Today, I went to a family funeral for my Uncle Ken.
It was a day of affirmation.
Uncle Ken lived to be 80, and was a devoted family man– married for 56 years to his wife, Patricia. He was a Navy veteran of the Korean War and also retired from Nicor after 30 years of service.
I drank three cups of coffee in his honor today. He is the reason I became a black coffee-drinker overnight! One Thanksgiving we were at their home, and the usual creamer I preferred was not on the table. Only nondescript powdered creamer was available, so I sucked it up and braved a cup of black coffee.
Uncle Ken was seated across from me, and for some reason was very attentive to my cup. Each time it emptied, he kept refilling it! And I’m not sure why I felt the need to drain each one, but I did. So I drank all SIX cups he poured me. I needed them to keep up with all the family chatter! The next day, I tried to return to my usual cup with Irish creme added in– and couldn’t.
I was both shocked and impressed with myself. I felt more like an adult! I was in my early 20’s then. I laughed, and reported it the next time I saw him. He was quite impressed with his feat as well!
I wish I could have done six cups today, but three was all I could manage.
But I digress.
Today our family was linked together as beads in a Rosary– encircling Uncle Ken in prayer, connected by our Catholic faith and the solidarity of grief. Being together was a healing salve that allowed us to celebrate his life and strengthen our bonds with each other.
His abundant white hair was not styled the usual way– he had incredible hair. But it was still there, and we had the privilege of being able to say goodbye to him with an open casket before the public arrived. When it was my turn I knelt down, whispered a prayer to him, and lightly touched his shoulder to say goodbye.
As the priest announced the wake would be ending, he asked us to join him in prayer. We said the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and it wasn’t as strong as you would hear in Mass– it sounded as if maybe not quite half of us were saying it. But it was comforting nonetheless.
I realized for the first time why faith is something I’m so glad to have especially when confronted with funerals. Regardless of whether you’re there to honor a close family member or support a friend, the structure of our faith provides some familiarity in a situation defined by the unknown. We don’t know how life will change without the person, we wrestle with guilt and sadness for the failed connections and the times we didn’t reach out enough. But at least in following the simplicity of a funeral service, there is some comfort in routine.
Many of us know the prayers being recited, even if we don’t know each other. Even if we have no idea how to speak to each other about the deceased or make small talk about something neutral, we have an opportunity to bond in prayer. We can give each other a hug, or a quick smile. We can pass a box of tissues.
Today I was astonished by how much warmth I felt from everyone there. Especially since I’m only family by marriage. Uncle Ken was my step-mother’s brother-in-law. But Diane’s family has never treated me like a step-cousin, or a step-anything. They never use that prefix. They welcome me, tease me and hug me as one of their own.
After the funeral Mass, we went to lunch together at a local steakhouse.
On my way there, my Dad called me.
“We’re in the back room honey,” he said. “We saved you a seat.”
I smiled at his kindness.
And I wondered if that’s what it’s like when we pass on and go to Heaven.
If when we wake into eternal rest — with any luck– we arrive at the pearly gates and St. Peter tells us that yes, we have a reservation. Our name is right there in his book. And then someone that we loved comes to escort us, saying,
“We saved you a seat! We’re so glad you’re here.”