|Community is Infinite (M.A. Reilly, 2012)|
A colleague, Carolyn, phones and relays a story of a friend’s elderly mother dying alone in a nursing home this past week. She says that the whole family was unable to be with their mother due to COVID-19 rules. It’s not that the death was unexpected, but it is that the closure the daughter expected would not be forthcoming.
I listen as she tells me: She's Catholic. She expected to wake her mother, to have a mass, a burial. Nothing outside the norm.
But the norm now has changed.
Hearing the story had me imagining the daughter. Maybe she wanted the burning of Frankincense and Myrrh, or she needed the words that would have been spoken by the priest who surely knew the 91-year old. Or perhaps she was seeking an odd comfort in knowing that at the back of the church, seated on those last few pews would have been the professional mourners, those older, devoted women who attended every Catholic funeral and lent their voices to the ritual.
She might have been thinking how she would sit quietly in a car near the front of the procession of cars, all with their headlights lit, and travel slowly to the cemetery. She might have imagined how her body leaning against a sister, a husband, a grown child would have comforted her as they stood graveside. Perhaps comfort came imagining a celebratory meal where immediate and more distant family talked about the woman they had known.
But none of this was not to happen for she was told that the wake could be no more than 60 minutes, that there was a limit to the number of people who were allowed to gather, and the burial would not be preceded by a public mass.
Quick, quiet, small and efficient.
So what does she have? asks Carolyn. What's left?
We share silence as there isn't a lot to offer at the moment. Each of us has buried our own mother and surely we are in our heads at that moment. And out of that space of silence, I remember the circle of people.
When Rob was being weaned off high-flow oxygen in a palliative care center at a hospital, the worse thing was walking the hall each morning and passing rooms that had been occupied and now were empty. They were always so sanitized, so washed down and empty.
Swept and mopped floors.
One afternoon though as I sat next to Rob watching him sleep, I heard the unmistakable sound of laughter. The palliative care center was usually a quiet place and this was not polite laughter. Rather, the sounds coming from down the hall were a roll-in-the-aisle, split-your-side kind of laughter. Full. Robust. I followed it and saw that there in the once empty room were now a group of chairs. The bed and dresser had been removed. Coats and brightly colored scarves were draped on the back of chairs and a group of people were seated in a circle. They were telling stories about their mother, aunt, sister, friend and those stories had them laughing.
Leslie Marmon Silko in the opening of her novel, Ceremony writes:
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren't just entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don't have anything
if you don't have stories.
In this time of COVID-19, we do not have the physical circle, but we do have stories and ways of sharing them.
Stories to tell. Stories to recount. Stories to write down or sound out as we live through this. Stories to tell one another.
Stories to tell about those who lived and those who did not.
Stories to comfort, honor, and memorialize.
Stories to help us remember and to allow us to forget.
What stories will you tell?