When Your Number Is Up
“How do I look?” I asked my husband, walking down the stairway in a pink & white gingham striped sleeveless dress, paired with a dark navy corduroy blazer and black heels. He gazed in my direction, a half smile, and a “You look nice.” I recognized this unconvincing tone in his voice. I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking my outfit was not depressing enough to wear to such an event. “The dark jacket makes the outfit funeral appropriate,” he said… Again, his tone was unconvincing, and I looked back at him disapprovingly. “Well, I just can’t dress in all black with no pop of color.” We had just finished celebrating my husband’s 36th birthday with his family, and I was switching gears, and attending a memorial service for a friend who lost her husband. I hadn’t been to a service like this since Jr. High when my step-grandma passed away. I vaguely remember my own feelings back then, but I do remember the sadness of my stepdad, probably one of the only times I had ever seen him cry.
I arrived at the JA World Facility, pulling into the parking lot, 15 minutes early, as promised to V. – I told her I would help with the cookie/coffee table. I had walked and drove past this facility on several occasions. The parking area always seemed so excessive, empty and unused. But today, there wasn’t enough space. This is when I really wished I would have at least tried to master my skills in parallel parking. I managed to find a small empty spot in front of the mailbox. The entry way was lined with 6 men of all ages, wearing the same style of hat – the Derby hat, in honor of their friend/relative… A symbol of how they remembered him. His favorite sports car, parked in visible sight next to the front doors… also a symbol of who he was and what he enjoyed. Once inside, I quickly made my way toward to the room with refreshments. This was my way of “being there” for my friend… it would be the best maintained cookie & coffee station ever! A. also joined me, “I do better at these types of things if I have a job” she tells me. I felt better, knowing I wasn’t the only one who used cookie/coffee duties to cope with the real issue at hand. To our surmise, the cookies and coffee stand were already set up, looking perfect, each tray aligned, each set of refreshments displayed as if they were just waiting to share their condolences with all who would partake them. It was then that it dawned on me that this station didn’t need any tending and wouldn’t be in use until after the service was over. “Well, I think we should stand in line and sign the book.” She tells me.
The line moved at a slow pace, giving us a moment to view the poster boards filled with pictures of him and the life he lived… the memories he shared with his wife, his children, his grandchildren, his friends. These were his memories. I stare at a candid picture taken at his wedding and I notice the joy in his eyes, the love in her eyes. I can’t help but think about their life together. They met later in life, and were married for 13 years. I think to myself, that is only four more years longer than I’ve known and been married to my husband. What would I do different if I knew I had only four more years to spend with my own husband? How would I change? What would we talk about? What memories would I cling to most? What would I add to our Bucket List? My thoughts are interrupted as the line splits in two – there are two lines to sign the book – just like the parking lot, not one book could hold the many individuals who came to pay their respects. I walk closer to the entrance of the memorial, and my hand shakes as I sign my name … I sign my name as a friend who was there … my only regret, I wish I had known her & her husband sooner in life, I wish I could have been there to sign the wedding guest book … and not so much this one. I walk into the very open auditorium, filled with several occupied seats. This facility is normally used to educate kids about the job industry and the different fields of work. Mock store fronts of McDonalds, Bob Hall’s Auto, Fiesta Foods, Yakima Regional, and Solarity bank align the sides of each wall. In the center – the memorial for her husband and just to the right, a large projector screen hangs from the ceiling with a slide show of more pictures of him and the life he once had. I stand in the very back, almost afraid to walk all the way in, this is the part where I realize I’m attending a service and unlike signing the sympathy card with the rest of my co-workers, I’m here facing the reality of a loss. That someday, I know, I too will also experience. I look over the top of each head, hoping to find my friends H. & C. She always has such a calming effect during these types of situations. She can handle just about any circumstance, so as long as it does not involve animals, and that is what I love about her. I know I could go to her with just about anything, and she would help me look at it logically and point me in the right direction. I decide that maybe I’ll just hang out in the back. I no sooner make that decision and A. (who I walked in with) is motioning for me – she has found 2 empty seats.
As I take my seat, and stare up at the picture slide show, the soothing, yet surreal “Enya like” music envelops me, along with all of the scented perfumes… that blend together. This is one instance that I’m actually glad I chose to leave my home fragrance free. I open up the program and read the following poem:
God Saw You Getting Tired
God saw you getting tired,
A cure was not meant to be.
