Yesterday I attended the funeral of Maggie, someone I have known for more than 50 years. She was in her 80’s and had been living alone for many years. Her husband died a little less than twenty years ago. He drove her to her job at Marshall Field’s one winter morning. She kissed him good-bye and patted the head of their little poodle, who liked to go for a ride. Then she got out of the car, entered the building, and began a day like many others. Her husband died of a heart attack. Someone realized that he and his little dog had been sitting there by the store entrance with the engine running for some time. The police came and then the paramedics came. Dick was gone.
Dick had been Maggie’s “Prince.” He was a village trustee for many years. He played golf and was the life of a party. They were a handsome couple with a world filled with family, work, and public service. Maggie was the first president of the auxiliary board of the local hospital. She knew “everyone” in town. Without Dick, Maggie spent more time at home.
Maggie and Dick had one child, Meg. Meg was my friend when we lived in the same block of Victoria Lane. Our parents were friends. My sister Kathy and I spent lots of time with Meg. She was a little younger than we were and spoiled, but who makes judgments at five or six years of age? All of us were different in our own ways. And we were looking then for ways to be the same. We made up names for ourselves. We wanted our bond to be familial as we so often played house or school or grocery store–an imaginary world in which we were members of the same institution. People these days do that for their children, don’t they? They give them names that cement the familial bonds they already share–an example, perhaps, of children teaching their parents.
We took our real names and made them all begin with D. Have you ever met a family in which all the kids have names beginning with the same letter? I’m not sure if it happened by design or accident, but my sister’s family has names that begin with sequentially ordered letters: Jeff, Kathy, Lisa, and Maureen. I was the oldest kid in the neighborhood. I became Darryl. Kathy was Dadathlent, Kristine was Dristeen, Lori was Dori, Meg was Demegan, and we called Dristeen’s younger sister Cindy “Dinner.” She always played the dog when we played house, and everyone knows that you call the dog for dinner. We called our dog Dinner instead.
Meg and I remained friends for a long time. Our parents remained good friends. Her dad wrote one of the letters of recommendation that got me into college. I ended up leaving town and Meg and I eventually drifted apart. She married and had three kids and a house filled with pets. But she developed lung cancer and it proved so virulent that Meg died several years after her dad died.
Maggie fell and fractured her hip right before Meg’s funeral. I went to the funeral. My mom stayed with Maggie, who could not have walked the snowy steps into the church or up the low rise from the road to her daughter and husband’s final resting place.
In the years after Meg’s death, Maggie lived alone in her home, often with a pet. She suffered from COPD. She eventually had to carry oxygen to breathe comfortably. Maggie, a fashionista before such a word existed, was always dressed to attract attention. Her clothes were exquisite creations. He hair was styled to perfection. She wore magnificent jewelry, many pieces beautiful turquoise creations. Her makeup was expertly applied. Once she started to use oxygen, things started to change. She chose not to leave her home. She bought leisure/track suits bedazzled with rhinestones and studs. She wore them until they needed cleaning and then threw them out. She stopped getting her hair done, stopped coloring it, and stopped cutting it. By the time she died, it hung all the way to her waist.
She would not let many people into her home. Her grandchildren and son-in-law were welcome. Two grandchildren have started families since their mom’s death. One gave Maggie a great-granddaughter. Another grandchild has a baby on the way. Her niece Debbie came by. My mom and some good friends, Don and Erma, were welcome. After Maggie stopped leaving her home, this small group of family and friends helped her maintain her life. My mom was a big part of the Maggie network. She did Maggie’s banking. She bought her groceries. They spoke often, sometimes every day. My mom was Maggie’s liaison to the official world. She got Maggie’s taxes done at the local senior center. She took Maggie’s information to someone who helped determine the best Medicare drug care program for her each year. She helped get her a cell phone. When Maggie refused to attend her own surprise birthday party, my mom talked her into going. My mom always prepared a plate of whatever holiday foods we had on hand to take to Maggie if Maggie planned to be alone.
I last saw Maggie the day before Thanksgiving. After I finished my chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I went to Boston Market to pick up a turkey dinner Maggie could reheat on the holiday. My mom did not think Maggie would let me in, but she did. We talked about my health situation and hers. While my mom was out of town in January and my sister Kathy was taking care of me, Maggie called us several times to see how we were doing.
When Maggie’s electricity went out or her oxygen machine did not work or her phone stopped working or anything else failed to work, my mom went over to take care of the matter. Don and Erma also were there to help, sometimes doing the shopping, taking out Maggie’s trash for her, or making repairs that she would not let anyone else make. Maggie’s grandchildren, all young adults, sometimes not living in the area, did their part, too. When Maggie refused to leave her home for necessary medical care, Debbie found a doctor and nurse who would come to the house. It took a village to keep Maggie’s progressively tinier life going.
