For the past few days I have been constructing the personalities of each of our main, secondary and tertiary characters that make up the cast of characters in An Agreeable Man. I prefer to base my characters on actual people I know, so that I have a good idea of them as full-blown individuals. And so I study their speech patterns, their idiosyncrasies, how they look, how they deal with other people, what their moral/spiritual/religious beliefs are, their outlooks on Life, what their day-to-day situations are and how they deal with them, etc. That is what I have been doing for the past week, and it is going very slowly. I have 3 more people to contact and then I should be able to “play chess” with each one of them on my story board!
We have left Merle in the aftermath of a sudden death, and a most unsatisfactory funeral, and a surreal gathering of friends – but no family – at her house. She is beginning to reflect on Death and what it means in general, and in particular, what it means for her. (Since I rarely go to funerals, I did not have much to draw on to adequately present the range of emotions that a death provides to family and friends. Here are some of my experiences which range from the notification from afar of a friend’s death to being totally present in arranging every aspect of the funeral itself.)
This past weekend, a dear friend of our family died. One of his daughters marked his passing with a thought-provoking quotation:
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. it is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again! (Henry Scott Holland – 1847-1918 – was Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. He was also a canon of Christ Church, Oxford.)
When my husband’s mother died, he wrote a lovely eulogy and gave this heartfelt and moving tribute to her at her funeral:
“Every day, when I came home, Mom was there – dinner on the table, clothes cleaned, house spotless. My Dad was a very precise, methodical person who took care of everything not related to the house. When he died, I was really worried about Mom being able to take care of things like income tax. So I called and arranged to come down to do her taxes. When I got there, she said she had already taken care of it because she didn’t want to waste a visit with me doing taxes! That was the first time I realized how resourceful she was. After Dad died, Mom took up art (oil painting) and ceramics. She was congenial and enjoyed being with other people. (Here my husband could only get out a word or two to describe her…)
She was Sweet…Caring…Supportive…
She always put others first. She did not brag on her accomplishments. She was a determined person. She loved her family, her church, her friends.
One by one, she outlasted her friends and family members. All the original pallbearers she had chosen had passed away and were scratched off her list, one by one.
My mother is gone. I loved her and I will miss her.
She was a gentle soul…”
It is a different situation when you are deep in caregiver stress to go through the roiling emotions of arranging a funeral while denying huge negative feelings you didn’t even know you were capable of. This was my situation.
First of all, the last five years of my mother’s life were chaotic for us all, but particularly for me, and I have never shared these feelings before. I prayed a lot, but I did not recognize any answers to my prayers and so my faith was shaken. The only way I could deal with Mother’s daily life was through empathy. I had read a poem someone had written and it was the only tangible guidance I had. And on a good day, it worked!
I NEED YOU
DO NOT ASK ME TO REMEMBER.
DO NOT TRY TO MAKE ME UNDERSTAND.
LET ME REST AND KNOW YOU’RE WITH ME.
KISS MY CHEEK AND HOLD MY HAND.
I’M CONFUSED BEYOND YOUR CONCEPT.
I AM SAD AND SICK AND LOST.
ALL I KNOW IS THAT I NEED YOU
TO BE WITH ME AT ALL COST.
DO NOT LOSE YOUR PATIENCE WITH ME.
DO NOT SCOLD, OR CURSE, OR CRY!
I CAN’T HELP THE WAY I’M ACTING,
CAN’T BE DIFFERENT, THOUGH I TRY.
JUST REMEMBER THAT I NEED YOU,
THAT THE BEST OF ME IS GONE.
PLEASE DON’T FAIL TO STAND BESIDE ME!!!
LOVE ME ‘TIL MY LIFE IS DONE…
I do not know who composed his poem, but I used it as insight to dealing with mother after her stroke rendered her almost speechless. I had put it away after I first read it, but I couldn’t find it when she died. I wanted to read it at her funeral. The day we were to leave to go to her out-of-state funeral, it appeared on my bedside table, then on the counter in my bathroom, then in my office as I was closing my computer, and finally beside my luggage. How can you ignore something that obvious? The message was clear: read this at my funeral! And I did. This poem helped me to put myself in her place, feel what she was feeling, see what was happening through her eyes.
And it almost killed me…