The Wake

Walking into a funeral home is never easy. Walking into one with your husband in the casket is excruciating. Although Nate always said I would one day bury him rather than him burying me, the picture of that never formed in my mind’s eye. Today I saw what that looked like and felt the pain of it.

After driving the 90 minutes from Michigan, several of us entered the room together. Not wanting to arrive at the front too soon, we lingered to read the cards attached to beautiful floral arrangements. Waiting for us at the end of that line was the casket with Nate lying in it, cold as ice and still as stone. As we approached, I could feel myself getting nervous, shaking as if a shaft of cold air had whooshed into the room.

I remember seeing my dad in his casket, looking as if he was taking a nap. Mom looked natural, too, outfitted in a silk dress like she was on her way to a party. Today Nate didn’t look good. Although I’ve always thought he was handsome, today he looked worn, like a warrior who’d fought a battle and lost. And of course he had. The angle of his chin and set of his mouth made him look like somebody else. Only by standing to the side and looking from the top of his head did he resemble my Nate.

But what did I expect? The cancer had  eaten him up and he hadn’t looked good for several weeks. How would dying of a ravenous disease and being placed in a casket ever improve his appearance? Even so, something in me wanted him to look handsome for his public.

Once we’d done the hard work of “the viewing,” we turned from the dead to the living. Streams of people began entering the room to greet us, each one sharing comments and stories about Nate. I learned things I never knew about him, even after 40 years of marriage. I met some of his clients, all of whom expressed gratitude for Nate’s patience with them and the legal tutoring he’d provided along the way. Apparently he sometimes did more than that, too. One lawyer said, “When I started my practice, Nate gave me a check to help me get going.” I hadn’t known.

Others described his contribution to our former community as a police commissioner, and the police chief himself gifted us with a uniform patch “to put in the casket with him, if you want.” Nate had been a commissioner for 20 years and had been one of three who had hired the chief. He expressed his gratitude for the job and appreciation for the friendship that had developed with Nate.

I talked with some of his former Sunday School students and a few of his small group members. Many of our children’s pals were in line too, along with their parents, some of whom I’d never met. Friends of ours from 25 years ago were there, reminding me of the fun of those days long ago when we were raising young children together. The security guard from Nate’s office building told me how much she’d loved him and learned from him.

Both sets of parents of our children-in-law came to town for the weekend, one couple from Florida, the other from England. Suffering from jet lag after a long travel day today, they smiled and told me, “We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

A pattern emerged. Nate had made friends all along life’s way, even with lawyers who’d opposed him. When personal opinions differed, he somehow managed to set those aside and connect with people on a different level.

Several parents from our kids’ high school came through the line, as well as the school nurse and those leading the music program Birgitta had been in. The variety of greeters astounded me. We were still chatting with people 90 minutes after our allotted time at the funeral home, but the staff graciously let us use their facility until each person had been through the line.

Although my feet hurt and my stomach growled, it was nourishing to hear accolades and stories about my husband. Many of those in the receiving line had tears in their eyes when talking of how much they appreciated and missed Nate. Somehow hearing how he was loved made me feel loved, too.

Tomorrow will be another full day as we attend Nate’s funeral and then caravan to the cemetery. Although I dread the finality of burying his body, I eagerly look forward to talking with additional friends who will be there. Any friend of Nate’s is a friend of mine.

“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other.” (1 John 4:7,9,11)

Mom was right.

Years ago, when Nate and I were in our twenties, we were invited to a slew of weddings back-to-back. For a couple of months straight we were attending a wedding every weekend. I complained to Mom at the time saying, “I’m constantly shopping for wedding gifts, and it’s expensive. Besides, we’re so busy, we’re neglecting our weekend work around the house.”

Mom answered in a strange way. “Weddings are happy. Just wait til your calendar is full of funerals.”

Tomorrow we attend the wake planned in Nate’s honor. The next day is his funeral, and we haven’t been to a wedding in quite a while. Mom was right. These occasions aren’t  happy.

The girls and I shopped for clothes today, having nothing appropriate for the wake and funeral of our husband/father. Shopping for clothes is usually fun, but this time the fun had been sucked out of it like air from a balloon. The guidelines for what to buy were based on the sad realities of a family in mourning. We tried on dark colors, mostly black, and fought sadness even in the dressing rooms. None of us are “happy” with our purchases.

funeral dress small

Each of us has been peppered by thoughts of Nate being in the next room or on his way home. Even as I tried on my black suit I thought, “Nate will like this when he sees it.” That’s probably the hardest part of beginning the mourning process. The reality of his absence takes time to sink in. One minute we know it, and the next we’ve forgotten. Each disappointing “oh… that’s right… he’s gone” is a sledge hammer to the heart.

Facing the wake and funeral is both a fear and a fascination. I’m fearful of the emotional assault on our children and on myself. Will it feel like we’re being kicked when we’re already down?

