Tuesday, March 6, 2007


As a kid I was shielded from death. I'm not sure whether it was because my mom believed that "life was for the living" (as she would say) or that it was because she and my father had both lost a parent as kids. I didn't attended a funeral or wake until I went to college, and then only one. I still feel like a stranger at these events. We are a cremation family, and also one that likes to do memorial events, not funerals.

Sunday I went to a wake for the mother of a secretary. Her father had already passed, so now she is parentless (and an only child).

I told her I used to fear that when I lost my parents I would be an orphan, and how, to my surprise, the wealth of memories that I retain make me anything but an orphan. In fact, as I was telling her this, I was thinking that it was time for parents (or for me?) to stop hanging around in my mind. But I couldn't say that. I knew she was at a far different place in her grieving.

During the last couple of years I've taken a special interest in the display of snapshots at wakes. Her husband started giving me a lecture on photography, and how it is that photographs help us remember our beloved. He was so glad that he had photographs, and reveled at how these images jar his memory. I asked myself whether there was any profound change in our memories before and after the invention of photography. I knew, however, that this was not the time to win an argument, and since he felt secure in the thought that he would have images of his mother-in-law and their family celebrations forever, I didn't want to contradict him.

I looked through the three photo albums and the pictures on the two bulletin boards. One was from her parent's fiftieth anniversary, and a second from their sixtieth anniversary. In the albums, I looked to see how people were (or weren't) touching one another. And I wondered if the secretary was the photographer, because she wasn't in most of the pictures.

Then I went to see the mother, laid at rest, whom I had never met. It struck me a little strange that she was wearing glasses, not that deceased persons shouldn't wear glasses, but because it interfered with my ability to see the eternal peace that is usually expressed in a corpse's face. And my particular angle to her is not how I usually see people. Usually when we go up to someone they look toward us, so we don't see the space between their eyes and their glasses. But I just saw this foreign object sitting on her face. What was she seeing through these thick lenses, I wondered? And what was she hearing? She was very frail, and very tired. Is she is ready to be forgotten as she departs to that other world, I wondered? Must our lives go on?