My husband Jim’s self-dubbed “Closing Ceremonies” were sparsely directed.
Any trial lawyer will tell you that a critical recipe for success in trial practice is never to ask a witness a question to which one does not already know the answer.
Being mercifully distant from a trial lawyer in profession and in temperament, our dear Doctor Bob made the mistake of asking Jim if he would mind if Bob did not speak at Jim’s memorial service.
“Well, we were hoping you would,” Jim replied.
I was as surprised as Bob to hear that answer.
Bob thus revealed Jim’s lone absolute, non-negotiable wish for this ceremony.
The rest of any memorial service, Jim said, was not for him; it was for the rest of us, and whatever I wanted would be fine with him.
The first time I ever heard “This, I Believe,” the subject was a young woman who followed her father’s creed always to “go to the funeral. Do it for the family.”
A short six years before my own young husband’s service, I heard her words on the radio: “‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to.”
She expressed the core of this belief: “I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy.” As she said, “In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”
This seems so perfectly synthesized: say something, no matter if it is ineptly put (I have uttered some doozies), rather than nothing to someone who is suffering. Speak the words; send the letter; make the visit; leave a meaningful gift, whether it is sharing a memory or something someone physically can hold.
Don’t wait for the thought to pass; if you are thinking of someone else’s suffering, I feel safe in believing that by expressing those thoughts you run no risk of worsening or reviving that suffering.
If one is paralyzed with fear of saying the “wrong thing,” or is indifferent to any calamity that does not continuously inhabit one’s own every waking and sleeping moment, then that person risks being remembered only as the one who–like one immediate relative of ours–chose never to send a word in Jim’s direction during his illness.
Jim would have remembered every kindness. I remember both the endless kindnesses and the few who were unkind; it is a flaw of my character that I permit the latter to envenom any part of the life that remains for us. I shall continue to try to be more like my husband.
I will remember every face I saw in the church that day of Jim’s service: my big brother, who expressed his “one hundred percent” certainty I could get through speaking that day; nephews and nieces; neighbors; colleagues; friends we saw regularly and friends we had not seen for decades; our children’s friends and teachers; solemn members of the Boy Scout troop and Little League teams my husband coached. Family members flew in from across the country. One said he had shared Jim’s obituary with airplane attendants who broke out tiny bottles of amber Irish whiskey to toast such a man. Snowy-haired widows of my parents’ generation, whose husbands’ services I had attended not so very long ago, sat in pews. My mother’s auto mechanic, who never had met Jim, closed up his shop and came to hear us say goodbye to him.
The ritual itself was beautiful.
Possessed of a different profession and temperament than both Jim and Bob, I had known not to ask Jim whether he wanted me to speak. I knew he would have said no, because Jim would not have wanted to cause me any additional stress inherent in speaking. And he knew better than anyone how it would torment me to find worthy words.
But, like Bob, I believed my words–any words–would be inadequate to honor Jim, and also knew that I had to speak about him—for my own sake, not just for those who listened.
Jim’s Closing Ceremonies were held on March 26, 2011, at Phillips Church.
(My excuse for posting this today, rather than on the anniversary that will come tomorrow, is a thirteen-hour time zone change, but we shall get to that in other posts.)
The ritual had no traditional template. I now understand what Reverend Thompson, who presided, meant when he said–as hundreds of people gathered and strained the church at its seams–that there was a great deal of love even in the spaces of this program.
That love was palpable in words and lyrics –from the reflections of friends and family to the glorious singing of the Amazing Grace that Jim personified, the gorgeous acoustic guitar rendition of Sweet Baby James, and Bob’s daughter Becca leading a pure, lilting For Good. Thanks to my children’s marching band director, we had the words and music to accompany my favorite planet in Holst’s Planets Suite.
It was a program of everything from hymns to Broadway show tunes. Jim knew how to delegate.
Love also lingered between and among the words. Sometimes it lingered literally: voices of all timbres and talents joined in, with slight lyrical twists, as they did in the refrains from “Sweet Baby James.”
Sometimes the love came in hearty laughter. It was impossible to give a remembrance of Jim without eliciting at least a few true laughs.
And sometimes the love was in breathtaking silence.
Only in recent months have I been able to listen to an audio recording of the service, handed to me via a friend entrusted with two cherry-blossom pink discs right after the service.
Not a sound, not even a sniffle, can be heard during the four full seconds when I had to pause after speaking about the people who had become brothers to Jim.
There was complete silence after I spoke, but for the gentle footsteps as Becca and I (of similarly feathered weight) traded off places at the front of the church.
Perhaps no one but my daughter Emma and I knew that in that same silent space, after I sat down, she touched her hand to my back, her way of saying, “It’s all right. You made it through.” I had little confidence that I could.
And from the audio alone, no one would know that in the awed soundless stillness between Bob’s remembrance and the Reverend’s first verse of “Amazing Grace,” I had to chase Bob, his head downcast from his own similar struggle to get through those words, down the aisle to give him a hug.
Our house, in the silence of a nearly empty nest, remains brimming with feelings and wonderful family memories. As well, for me there is “the particular imprint of [Jim’s] dying hour on this place, an imprint that . . . is unmistakably [his] own.”[i]
This love left its imprint on the church no less than Jim’s life and death left its imprint on the home he loved. I can go into Phillips Church and sit alone in silence–as I do–in the same seats my children and I occupied during his service, and I can still feel all of the love that surrounded him and all of us on that day. It is still there for us.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon
[i] José Donoso, The Obscene Bird of Night (Boston: David R. Godine, 1970), p. 16.