Wednesday, January 23, 2013

…let us console one another…

One might think that routine exposure to death and dying would trigger chronic feelings of depression, fear, loss of faith and grief; especially when you have sung a string of funerals involving the death of a young person or those who seem especially beloved. In my experience, this has not always been the case. Taking a peripheral seat, as I do, often causes me to ponder the role of humor, both in the initial stages of grief and in the overall healing process. For example, one of the most significant losses in my life was that of my Aunt Josephine who was a matriarch and source of comfort love and wisdom throughout my young life. Quite frankly, she was like a caricature of the Italian Old Maid (house coat and all) who shoveled pasta and broccoli rabe down our throats with a full dose of old world advice and religious (Catholic of course) perspective. She had no filters when offering commentary on anything from someone’s physical appearance to their ethnic background. (Didn’t you know that Italians are the only honest, smart, productive, good-looking people on this planet??) I would forgive every word of blatant offense and political incorrectness, because, well….she was so damned funny. Her habits, idiosyncrasies, the things she saved, the things she cooked, the things she said, as I think back and write this now, make me laugh out loud. She knew not what she said and was really only offering up the world as she saw it through the sieve of her gigantic heart and very narrow life experiences; colored only by inferences of cultural traditions, family demands and pride. Perhaps this unspoken understanding of love, tradition and family prepared my sister and me for the day when we would be hired to help at a funeral where we did not play or sing. In fact, we did not understand a word of what was going on. It was the funeral of an obviously beloved family matriarch of a Vietnamese family. The church had hired us to be there “just in case” we needed to jump in and help the full staff of family musicians all prepared to sing, play the piano, guitar and whatever else they had there that day. The loft was packed with cousins, granddaughters, brothers-in-law-you name it. It was My Big Fat Vietnamese Funeral in the making and my only assignment was to shut the microphones on and off. I was feeling useless and out of place; at least let me sing an Alleluia for my fee! I could hardly keep a straight face looking across the loft at my sister by the piano, who had to basically speak sign language to be sure to get them all the music that they needed for the traditional parts of the mass, only to come to understand that they came replete with their own Vietnamese versions of everything. Squeezed by the crowd into a tiny spot in the corner next to the control box, I pressed the button on and off as each song sprung forth from the makeshift choir of family love. They cried as the hundreds (I mean hundreds) of family members processed into the church behind a man carrying high a huge portrait of the deceased. They sobbed as three of the younger members of the choir sang the Psalm in the most raw and dulcet tones with complete reverence and passion for the words that I could not understand. The communion song went on and on for at least 15 minutes, soaring repetitively on the wailing wave of sorrow. Boy, I thought, could anyone be missed as much as this woman? Every time I pressed the microphone controls on or off, I received such looks of indescribable gratitude; as if I had given the choir a box of gold. The entire time, my sister and I shared glances of disbelief trying so hard to hold back the laughter that can threaten to erupt in any situation where you feel uncomfortable, foreign, useless or stupid. When everyone was settled after communion, a man approached the lectern with what looked like twenty pages of paper sure to be the eulogy. I braced myself for the wailing. At first, I found myself frustrated by the fact that I could not understand the story that he was telling. I wanted so badly to know what she was like, what she did with her time, her profession, her likes and dislikes; all the reasons behind this fanfare and homage. Initially, the crowd was quiet-a few sniffles here and there. As the man continued, his seemingly unintelligible words evoked giggles; the kind of giggles laden with fondness and reminiscence. Then, a gradual crescendo erupted into full on uproarious laughter. My sister and I could not help but join in release of all the bewilderment that we had experienced over the last hour. We looked at each other and laughed, as if we had held on for dear life and could finally let go. We could dissolve into our own memories. The miracle occurred when members of the choir put their hands on our shoulders and laughed with us, as if my sister and I spontaneously understood Vietnamese. We were all laughing together for all that we understood and could never understand. Laughing in celebration of our relatives who may not always mean to make us laugh, but do. Most of all, we were laughing at ourselves laughing-lost in the humor and connectedness that we share, even when language fails us. The memory building power of fun and laughter is stronger than just about any relationship fiber that I can think of. Joy will penetrate the darkness of loss, if you have spent enough days in laughter with one that you love. That day, laughing amongst those whom I had never met and did not understand, I could see the face of my sister engaged in the same type of laughter that we share with our family; in spite of some of our people taking parts of our joy away with them. It was magnificent to share the happy part of remembering along with our momentary family in the choir loft. We may not have been laughing at the same thing, but everyone understood the involuntary force of solace cutting through the center part of mourning with every story of the beloved that was imbued with the perfect memory of what it felt like to be near them. It is the same for all us-whether or not we share country, language or creed. Aunt Josie said it best: “We are all God’s children.”

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