It was one of those Texas days when a norther has just blown through. Tomorrow, later in the day, it will probably be warm again. But today, it was cold and the sharp wind blew the leaves off the trees.
We were at a Methodist church for a funeral. We talked about the man who had died, suddenly and too young. We worried about his widow, a close friend, who has already had too much sorrow in her life. We looked around at the gathered crowd, seeing people we hadn’t seen in years.
What always amazes me at times like this, where the sorrow has come out of nowhere, is the crazy diversity of emotions. It’s as if the human mind can’t linger too long and exclusively on grief; it has to wander.
So, as the minister spoke, I sat and wondered what it must be like to believe in heaven and an afterlife. Imagine thinking someone you loved had joined those who died earlier — and that you would eventually be reunited with them all. It has to be tremendously comforting to think of that life beyond and that reunion. But I don’t believe in that. I used to — and it exercises a strong, nostalgic pull on me — but I don’t any longer. I don’t know what I believe in.
In fact, I worry that I’m such a heathen that I can’t even request “Amazing Grace” to be sung at my own funeral. I worry, too, that people won’t remember to tell all the really great stories about me and they’ll just say something inadequate like, “Well, she was really sweet.” Or, “She was a really good cook,” when everybody knows I always manage to fuck up everything I try to cook, or “She never met a stranger,” which is also a big lie. Or maybe they’ll sing “Little Drummer Boy,” which I loathe, or say chartreuse is my favorite color. Quality control: That’s what you want at your own funeral.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one worrying about my own eventual service.
“I’ve just decided,” my friend Pat whispered, “that I’m going by the funeral home today and telling them about what I want for my service. I don’t want to leave it up to chance.”
“I get to speak at your service,” I piped up.
Pat gave me a stare like a cold slap. She didn’t say yes or no, but I was going ahead and trying to think of my favorite stories about her. Like the time she stood up on a Southwest Airlines flight and her skirt fell off. Or maybe the time she got so drunk in a swanky restaurant that she locked herself in a restroom stall and couldn’t get out. Or the time we were on a trip to Cape Cod and saw a wedding party pass; everybody else was weeping happily, but Pat screamed out, “Wait! Let me do your prenup!”
“I’ve given Karen a list of people,” Pat said, “who won’t be allowed to come to my funeral. She’ll be standing by the door.”
Great. Karen is one of the toughest people I know. She’s the woman who had the cojones to tell Darrell Royal he can’t putt worth shit. Imagine what kind of damage she can do to lesser mortals. If she has a list of undesirables who are unwelcome at Pat’s funeral, those people don’t have a chance.
Maybe, I thought, turning paranoid, I not only wouldn’t be speaking at Pat’s service. Maybe I wouldn’t even be allowed in. Maybe she was pissed off about something. Or, hell, maybe I’ll predecease her and it won’t be a problem. You never know.
Whatever. We came on a wintry day to mourn a man who died and to grieve for his family and to remind ourselves that we needed to be there for all of them in the long weeks and months that stretched ahead of us.
But we also came to be human and self-involved and neurotic. We came to remind ourselves we still have a life to live. Carpe the rest of it, however long.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)