Our neighbor died after a long, impressive ten-year fight with poor health. I was happy for him that he was able to avoid nursing homes and assisted living. The life squad was over there so often that it began to seem routine and not a cause for concern. It was a touch of class that they asked that in lieu of flowers we donate to that fire squad - it's rare to see gratitude for what can be viewed as an entitlement.
It never dawned on me in a million years that the script wouldn't look like this: that one time the ambulance would come and he would be dead. Instead he died at a local restaurant. Our imagination is poor with respect to death, or perhaps it's just that I didn't realize he ever left the house.
The service was called "A Celebration of Life" as they often are these days and it was held at the funeral, er, Celebration of Life home. (The phrase paradoxically makes me feel depressed. It sounds too forcedly upbeat, a bit too kitschy.) I recall warmly now my wife's aunt's funeral, a daily Mass-going Catholic, and how the rosary was said at the visitation. Due perhaps either to poor catechesis or the headwind of this relativistic age, the Catholic gene can appear to be recessive - from the mixed marriage of my wife's family came six children, all of whom were raised Catholic to varying degrees but none of whom remained Catholic.
The service started with a young woman coming to the stage with an acoustic guitar and singing a song. I felt embarrassed for her, it felt too intimate, just the voice and unamplified folk guitar in this small setting in front of all these strangers. It still seems jarring - to me at least - to have what seems so obviously a performance in the context of a quasi-religious service. But surely my concern for her was misplaced; evangelicals are bold and likely feel called to witness in this way.
Next came a series of talks. The first brought tears to everyone's eyes, a precocious grandchild expressing an unabashed love for her grandfather. I probably underestimate the impact of grandparents in the lives of children, and I found this especially inspiring since I'm on the cusp of grandparentage.
She was followed by a jocular grey-hair'd man who knew the deceased for years as part of the card club. I was really surprised by two things; one was that he said our neighbor was never confrontational. He would ask his opinion on something and just take it in but never try to argue with it. And I recall thinking how different my experience was, how the first and nearly only time I talked to him was when he introduced himself right after we moved in and somewhat presumptuously told me that he didn't want me putting up a fence. He was into the green movement before it was cool, and apparently didn't like fences. He was no shrinking violet and yet he let his card club friend opine on politics or what-not without rebutting.
Then the grey-hair'd man remarked several times how he always wondered how the deceased got his very unusual first name. He said he looked forward to finding out from the next speaker, the son with the same first name. And I wondered why it never occurred to this gent to ask, during all those card games you'd think the subject might come up. It seemed so mysterious.
In the memorial program there were beautiful verses from a good translation of 1st Corinthians 15:50-57 on eternal life. Testimonials continued as to how focussed he was on others. He cared about others. Prayed for them, did anonymous works of kindess. While the modern tendency is to canonize the recently deceased, there is something inspiring about hearing the testimonials in that it makes you want to be a better person yourself. "Just do the best you can," his son said his father had always told him, "it's all you can do."