Tuesday, and clouds thickly shroud the sky, as though in acknowledgement of this bitterly-savored day, this day when we hold remembrance on our tongues and feel it in our throats. It was God’s hatred for death that made it something He conquered, because He couldn’t stand to have us ripped away and apart forever. Indeed, death is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
My friend has lost her aunt to now and this temporary place, and her heart is broken. It’s an unusual cliche, the heart is broken, one we read sometimes and barely feel the impact of grief shattering a soul. Word says, “God is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18),” and it’s this that occurs to me as I descend the front steps and walk over to the car, as I reach through the window and touch her shoulder with my hand. Crushed in spirit is perhaps the better rendering. She looks cracked and leaking, emptied and as though what’s left of her could simply dissolve into the humidity, which feels warm and weighty on our skin, like the touch of a passion that is far wider and higher and deeper than our imaginations will allow us to conceive.
Our travel to the funeral feels like a confused wandering, like four friends forgetting how to move together. After a few wrong turns, I realize that three of us can’t quite sort out any solid direction, and my friend is too sad, too absorbed with thoughts of no more—no more hours sitting while her aunt talks, no more of her aunt’s voice telling it straight, no more of the way this special aunt sets her mouth so that my friend will pay attention, no more of the way her aunt’s eyes flash strong even in old age. My friend is too absorbed with thoughts like these to point out the way. No more. No more. No more. I turn on the navigation on my phone. and a breathy voice tells us repeatedly to go so many miles and turn, turn here, turn here and go. The voice makes us laugh, a full sound that rolls through the car. The navigator sounds like a woman in a neglige and heels, propping a glass of wine on her knee. Every time she speaks, we laugh, though most of the trip we ask my friend questions about her aunt and just listen. It is a day for acknowledging a beautiful relationship, the gift of two lives altering each other.
When we get out of the car, we can feel the rain beginning. Tiny droplets settle on our hands, our arms, our cheeks, as we walk together into the funeral home. The room tries hard to feel like a living room, except for the placard sticking out from the doorway bearing my friend’s aunt’s name, full and formal. I don’t know why, but those name plates always feel so startling, so final. I have an odd thought that instead, the placard should bear every affectionate name by which love sketches out the shape of a life, the short, rhyming, funny names that say our lives mean something real and lasting, something that will be remembered and missed by someone else.
In this case, three lives are impacted most by the passing of this soul — a friend who loved this woman for years as a sister, an errant grandson on the path of his own recovery, and my friend, a special attentive niece. I imagine that none of them have ever referred to this woman so formally. We enter the parlor and a man greets us from a wingback chair beside the doorway. My friend gestures toward a woman drifting away from a knot of people closeby, explaining that this is her aunt’s dear friend and the man we met, her husband. “And I don’t know who they are,” my friend says, distractedly, referring to the knot, as the woman in the pastel suit walks toward us, reaching out to grip my friend’s arms just above the elbows.
“How are you?” She asks carefully, embracing my friend before she has an opportunity to give a real answer.
“It’s okay,” this friend says, “she looks good. She looks real good.”
I’m not sure why we say this about the dead, why we comment on the clothes in which the body is dressed or the beauty of the casket, except that we don’t know what more to say to each other in the face of such pain. In truth, no matter how well prepared the body may be for viewing, the most beautiful thing about it is that it is most clearly only a husk, just an emptied shell, just the temporary home of an eternal soul. The body left behind remains as but a testimony to the fact that Life cannot be contained merely in flesh and bone.
My friend introduces us, her friends, to this friend of her aunt’s, acknowledging to us that this is she who cared so diligently for her precious aunt, who handled so many hard things on her aunt’s behalf, who had stood by through every time. In turn, we express our condolences, squeezing this woman’s hand, pressing our mouths into grim lines. Our careful reception, right at the front of the parlor, just in the doorway, just a few feet from the casket, reminds me of other receptions that have mattered to me, when I presided over that terrifying space, when I stood in the gap left by a missing life to receive the sympathies of others. I remember standing glued to a square of carpet in the front of the church after Kevin’s mom had departed this place, occasionally touching the hands she had used to pat my cheek, those hands with which she had held my husband as he grew. I could not stop reaching for her, even though I knew she really wasn’t there anymore. I stood in that space for so long, right next to Kevin and the rest of our family, right next to her best friend, acknowledging our relationship, receiving the embraces of others who loved her. It occurs to me just briefly that it is the family of the aunt’s dear friend now standing in the lonely gap, glued to the carpet near her body. These were the ones who had arrived early, who had approved of the way her body looked just there, who had smoothed the folds of her jacket with their fingers.
