“I’m sorry for your loss.”
The pastor held out his hand as he looked down at me seated in the velvet covered folding chair underneath the mortuary tent of the same color. I looked up at him and felt my right hand rising to meet his. He grasped it warmly and shook it as his eyes benevolently looked into mine.
He took a step to his right and held out his hand to my brother who was seated next to me. “Sorry for your loss.” He repeated. In my peripheral vision I could see them shaking hands as my eyes focused on what was just a few feet in front of me; my mother’s coffin resting over her grave. A funeral spray of pink flowers were sitting on top of the casket. The cousins, friends and other family members who had followed the hearse from the church were now huddled around the grave site, visiting with one another in hushed tones.
I knew this day was coming. We had been waiting for it for several years. Watching dementia slowly rob my mother of her vitality and strength had been very painful for everyone involved. As the weeks and months turned into years, I felt that I would be ready when the time came.
But now as I sat in that cemetery staring into the blue sky that was beyond the casket and the people, I wasn’t so sure that I was.
In those few seconds sitting there, my mind raced back through the years.
I remembered when I was about four or five years old and very sick in bed. I must have had the flu because I felt so miserable. For a little boy who was used to running around all day and playing, lying sick in bed was a scary feeling to me at the time.
I had a high fever, chills and a bad cough. My throat was so sore that it hurt to swallow. I must have spent a couple of days in that bed alternating between sleeping and crying. I was scared, weak and wondering what was happening to me.
Whenever I was able to pry open my gunk encrusted eye lids and peer out into the room, there would be my mother’s face hovering over mine. It was a comfort to see her there with a soothing touch of her hand on my forehead and a word of encouragement to my ears. Every now and then a tear would drop from one of her eyes and land on my face.
It was a visceral moment for me that became cemented in my psyche for the rest of my life. In those few days at the tender age of four or five I learned about the basics of human interaction; compassion, tenderness and self-sacrifice.
I eventually recovered and returned to being the rambunctious little boy I had been before. But a seed had been planted in me. An example had been set.
After I grew up and started a family of my own, I watched my mother transform into a loving caring grandmother, doting over my three kids and being there for them like she had been for me. Grandma’s house was a special place and my children’s faces always lit up whenever I told them they were going there for a visit. Sitting and watching them play and frolic in my parent’s house and yard would be one of the most special times I would spend as an adult. And it ended all too soon as my kids ultimately grew up and went off on their own.
Towards the end, all the memories and lessons learned were reduce to a small room with a bed, a dresser and a recliner in an assisted living center. I watched my mother slowly decline as the march of dementia moved forward. I found myself visiting her less and less as the pain of seeing her like this became too hard to bear.
But with every visit, I would walk through the front door of the facility and she would invariable be sitting on a couch in the living room. I could see a flash of recognition on her face as she would look up and see me. I could tell in her eyes that despite all that had been taken from her by this terrible disease, she still somehow, someway knew that this person who was walking towards her was someone that she loved.
Retirement is an exciting time in life. We talk about the plans we have made; where we want to retire to, how we should manage our finances once we’re retired. We talk about everything we can think of about the topic of retirement.
But we seldom talk about saying goodbye to our parents. For many of us, that is part of our retirement experience too.
I got up from the velvet covered folding chair that I had been sitting on and began mingling with the rest of the crowd in the cemetery, thanking them for coming and telling them how much it meant to me to see them there at my mother’s funeral.
As we started to get into our cars for the return trip to the church and the luncheon, I began to realize that the bond that had connected my mother and me for most of her eighty-six years had now been broken.
And although my life would go on and I would continue living out my retirement dreams with my family and friends, there would be a part of me that would be empty – forever.