This weekend I attended a memorial service for a woman who led a good life by any measure. She lived for 73 years, was married for 53 years and had two children and six grandchildren. She had worked outside the home, volunteered in her community, felt love, sorrow and traveled some.
She exhibited ambition, determination and pluck as a 12-year-old when she ran away from a terrible home environment. She was born with sight in only one eye but had no trouble seeing the character of people as a social worker in a tough part of town in the 1960s. She loved a good political debate and waged many of her own fights for causes she cared about. She lived long enough to experience the joys, successes, heartbreaks and regrets of a full life.
While she was not known outside her immediate circle of friends, family and colleagues, she was appreciated by those who did know her. She was eulogized by one friend as “brave, elegant, unique and never afraid to be true to herself. She was so brilliant and quietly giving. She never sang her own praises, but what a strong, singular, beautiful human being she was.” She was described by many of her long time friends as cool and courageous.
Most of us usually leave a funeral feeling we know the person better after listening to stories told through the multiple prisms of peers. We feel either better or remorseful that we didn’t have a full appreciation of the person until they died. An 18-year-old woman stood up to talk and introduced herself as the oldest grandchild of the deceased. The granddaughter remarked, “I learned more about my grandmother today than I have ever known. “
In her final days in hospice, the woman who died reflected that she saw her life as quite ordinary and wished that she could have done more. The 18-year-old was sad that she had not seen her grandmother more recently. On any other occasion she would have been talking to the relatives about embracing the thrill of unveiling life’s opportunities as a college freshman. I was sad about the regrets on both ends as neither was warranted. I know this to be true because the woman whose life had ended was my mother; the woman whose life was just beginning is my daughter.
When my sister and I planned the service we hoped to bring some peace and comfort to our dad, who was suffering immensely from the loss of his life partner. However it became clear that the most affected people in the room were the grandchildren, as they tried to grasp the meaning of death and understand more about their grandmother’s life through the prose of the participants.
It was a surreal circle of life as blanks were filled in for the younger generation. Most importantly, it gave them all insight into which relationships mattered most in their lives. I was buoyed by the presence of my parents’ long-time friends and family. I also was able to get an occasional glimpse of my childhood friends in the back row.
Mom had battled multiple physical illnesses for 40 years and I felt a wash of relief after the service ended. However, it was the tribute to the other parts of her life that brought closure. The next generation was able to embrace the totality of life at its peak and inherently understand it was their turn to carry the torch. It took the sting out as it felt every bit a beginning as an end to a life story.
Carol Lewis Gullstad
November 14, 2011