So he put His arms around you,
and whispered come with me.
With tearful eyes we watched you suffer,
and saw you fade away.
Although we loved you dearly,
we could not make you stay.
A golden heart stopped beating,
Hard working hands to rest,
God broke our hearts to prove to us,
He only takes the best.
Its bittersweet message left me feeling unsure and sad for my friend’s loss. I tried to focus my mind on “He only takes the best.” I looked around the room, hundreds of people all here to celebrate him, and the wonderful life he lived, the various individuals he influenced, the lives he changed for the better. I thought to myself, it’s true HE does take the BEST! The music quietly ended on one last note and the Officiate (his best friend) took the podium and began the service.
A candle lighting started the service, 3 men (relatives) and his wife. Each candle stood for something different. I don’t remember all 4, but I do remember hers – it stood for love. The kind of love that is unending, that keeps burning even after some would think is impossible. This love burns in all perfection and never stops, always a reminder that he is there, in her heart, forever. I watched her light the candle, clothed in black, wearing her own black Derby hat, the expression on her face, seemed so somber, yet the glow of the candle softened her eyes and the unending love she shared for him.
There was a moment of silence in honor of him. A time for prayer, meditation, or reflection… a time to remember him. Closing my eyes, I prayed for her, that God would give her peace and contentment, that he would fill any loneliness she might be feeling this very second. My heart broke for her, and I fought back my own tears… If she can be so strong right now, there’s no reason why I can’t be either. I need to hold it together, I can do this.
Next, two entries from his journal that she had chosen to share with the rest of us. He was an avid writer, often known for his words, could have possibly written cards for all occasions. But this occasion was different, and his words were being read, to someone like me, who only met him a few times. They say in the world of Poetry that you are supposed to make every word count. As I listened to these journal entries – one about darkness and how he knew that those left behind had a rocky road ahead of them … and the one about love – written with her in mind, every kiss, he clung to – every adventure he cherished – every part of her – he loved … as I listened, every single one of those words counted. I imagine it’s like that in your final days of life. You have to make every word count, unknowing if it could be your last. I wondered, what would my last words would be to those I loved – to those I had lost from an argument, from those with differences in opinion or those who moved away physically or emotionally .. What I would I say to them? Would I even waste a breath …I guess it’s at that moment you realize what is truly worth talking about and what isn’t.
After the entries were read, her son spoke to us, expressing his love for this man, who brought happiness into his mother’s life. He was thankful for him, thankful for that long “talk” about grandchildren & the importance of having them… a talk that he’ll always remember over a glass of soda, mixed in with Black Velvet… a talk that he will pass on to his own children when they get married and ponder the idea of starting a family. As he finishes up his story, he apologizes for not being dressed in appropriate attire, seeing that her husband served our country while in the marines, and her son being a sergeant in the Air force, he gracefully reaches for the flag, wrapped in a perfect triangle, “on behalf of the president of the United States,” he says to his mother, “I present you with this flag.” I watch her take the flag and hold it to her heart, my heart stopping for a moment, tears stream down my face. This is a man who served his country, who became in pillar for others in education, in his family & friends circle, in his own life experiences, such a strong and positive influence, “This world will not be as sweet without him”, “He set the bar high for all of the men here today” “He changed my life, and I’m a better man because of him” “He will be talked about to my two year old son, who won’t remember his grandpa the way my daughter will” These are the words I’ll remember while testimonies of this man were given.
His son was one of the last to speak. He looked up to his father, often thought of him as his own Johnny Fire Super Hero. They shared a love for comic books and some of his fondest memories go back to these comic books. As he talked about his father, his honesty portrayed a young boy who definitely looked up to his dad, who watched him conquer the odds, and succeed regardless of the circumstance. It also portrayed human nature, and how sometimes it’s the people who are closest to us who can hurt us the most. He felt as if the same super powers, in which the rest of his father’s world loved, were the same super powers that gave him the blisters and burns in his own life. He admitted to a broken relationship, unreturned phone calls, unopened letters in the trash can. He was thankful he listened to his mother in making an effort to mend that relationship, and he was thankful for his father’s new wife, whom he compared to as his dad’s Professor X, who helped in “taming the fires”. . and using his super power to the fullest, setting aside differences, and having a relationship with his son. His only regret – not having enough time, the time he lost during those unspoken words, during those disagreements that don’t make any difference now. His advice to us – Life is too short, don’t hold grudges. He was right, life and time itself is too short. I thought about my estranged relationship with my mom… What would I say? Would I be that honest with others, with myself? He finished his testament with apologizing for the “comic book” analogy… I could see it was his way of coping with his father’s death, making sense of it all in his own mind.
