September 20th, 2019
Jack is dead.
You probably don’t know Jack. At least, I don’t think you do. He left this world a few days ago, at 93 years of age. He lasted longer than most of us will. However, it should be noted that his last couple years kind of sucked.
Karin and I went to his funeral today. We have been friends with Jack and his wife for the last two or three years. We only really knew them through our church, because we all attended daily Mass together. Jack and Audrey were an inseparable couple, and they had just recently celebrated sixty-five years of marriage. Sixty-five years. I’m not sure that I will even live that long.
Jack hardly ever spoke to me, and I don’t think he spoke much to anybody else, at least not toward the end of his life. Jack had Alzheimer’s disease, and I could see it slowly tearing him down. I noticed, when we first met, that he couldn’t follow along during the morning prayers. Then he started forgetting things in church, like his cap or his walker. He was adamant about turning off the lights in the church after Mass ended, even when the pastor told him to leave the lights on. Jack was clearly frustrated at times. He wanted desperately to understand what was going around him, and he just couldn’t.
Jack’s wife tried to shepherd him as best she could. Sometimes he was cooperative, sometimes not. Toward the end of his life, he struggled to do things his own way, and it never quite worked out for him. It didn’t work out well for his wife either. Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects a large number of people beyond the person who is sick. Jack was hurting, but the effects of the ailment touched his wife and kids, and anybody else who cared about him.
My time with Jack was not my first experience with Alzheimer’s. My mom had it. It’s a slow, hard way to end a life. My mother suffered with the disease for years before I even knew she had it. My dad kept it quiet, and he tried to care for her on his own for far too long. Eventually, it overwhelmed even him. My father, grudgingly, finally put my mom into a nursing home (a good place where people actually care about the residents), and my mom cried for days after he left her there. She knew that she was never going back home. She knew that. It’s not like my dad abandoned her. To his credit, he visited her every single day until she died. He did that for six years. He did that even when he didn’t know if she knew he was there with her. He was loyal to the end.
During that time, I didn’t visit my mom very often. I am not sure why. There was some geographical distance involved with any visit (a three hour drive). Now, after time has passed, I think the emotional distance was even greater. When I did visit my mom, she was usually sleeping fitfully. She was there physically. I could hear her breathing, and I could see her chest rise and fall. But she was not available. I would say, “Hi Mom”, and there was no response, no reaction. I occasionally held her hand, and there was no pressure from her hand against mine. Nothing. Did she know that I was there with her? I have no idea. I could not feel her presence. I was with her, and I was also all alone. It was hard to make the trip to see her, because all I ever did was see her.
A funeral should provide some kind of closure. Sometimes a funeral cannot do that. My mom’s funeral in 2015 was anti-climactic. She has been absent for so long already. Our family had been saying goodbye to her for years prior to her death. My father’s funeral, last year, was somehow inconclusive. There were many things left unsaid, and many feelings left unexpressed. Death doesn’t necessarily end anything.
I initially sat by myself at Jack’s funeral. I did that on purpose. I have trouble with funerals, in that my emotions are activated in ways that have nothing to do with the situation at hand. Funerals make me remember things, and I need space in order to deal with those memories.
Karin convinced me to sit with her, and with her friends from the church choir. I felt that was a bad idea. I excused myself from the pew early during the Mass, and I sat outside in the narthex, the gathering space. One of the undertakers sat next to me. He remarked,
“We got the good seats, huh?”
I made some kind of neutral comment.
The man talked with his partner after that.
He said, “We counted 117 people in the church.”
His co-worker replied, “That’s pretty good.”
I never realized that these people kept score.
Prior to the funeral Mass, there was a line of well-meaning people, all of them waiting to give their condolences to Jack’s widow. I didn’t join the line. I didn’t want to go there. What for? What was there to say? What words could I find to make anything better? Maybe if I had known Jack better, I could have said something that might have helped. I had no words.
People often feel pressured to say something at a funeral. Then they sometimes say something lame. I have heard people say things like, “He’s with the Lord now.” So, what does that actually mean? Does it mean anything?
There was a Gospel reading at the funeral Mass. It was about the raising of Lazarus. More specifically, it was about Martha’s comments to the Lord just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. I have always felt ambivalent about the raising of Lazarus. Did Christ really do his friend any favors? I mean, Lazarus eventually had to die again. I would think that once was enough.
I listened to the priest’s sermon. It was about eternal life, and believing in Jesus. His words were not unexpected. But, seriously, what was he talking about? What actually happens after death? Does anybody know? We believe certain things, but we don’t know anything. I believe in an afterlife, but I have no conception of what that might be like. I will find out when it’s my turn up to bat.
If we don’t know what we are talking about, then it might be best to remain silent. Death is a mystery, perhaps the ultimate mystery. Let’s leave it that way.