On Saturday I went to a memorial service with Carl. It was for an old friend of his family’s, who used to live across the street from them. They used to go to her house for Christmas breakfast. She died suddenly, a heart attack I think, over Thanksgiving weekend. She was still young, not over sixty I don’t think. Her name was Vonny.
I wasn’t too keen on going, frankly. I never met her and hadn’t even ever heard her name until Carl got the news she’d died. She moved away from that neighborhood years ago and I don’t think Carl’s parents kept in touch with her much. I wouldn’t know anyone there except Carl’s parents and I thought it would look sort of weird if Carl brought, like, a date (albeit one he has been bringing with him to various places for several years now) to a memorial service. I worried that the family would think it was disrespectful for a stranger to be with them in their home, in their grief. Plus, you know, it was a Saturday and I had a lot of stuff to do and I wanted to go to the gym and I hadn’t sent out any Christmas cards and plus I needed to clean the bathtub and vacuum, not to mention swamping out the fridge before I leave on Thursday. I thought I could make a case for not going. I didn’t know if it meant that much to Carl anyway.
We talked about it the morning of the service, Saturday morning and had the kind of conversation we have a lot:
Chiara: Okay, so do you want me to go.
Carl: I want you to go if you want to go.
Chiara: Well, I’ll go if you want me to. Do you?
Carl: If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to.
Chiara: But do you want me to go?
Carl: If you want to, but not if you don’t.
On and on and on. Finally I said that I wasn’t going to go. I told Carl about feeling uncomfortable and weird and about wanting to go to the gym and clean my bathtub. I told him that I thought it might not be appropriate for me to be there with him. He said he understood. He said it made sense. He got up to go and was saying goodbye when all of a sudden he went “Okay, I really want you to go.”
The memorial service was held at Vonny’s son’s house, about forty minutes north of Seattle. It was a very nice and large house with a lot of Christmas decorations and a buffet involving cold cuts and hot mustard and pineapple. There was a program of sorts, outlining Vonny’s life. Her son and daughter did a great job on that, I thought…they seemed to be very honest about their mom, focusing on what a wonderful (apparently) person she was but also on her disappointments and difficulties and failures. There were grandchildren running around and things were pretty busy.
Vonny’s daughter, Sandra, babysat Carl for about ten years, starting when he was three. They hadn’t seen each other since he was seventeen or so. When he went up to her to say hello, she couldn’t believe it was him. “You’re so tall!” she said to him. “I was like his second mother,” she said to me. “Thank you for raising him right, “ I said to her. Her daughters were two of the kids there, about seven and four years old, running around with braided hair and bright dresses, hiding behind their parents, racing up and down the stairs. After the service started…and really, “service” is too formal a word, it was just people sitting and talking (and singing and sometimes crying) about this woman they had known and now had lost…I went upstairs for a little while with the older girl when she started acting up a little. She wanted me to read her some stories in Spanish and corrected my pronunciation when I needed it, which was often. She was restless and wanted to play hand-clapping games and kept saying, in a whisper, “This is boooooooring!”
I half listened to what the people below were saying. Carl’s mom played the flute and someone sang Amazing Grace. Vonny’s neighbors and friends and children talked about how important she’d been and how much they would miss her and how important she’d been. Her ex-husband got up to speak and called her his first love, and I got a little choked up. A friend she’d know for forty years spoke and I had a sudden intense vision of myself in forty or fifty years, mourning one of my friends now. I saw us all older and grayer, laughing and crying and missing our friend, just like people were doing for Vonny. I thought about what it’s like to lose a parent. I thought about what it’s like to lose your first love. I realized I hadn’t had anyone close to me die since my grandfather when I was five. I realized I’d never been to a funeral.
After everyone finished speaking we got ready to go. When we went to say goodbye to former babysitter Sandra she was holding her younger daughter and trying to answer her questions about death while shaking hands and hugging people. The little girl kept asking if various members of their family had died. “Has Grandpa? Has Aunt Emily? How about my cousin?” Her mom answered her seriously every time. “I can’t see GrandBella anymore?” she asked. “No,” said her mom. “When people’s bodies die we can’t talk to them anymore. Their spirits stay alive and they live in our hearts but we can’t talk to them anymore and we can’t see them anymore. We’re not sad for GrandBella, we’re sad for ourselves because we miss her and wish we could be with her.”
I was getting a little teary as she said this and I was embarrassed because, again, I didn’t know this woman or her family or her mother that passed away. And of course I know what happens when people die, sort of. I think it was just watching this sad, powerful mom talk to her daughter so seriously and respectfully, when inside she must have been screaming “My mom is GONE!” I looked over at Carl and he was shaky too. He and Sandra hugged and she said she wanted to see him and catch up with him over the holidays. We said goodbye to her lovely husband, who gave us some delicious Hint Mints, which he happens to own. He couldn’t believe we’d heard of them. We said goodbye to the rest of the family and to Carl’s parents and headed out, Hint Mints (chocolate flavor) firmly in cheeks.
We didn’t talk much about the service, although I told Carl about my thinking about us mourning a friend in forty or fifty years. We wondered what we would be like in fifty years, if we’d be alive. He told me a little about his relationship with Vonny and that he was glad I’d come along with him, even if it was a little awkward and I ended up playing Miss Mary Mack with a seven year old and reading a book about cows with a typewriter (in Spanish!) for part of the time. We stopped at a bookstore for some hot chocolate and cookbook browsing and then had dinner near where I bellydance (chicken gnocchi with garlic for him and shepherd’s pie for me) and came home and watched Family Guy episodes on DVD and held hands and were glad for each other.
I didn’t come to any great realizations on Saturday, although I did think about things like life and death and love and family for a little while. I still haven’t sent out my Christmas cards or cleaned my fridge and I certainly didn’t make it to the gym this weekend. I just ended up being glad, for some reason, that I went with Carl on Saturday to the memorial service of a woman I never met. There’s a lot going on in my life right now and I feel a little out of control, but somehow it made sense for me to do this one little thing with him. I’ve been thinking about Saturday ever since.