Yet I’m fascinated as I wonder who will come. The funeral home wanted to know what size room we’d need. Bob said, “We have a small room that will seat 30, a larger one for 60 and the largest  for 130. Unlike planning a wedding at which the guests are specifically invited and the RSVPs carefully counted, a funeral is a wild card. A small obituary goes into the newspaper, and you hope people see it. Beyond that, you can’t plan.

“The younger the deceased, the stronger the draw,” they say. Is 64 young? As Nate and I approached the social security check-drawing age of 65, we felt pretty old. As he anticipated death, our tune changed and 64 was young. We have no idea how many or who will come.

Attending a wake or a funeral is not pleasant. It’s difficult to know what to say or how to act. Those who do come will be, I’m certain, our true friends. In this one way, funerals and weddings are alike. I’m looking forward to putting my arms around people I love but have not seen in many months or maybe even years. We will be coming together because Nate died, which is a horrible reason to gather. But we will also find gentle enjoyment in seeing each other, longing for more than lightning fast conversations in a receiving line.

If only Nate could be there, too…..

“We are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. For we live by believing and not by seeing. Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Counting Blessings

Our first day without Nate has been jam-packed with wake and funeral preparations, trips to the cemetery and funeral home, eulogy and obituary writing, and shopping for proper funeral clothes. All of it reminds us that Nate’s death is the only reason for today’s check list.

The low point of the day was when Van’s Medical Supply arrived to pick up the hospital bed and related equipment. As the man stepped into our front door he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I started to tear up and said, “It seems like you just brought the bed in.”

He looked at the ground and quietly said, “It went so fast for you.”

Watching him break apart the sturdy automatic bed was a symbol of my breaking heart. I could hardly stand it and had to look away. Last night after everyone was in bed, at 4:45 am, I was longing to get my pajamas on and go to sleep but was drawn to the little room where Nate died. The hospital bed was still set up then, although the sheets had gone out the door wrapped around Nate. I climbed onto the bed with my face in his pillows and cried and cried. The plugged-in mattress gently rose and fell as it had when Nate had been lying on it, coming to life with the weight of my body. Oh how I missed Nate, even the Nate in the hospital bed.

As long as he’d been alive, even if breathing ever so slightly, I still had my husband. I was still a married woman. We were still a team, working together to keep him alive. Now he was gone, and his absence was completely final for the rest of my life. I began to understand why people can make decisions to keep their debilitated loved ones on life support, even though brain-dead. A person can still hug, kiss and hold a warm, living body. Caressing the dead is unthinkable.

Nate’s makeshift bedroom was rearranged and put back the way it had been the day the hospital bed arrived, a desk in the middle, computer on top of that, wing chair in the corner, bookshelves again visible. Last night’s atmosphere of quiet worship in that place had dissipated like so much smoke in a stack, and my insides ached to have Nate back.

Lying in bed at 5:00 am last “night” wasn’t peaceful. A thousand thoughts swirled in my brain as I replayed the important events of the 24 hours just past, savoring the memories. Today as I looked at the room where he stopped breathing, the scene reappeared in my mind. But God firmly reminded me of what had happened in the minutes after Nate died.

Our nine kids and kids-in-law had once again squeezed around the bed to say their final goodbyes. After Nate died, no one said a word. Then I began talking about what he was possibly seeing and doing at that exact time in another world, trying desperately to cut through the thick atmosphere of sorrow in the room. No one else spoke, unless choked sobs and teary sniffles qualified.

We all studied Nate’s face, so devoid of life and truly qualifying as a corpse. Our Nate was no longer in the room with us. That wasn’t him. What good would it do to stay focused on him… on that?

The kids and I began talking about the way it all happened. Before too many minutes had passed, we were numbering our blessings. On a busy day like yesterday, how likely was it that each of us would have been in the room as he died? We had wanted that. I had wanted that. And there we were.

There was the blessing of having Nate at home with us, around the clock, rather than far away in the sterile, fluorescent atmosphere of a hospital. There was the totally unexpected outpouring of love from those we know and some we’d never met, everything from checks in the mail to food in the fridge. And there was the mysterious power of prayer, prayed in great volume, bringing our family and our husband/dad into God’s throne room daily. As we named these blessings and many more, we were able to dry our tears and walk out of the room.              blessings pumpkin, half mast flag 004

One of today’s happier tasks was to gather pictures of Nate for poster boards we will display at the funeral home. In a group effort to page through 196 albums, happy memories washed over us like a fresh breeze coming into a stuffy room. Chuckles grew into laughter and then into guffaws as we recalled funny stories the photos told. We studied Nate in all the pictures and our blessings list grew longer: he took us on great vacations, wanted us to have fun, taught us to fish, rode with us on motorcycles, always included our friends. One of the boys said, “Papa was just a legend.”

“I will bless my people and their homes around my holy hill. And in the proper season I will send the showers they need. There will be showers of blessing.” (Ezekiel 34:26)