The service ended with a picture of him on the projector screen, sitting in the living room, his feet propped up, reading a book, looking content, looking happy… while a remake of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” played in the background – I’ll never think of that song the same. The song ended, the picture disappeared, and the officiate thanked us for coming and offered the refreshments & coffee in the room next door. I sat in my seat, watched some people head toward the refreshment room, some also still seated, consoling one another, some making their way up to see her. I still hadn’t found H. or C. but I knew they were somewhere in the building. I found the nearest bathroom, proceeding to wipe the smeared mascara from my face. I contemplated going to see her; I knew many others probably wanted to see her. Maybe I would wait until she came back to work, it would be easier and well, she was probably already so overwhelmed anyway. As I walked out of the restroom, my heart told me, I needed to give her a hug.
The line, moving more quickly than the book signing, gave me a few minutes to give myself a little pep talk. I will give her a hug, tell her I love her, and I will hold it together. I will remember to “clench my butt”, as said by the officiate “It is nearly impossible to cry if your butt is clenched”, I will get through this without losing it. I walked past the flowers, the picture of him, the candles lit in his honor; there she was, still holding the flag that was given to her. I stood there, almost speechless, she looked at me and said “I know, it was all so too soon” I choked on my own words, barely managing an “It was a beautiful service” my voice strained and quieter than I had ever heard myself. I hugged her, not wanting to let go… not wanting to acknowledge my own heart that was breaking for her. I let go and quickly wiped my tears, told her I loved her, and walked away, hoping to find my friend H. It was then that I wished that I didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve, passing a few co-workers, still teary-eyed.
H. & C. were in the back corner, where I had originally stood before the service started. “Did you see his battle wounds” she asks me, pointing to C.’s banged up nose. “He got in a fight – with a 2×4, that is. I start to laugh, distracting myself from all of the feelings and emotions I had experienced in the last hour. “Hey, don’t laugh at me, I’m standing right here” he says to me. It’s then that the conversation is shifted to summer plans, a trip to that lake that we visited last summer, now filled with piranhas?! I watch others around me, laughing & visiting with each other. All of them were here for the same reason, to celebrate a life that was definitely worth celebrating. The cookies and coffee, now being utilized, this is the part where it all ends. This is the part where the “goodbyes” have been said, and now it’s time to remember and never forget, but it’s also time to move on … that is what he would have wanted for all who knew him, for all who he inspired.
As I drive home, I reflect on life… his life… her life… their life together. He was her true love; he was her happily ever after. How lucky she was to love and be in love with her very best friend. I think about that saying “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” They truly exemplify the meaning of true love. This is the kind of love that I have for my husband. I send him a quick text, “I love you so much”, thinking to myself I shouldn’t be texting while I drive, but it’s just something I have to tell him right now. I arrive home, and cry my eyes out all over again, explaining parts of the service that touched my heart the most. We take a walk around the Nature Trail, holding hands, watching the sun set. It’s so quiet, and it’s just the two of us, and as we get closer to the end of our walk, he turns to me and says, “I love you Heather, and I would be so sad if anything ever happened to you.” I smile, still emotional, I struggle myself to find the right words, “I love you too” We finish our walk with a sweet kiss and beautiful pink sky that fades as the also fades…
Later that evening, I get a text from H. asking if I’m okay. I tell her the thoughts I’ve had and how this service truly made me think about things I never imagined. “Write it down, your feelings from today,” she says. “These things pass so quickly in our minds.” I think about what she said, my phone buzzes, another text, “Write a journal of the day and how you feel about the situation and Nate. It’s sure an eye opener about what we are or are not doing in life.” She was right. I text her back, “You are right, I should write them down.”