A couple of weeks ago Maggie told my mom that she had fallen several times. My mom, who had promised not to let anyone know just how frail Maggie was because Maggie did not want to live in a retirement home, picked up a phone, called Debbie, and said, it’s time for someone to step in.
Maggie landed in the hospital and the doctors determined there was a “spot” on her lungs. We all knew what that meant. When she returned home, her grandchildren had cleaned, painted, and recarpeted. They brought in a real hospital bed and got rid of many broken household items. They brought in hospice nurses and took turns staying there, too.
Within about a week Maggie had stopped eating. The family called a priest to say the rite of the sick. The grandchildren asked my mom, Don, and Erma to come by one last time. When Maggie saw my mom, she said very softly, “Carol,” and raised her hand. Then she closed her eyes and went back to sleep. It was thanks and farewell in a moment that will be remembered for the rest of my mom’s lifetime. Maggie died in her own home early in the morning. It was a couple of days after what would have been Meg’s birthday. Some of her family was there with her.
At the funeral mass, the local priest, who did not know Maggie well, spoke of what he observed when he looked at the photos displayed at her wake. He said that she started with a big life that included family, work, public service, social events, and travel. But life had slowed down to become town, neighborhood, street, house, chair, and finally bed. That is how it happens, isn’t it? For many of us, life narrows slowly until it winks out of sight.
After mass we gathered at the cemetery. The sky was blue. A few white clouds passed overhead. The temperature was comfortable. A wind blew our hair. When we looked over our shoulders, we could see the golf course that Maggie wanted Dick’s grave to face because he loved walking the links. Family took out their smart phones and took pictures of the casket and of each other. A cousin scolded his mom for taking a photo of him in front of the grave when his eyes were closed. It seemed odd to me that people took pictures at a funeral, but they take pictures of us when we are in our caskets now, too. I never would have dreamed someone would do that. These days people seem to experience every major life’s event in three and two dimensions. They record everything in their memories and the memories of their mobile tools.
Had Maggie been alive to comment, I’m sure she would have appreciated that her grandchildren had her dressed in a stunning suit, the jacket covered with bugle beads in irridescent colors. Her hair was cut, colored, and styled in a way that did not look like Maggie’s style, but reminded me of Meg’s. The dark wood casket was highly polished. The pink and white roses were lovely. The final prayers were sufficient to send her off from this world to the next.
At the end of the ceremony, the family invited us to lunch. I joined my mom, Don, and Erma at a table. We reminisced about Maggie, Dick, my dad, and the days when my mom and her friends used to have progressive dinners together (appetizers at one house, entrees at another, and dessert at a third home). Maggie’s granchildren spoke briefly of their memories of Maggie. People hugged and went off to begin lives without someone they had long loved.
I have thought so much about life and death in this year when I have faced my mortality. I don’t think Maggie’s passing was particularly remarkable, except that her death will leave a space in some people’s lives for a very long time. I think I needed to remember that. Since having been treated for cancer I have had the rites for the sick twice. I have reiterated my request that no extreme methods be used to prolong my life. I have prepared myself as much as I can for death while fighting hard for life. I have gone to bed at night asking that God take me if I should die before I wake. I have watched a stranger slip from this world to the next while her family member struggled to hold onto her. I have stood by someone else’s grave and prayed for her. Yesterday I stepped around the grave of a woman born in the same year as I was and already gone nearly a decade. We can pass over at any time, which makes now the time to build memories to comfort others for their lifetimes.
My friend Barb lost her mom in the fall of last year. My friend Steve lost his mom at the start of the summer. My friend Paul lost his dad last week. My friend Roberta is about to close the estate of her sister, which means that her sister died only a little over a year ago. Death is as much a part of my life now as the birth of children seemed to be twenty-odd years ago when everyone I knew but me seemed to be having children. We usually use the term “the facts of life” when we talk about conception, but the term encompasses this phase, too. Eventually, all of us pass.
Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, death will happen. My Grandma Babe used to say that if you lived long enough you’d see everything. Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing left to see, but that’s not true, is it? When my dad was alive, he used to work hard to keep all of our extended family in the faith. He prayed for his cousin Mary to return to the practice of the Roman Catholic faith. She eventually did so. On the day she died, she was in her doctor’s office, sitting on the examination table. She suddenly looked up at the ceiling, raised her hand, and called out, “Take me Lord.” She died in the next moment. Some day I hope to see what she saw. Until then, I’ll just go on making as many happy memories as I can with the help of family, friends, faith, and hope. That way, when I am gone, I, too, will still have left something behind.