of mourners who were family who were friends. And I sat with friends, letting the heavy clouds and murmuring of the congregants float across me. I stood when they stood and sat when they sat and moved my purse when they kneeled. It’s a strange thing, being an observer of ritual. I don’t know what it does for you but it fills me with a reverence, all those people of that faith laying bare their sorrows to calls from the priest with responses they’ve uttered since forever; and all of us, the other mourners, the ones not of that faith, trying not to bumble their holiness with our other kind of sadness, the one that didn’t walk into that sanctuary with the safe familiarity of ritual.
We all retreat to what we know, and I don’t know church practice but after years of studying art history I know lots about church art. I counted the Stations of the Cross on the side wall; I tried to identify saints in stained glass windows. The window I could best see said This is the Day Which the Lord Has Made. Alleluia. Well, I know that line: rejoice and be glad in it. In my head it’s in Hebrew, though, and in an upbeat melody. Zeh hayom asah Adonai. Nageelah v’neesmcha bo. I’ve never seen it on a window. The mullions fragmented a blue ground against a white light. The incense swung. The tissue packets crinkled. The kneelers stood. Sue, my Catholic guide for the day, whispered to me, “and this is where we shake hands and say ‘Peace be with you.’” I filled with a memory and I shook her hand.
Despite what I had been thinking when I first walked in the church, today's wasn’t my first Catholic funeral. I went to one other, when I was fifteen, I think, and the mother of a high school friend died of cancer. In that church I was surprised when the man I didn’t know in front of me turned around to shake my hand: “Peace be unto you,” he said, “and you say ‘and unto you be peace.’” I did as instructed. I knew that line: shalom aleichem. Aleichem shalom. We return to what we know, and numbly, I shook his hand. Angela’s mother dying was unfathomable to 10th graders who didn’t really understand anything less than having forever.
Years and miles and friendships later, today was really no less unfathomable. Rejoice and be glad in it is a thick instruction in a room filled with muffled tears.
I felt heavy, afterwards, aware from the inside out of my corporal form, living and breathing and being, still, and into this minute and this one and the next. There was the lightness of the air that gathered in the corners of the vaulted ceiling in there, all hymn chords and prayers lifted and hope buoyed by a community come together to honor a memory. And there was us, the heaviness, the bodies that walked out from under that cloud of spirit and back into the regular atmosphere, the one where snow was falling and more people will be diagnosed with cancer and we live and live and live until we don't. I always feel heavy after a funeral, like my humanity, the one we all carry around in a drawstring pouch in our hearts, was hung inside-out to line dry after a sturdy washing. That thing I usually tuck away dark and safe was dangling and damp and bumped by every whim of breeze that pushed by.
That's the consolation prize for going to a funeral: you cannot help but measure your gifts. Your breaths, your children, your community. Your loving husband who wordlessly brews you a new tea when you morosely stare into space from the couch. And because this is the day, and you know you are obligated by those very breaths to feel grateful for it, you will be grateful for spilled apple juice and knotted hair that must be brushed so gently and a tantrummy boy who has learned to stomp for effect when he yells no! into your outstretched arms. This is the day, even in its hardest parts, and you close it with the privilege of planning out the next one.
Ed. note: After some consideration, I'm linking this post with Bigger Picture Moments. I wrote this Wednesday night, before the linky posted, but, well...although this wasn't written for a link-up, it fits. I certainly was feeling bigger picture-ish, small and raw.