I don’t usually deal with serious subjects, or those unrelated to writing, but today, I felt compelled to do so. Today, we buried my father-in-law. I couldn’t go with my husband to Mississippi, but I am with him in spirit. He lost his mother in March, so this has been a tough year at our house.
One thing I’ve noticed through this loss, people grieve in different ways. Some are loud and extravagant in their grief, sobbing and wailing profusely. Others sit quietly and say very little. Their grief is no less profound, but they are not extroverted with their display, preferring to grieve in private. I fall somewhere in the middle. I will cry, but quietly and, sometimes, alone. I held myself together pretty well at my mother-in-law’s service, until they played our favorite hymn, Gentle Woman, about the Virgin Mary.
I was taken back to a time, early in my marriage, when she and I were at Mass together. They played that song during Communion. Not being raised Catholic, it was the first time I’d heard it. I was touched by the beauty of the melody and lyrics. I threw myself into the song, my voice soaring on the high notes. I had a great range and powerful set of lungs back in those days. Several heads turned in the congregation. I guess Catholics don’t sing as loudly as Presbyterians? I was a little embarrassed until she took my hand, squeezing it. “You sing as loudly as you want. You have a beautiful voice. I just sort of croak along. You sing extra loudly for both of us.” I took that to heart and every time they sang that song in church, I cut loose.
That memory came back to me in a flood and I burst into tears. I kept singing, even if I couldn’t hit the high notes anymore. Instead, I added harmony to it, singing alto, harmonizing on my own. (Catholics tend to sing in unison, not in parts.) It was my way of saying goodbye and telling her how much I’d loved her.
I haven’t really cried yet for my father-in-law, though I am tearful as I write this. He was a strong man, somewhat gruff. He could be gentle and patient, but also firm and resolute. He loved to tell stories of his life—something my husband inherited from him. A retired Marine, he was a firm believer that one was a Marine for life. He was an instructor at Parris Island during the Korean War and took his duty very seriously. I imagine that his men will always remember him as being tough as nails, uncompromising and thorough.
My own father died when I was 25. Al stepped in, giving me love and comfort in a quiet, gentle way. He offered advice and support, in the form of stories. Even if I haven’t seen him much in the last few years, I miss him very much. I spoke to him on the phone just before he died. He couldn’t speak, but he recognized my voice. I told him I loved and missed him. Then words failed me. I couldn’t make myself say goodbye. He didn’t say anything, his failing body had robbed him of the ability to speak, but I heard his sharp intake of breath and I fell apart.
I hope when it’s my time to go, I go fast. We all watched my father-in-law slowly fail. With each stroke, he got weaker and less able to do things for himself. Eventually, he lost the ability to speak, though he could write a little. He couldn’t stand on his own, though he was always trying to. A lingering decline is awful. I hope I just keep going until I drop. I admit, toward the end, we were all praying for his release from this life. I know some people consider that wrong, but he didn’t deserve to be trapped in a body that didn’t know when to give up and die. No one should have to suffer like that.
And so, we say goodbye. As he once told my husband, “When I go, it will be the end of one era and the beginning of the next, where you are the one standing on the precipice.”
That’s how this feels to me now, as if I’m standing on the precipice. I don’t know what’s on the other side, and I’m in no hurry to find out, but I know when I go there will be some wonderful people waiting to catch me when I fall.