It is official. I did not get the happy ending I wanted.
This is what I am thinking as I sit in the front pew of my husband’s funeral in the church I have been coming to my entire life, my two young children on either side of me. I am thinking that my guiding principle, the one that gets me up and out of bed every morning, that life was fair and that in the end, if you worked hard enough, loved hard enough, and believed hard enough that you would get your happy ending, was untrue. That belief was shattered on the worst day ever.
It is a large Roman Catholic Church where I had my First Communion 32 years earlier, where my daughter and son had theirs also. It’s the church my sisters and I came to every Sunday morning and fought boredom by annoying each other. Staring at each other, touching each other and the dreaded breathing on each other. One of my sisters could make you laugh just by flaring her nostrils at you. Then you’d be in trouble.
It is a nice church, somewhat majestic and dignified with just the slightest hint of newness that it can’t shake even though it was built over a century ago. It lies in the center of the Ivy League town where I grew up and where Scott and I came back to start a family when I was pregnant with our baby girl. It feels familiar here. I know the tight parking lot, too small for the church size, bordered by the crowded cemetery we used to run around in as kids when those kinds of things weren’t frowned upon. I know the long wooden buffed pews on either side of the long center aisle, bronze dedication plaques affixed to their backs with people’s names engraved whom I never knew. I know the pattern of the shiny tiled marble floors when I look down and pretend to pray. And I especially know the huge crucifix above the altar, nails drilled into feet and hands, blood dripping in white marble, that I tried to avoid direct eye contact with as a child.
I have entered that church hundreds of times, maybe thousands, but on that day it feels foreign. I feel foreign in my own body. Like this is happening to someone else. This couldn’t possibly be my life. Because my privileged life could never had imagined being here for this when I sat in these very pews all those Sundays before. Somewhere along the way, I came to believe privileged meant immunity to unhappy endings.
I looked as good as it gets at your husbands funeral. Because appearances need to be maintained. Because when you’ve lost everything, clinging to something – anything – is all a girl has to hold on to. My blonde hair highlighted just the day before – I had been desperately in need of highlights and they were able to squeeze me in under the “circumstances.” Never underestimate the power of a good hair day or what people will do for you in times of loss. I’m pretty sure I could have gotten a dermatologist appointment too if needed be.
I was stick thin from months of stress but I looked up to date in my simple straight wool skirt, cashmere turtleneck sweater, knee-high kitten heel boots (ok, these were questionably a little last year) and swing coat – all black and all from my closet. It isn’t too hard to find a widow’s outfit in December in New Jersey from your own wardrobe. I look the part of a young, pretty stylish widow whom no one envies.
I get the feeling of hundreds of eyes on my back. Everyone is looking at me – seeing if I will lose it, break down and sob. Really lose it. I don’t, thanks to my brother-in-law who takes his pharmacy wherever he goes. He gave me a couple Lorazepam to take the edge off – the same tranquilizer I just detoxed myself from just 2 years previously. No matter, I needed to get through the day composed. I needed to be successful. I needed to look like a winner because I felt like such a loser. Sometimes people who are falling apart on the inside look a lot like people who have it all together on the outside.
My father-in-law gets up to speak. His English accent makes everything he says seem potent, more important. His voice is strong and full of grief. His instinct is to not have this be as awful as it is but even this tough old former Royal Navy Captain can’t make that happen today. There will be no stiff upper lip today. He lets grief overcome him and he is unapologetic.
He wasn’t technically supposed to say anything. But he insisted. This is a Catholic funeral and unlike the Kennedys – with their elegant procession of eulogies, the only person who is actually supposed to speak is the priest. We aren’t Lutheran’s after all. It is completely impersonal considering the amount of interaction Scott or myself have had with the priest. Actually, I think my father-in-law would have made a good priest – he likes to hear himself speak just as much as most priests and thinks he is just as fascinating and entertaining. Ok, the similarities end there.
I have no idea what he is saying. I tune out. I am not listening because I am talking to myself. To God. Asking really. Front row and center, staring up at that crucifix, I am asking Him the same questions my 8 year old boy has been asking me since the worst day ever, the day I had to tell my kids their daddy died.
“Why did God send us here where things hurt so much?, he asked me. “Why did he make us love things and people that he knew we are going to lose?”
I didn’t have the answers to give him right away so I told him I didn’t know. Because when you just don’t know, you just don’t know. And I wasn’t going to try and appease him with some platitude like “God only takes the good ones.” Or other of the stupid things people say when they don’t know what to say. He would never buy that anyway. No one does. Kids aren’t stupid.
So I kept going over his questions in my head, hearing his small, confused voice trying to find some way to make sense of the worst day ever realizing my small, confused voice was right along aside his desperately trying also. So I sat there and asked and asked and asked.
I threw in a couple of my own too:
What is the meaning of it all? Of life? And how, dear God who art in heaven, how am I supposed to keep going? How I am supposed to bear the weight and pain of this for me and my children? Because it is just too heavy.
I wish I could say I had my answer in that moment. I wish I could say that the heavens parted, that the light from above shined down on me and God spoke to me as if he were up on that altar, standing up at the podium where my father-in-law now stood, mike turned on, speaking directly to me. “My dear Maeve, here are all the answers to all your questions. Let’s begin with…”
But he didn’t. He had to wait until I could hear. Because he knew that I wasn’t ready to listen. My mind was so full of anger and grief screaming so loud that there wasn’t enough quiet to listen to what he had to say. He is smart like that.
And when I could, when I stopped being so angry, and there was room for something else to enter, he could answer me. And he did. And this is what I told my son:
We don’t love people because we will have them forever. We were never promised forever on Earth. We were promised forever in our hearts. Forever love. We love people even though we know we may lose them because loving them changes us, makes us better, healthier, kinder, realer. Loving people makes us stronger in the right ways and weaker in the right ways. Even when people die, they leave us better. So we keep loving even though we might lose, because loving teaches us and changes us. And that’s what we are here to do. We are here to learn how. How to love better and how to learn to be loved. Love is what we are here to do.
I also told him that sometimes life isn’t fair and you get something awful that you never, ever deserved like Daddy dying. Because he didn’t do anything to deserve that – nothing. But the flip side is also true, sometimes you get blessed for no reason. Like in my case, and how I get to be the mommy to the best little boy in the world.
And when I finished telling him all of this, he looked at me right in the eyes and said, “That sounds about right. I think you are right mommy.” Because a boy will believe his mommy before he believes the rest of the world but he has got to believe it himself first. They are smart like that.
And then we both decided we could do hard things. We could be strong and graceful and keep on loving even though it was hard. Even though our hearts had been broken and may be broken again – we decided to keep loving anyway. Because you cannot earn yourself an easy life or even a fair one, all you can do is handle what life gives you with grace.
The answers to my questions came too. Losing Scott crushed me. Shattered my heart into a million pieces. Joanna Macy said, “The heart that breaks open can contain the universe.” And that is what I learned. That a broken heart is not the end of the world but the beginning and we should stop trying to run away from it. That in order to really know love – the real, good and true kind – you have to have had your heart broken. Because we don’t love with our whole hearts, just pieces of our shattered one. Heartbreak is the price you pay for loving. We have to live with that. Because loving is what we have. Loving is what brings meaning to our lives.
Turns out “What is the meaning of life?” is the wrong question to ask. I’m convinced the real question we should be asking is, “What brings meaning to our lives?” And the truth is, you don’t need anyone telling you that answer because you already possess it deep in your soul where God put it. All you need is to reminded, from time to time, the right question to ask.