Cakes and Caskets

24 Mar

Amidst fluttering paper fans and strumming organ chords, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of green in the sanctuary’s St. Patrick’s Day crowd.

Instead, attendants looked like chess pieces–intermittent black and white pawns scattered randomly between the church’s pews. Those dressed in black paid homage to traditional mourning rituals. Those in white gave nods to death as a thing worthy of celebration. The conflicting presence of grief and joy lay in the very fabric of the funeral ceremony for  my best friend’s grandmother: Death was both the dark, mysterious reaper and the peaceful  angel of escape. The entire service wrestled with the competing notions.

“This aint a library,” the preacher bellowed from the podium as he encouraged those present to shed their veils of mourning and clap and sing to celebrate the homegoing of the beloved woman as upbeat gospel tunes drowned out the stifled sobs of the masses.

Funerals have a way of highlighting the importance of “giving loved ones flowers while they can still smell them.” After the service, I went to visit my own grandmother. It was her 76th birthday. Tons of family members had been streaming in and out of the hospital room all day to offer her gifts and well wishes.  As we serenaded her with a round of “Happy Birthday,” I crowned her with a plastic shamrock tiara. I loved watching her bask in the attention as we each tried to place thoughts of the rotting leg beneath her sheets that  deemed her immobile and kept her yo-yoing between the hospital and rehab for the last six months.

I have often wondered why old age is so degrading. Why must we, who have lived so independently and voraciously for the bulk of our lives, be reduced to a physical and mental fragments of our former selves in our last days? Why can’t we just live fiercely until the day of our demise? New York Times writer Alan Lightman has offered his response.

My thoughts turned to my other grandmother–the one who passed when I was still in high school. The year leading up to her death, we watched her slowly forget who she was and unlearn who we were as her spirit submitted to the descent of Alzheimer’s. The blow was particularly hard for those who recalled the warrior of a woman who was always the life of a party. To watch a woman with so much spirit waste away idly in bed as a mere remnant of her former self was utterly devastating. A person’s spirit and personality constructs his identity as much as physical features. What is the body without the spirit?

Watching my last-living grandmother chat and smile vividly as we celebrated her 76th birthday reminded me to be grateful that her most important part still remained.


One Response to “Cakes and Caskets”

  1. Marvin April 18, 2011 at 3:02 am #

    Very deep


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