Last month, my husband – apropos of nothing but the day itself – announced, “Dad would have been 98 today,” to which I nonchalantly replied, “Oh, wow, really?”
If I were a cartoon, the thought bubble hovering over my head would have read, “So? If Abraham Lincoln were still around, he’d be 204; and if my dad hadn’t smoked so much, he might not have gotten cancer and died, therefore he’d be 92. Once a person is dead, you should really just stop counting.”
I understand it’s only natural to think of any loved one alive or dead on birthdays and how tempting it is (if the person is deceased) to imagine what it would be like if he or she remained among the living. But age carries so many weird burdens as it is, I think it’s nonsensical to continue tallying it after – particularly long after – the dearly departed have escaped the cycle of degeneration the rest of us are currently experiencing. I mean, why bother?
The beauty of death is that a lot of things don’t count anymore: age, good looks, material wealth, bad habits and mistakes, even long-standing grudges both held by and held against the deceased, which is exactly why I enjoy funerals. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t waltz into the proceedings happy-go-lucky, ready for a good time. But I do expect to be moved – to witness a level of respect and appreciation that might not have been readily or publicly offered during the lifetime of the person being remembered.
I expect to be surprised – perhaps to learn of some heretofore unknown aspect of a person’s life history during the eulogy. And when mourners offer a final word, their memories and stories can reveal as much about the individual speaking as the one who is being spoken about. After just about every service I’ve ever attended, I have felt enriched in knowledge, connection, understanding or awareness.
But these rituals don’t work for everyone. I once heard a man complain after his sister-in-law’s funeral, “It makes me mad that all those people stood up to say nice things about her when all she really was was a big, fat pig!” OK, point taken.
Maybe death diminishes the bad and embellishes the good to a point of willful deception. But I’d like to think that death or tragedy is also a moment in which you’re given an opportunity to drill down, to look at someone with your own blinders at least temporarily removed or to acknowledge valuable, meaningful contributions that had been previously ignored.
When someone makes the transition to another reality, the responsibility of surrendering to the new normal lies with the living, too. I know another woman whose parents both died at ripe old ages under appropriate circumstances, and on the anniversaries of their respective deaths, she commemorates her orphanhood.
My thought bubble on that one is, “Can you consider yourself a real orphan if you were 59 years old when your parents died? Isn’t there a statute of limitations on that?”