The four of us wander over to the casket, as the friend in the pastel suit reaches for another pair of arms in front of the doorway and the knot of people thickens just slightly. I feel my friend shaking and lay my arm around her shoulders, and together we stand and look. “That necklace,” my friend says, gesturing, “she always wore that necklace.” The shape—all silver—suggests a cross with light shooting out behind it, a cross that has become a star. The resurrection, I think, looking at the body of a woman who, in life, had looked very much like my friend. She wore the resurrection, dangling right over her lungs as she breathed, as her inhale and exhale mimicked the sound of His vowelless name. YWYH. Resurrection. YWYH. Resurrection. I look at the husk of her and realize this had been the testimony of her life, and now, perhaps more powerfully still, the testimony of her passing beyond.
“Let’s look at the flowers,” my friend says, and this reminds me too of the way, in other parlors, our family has walked around looking at the cards on the flowers, collecting the names, commenting on relationships, on beauty, on memories, settling these in our minds for safe keeping. So, too, my friend wants to look, to gather up the names. In a soft voice, she reads the cards, touching silk leaves with her fingers, noting arrangements from the family and friends of her aunt’s dear friend, the florist, the staff at the nursing home, the church her aunt had attended. Only one arrangement in the room bears the names of relatives connected to my friend, in fact, her own nieces, and this display is stunning and elegant. I read their names, written in large script, and I feel my friend exhale. She asks me to take a picture, so she can send it. And I wish I had thought to order flowers.
By the time the grandson appears in the doorway, we sit together in a corner, watching other people gripped and embraced, gripped and embraced, their mouths in lines. I glance at my friend again and again, thinking she belongs up there beside, receiving the sympathies of those who have come to pay their respects. But few of these are people she knows, and no one seeks her out, no one catches her eye from across the room and comes to say I’m sorry.
“It must feel weird to you,” I say to her, looking across the room. “The way this is, that she’s there and you’re over here.”
My friend does not live there anymore, but while her aunt lived, she came to visit at every possible occasion. She had cherished her aunt. This woman had been as close to my friend as a mother. The loss had shattered her, and yet, she sits in a corner of the parlor with the rest of us, as if she is only a visitor here, and no one seems to acknowledge what the two of them meant to each other. She should have been there when the parlor was empty, before. She should have seen her aunt’s body before these knots of others. She should have had private moments to touch her aunt’s hands, her cheek.
Something feels wrong about it, the way everyone rightfully acknowledges this beautiful friendship but then not the niece like a daughter, not the love between them, not even the likeness.
“It does. It is. I don’t even have words for it,” my friend says slowly, and her eyes fill.
We realize that the service will soon begin because people begin to leave the parlor in groups. No one comes to tell my friend, not even the woman who has been so close to my friend’s aunt. Surely she knows what they meant to each other.
We walk in the hall and someone in a suit says, “…line up,” and then, “okay, follow me,” and a loose clump of people start moving before we really know what is happening. The through-everything friend reaches out and grabs my friend’s arm as she walks by, a crepe sleeve resting briefly against my friend’s knit one tightly folded, hugging her own sides. “Come on,” the friend says, tugging our friend into the line beside her and the grandson, pulling her with them into the front of the moving group.
At least that, I think, with some relief. She belongs there.
And so, the three of us remain, not part of the moving group at all, but really more on the side, and our friend glances our way with a look that is almost a plea. “Should we follow her?” We look at each other with black eyes, melancholy from our silent appraisal of the situation and our friend’s station on the periphery.
“I think that’s what she wants,” I say, but we’re already moving by consensus before the words come out, pushing our way along the side and closer to our friend. Finally, someone in the larger group stops to let us ahead, and we enter a chapel with short rows on two sides and a small gold cross on the wall at the front. About six rows on the left side have been draped with red velvet signs carefully scripted in gold. Reserved for family. The three of us walk down the aisle and sit in one of the velvet draped rows behind our friend. “Well at least we can sit behind her,” one of our threesome says. At this point, we all feel a bit protective. I feel eyes, people watching, wondering who we are, and I am ready to tell them. We’re her family, I will say, meaning my friend, who now sits sandwiched between the friend in the pastel suit and the grandson on the front row. We’re her family and we know. We know what this aunt has meant to her.
It takes two men to conduct the service, even though our friend had told us earlier that her aunt specifically said she wanted the funeral to last no more than fifteen minutes. “I have no idea what’s going on,” she’d said, almost in disbelief, “but I do know it will be short. She wanted it to be short.”
We listen as the men talk about our friend’s aunt—about how she thought of everyone as family, about how she could see so much even with impaired vision, about how she spoke–plain and bold. We hear them speak of her friends, of their trips and their fun; we hear these men praise this best friend who has been like a daughter, who has been with her “through thick and thin;” we hear them praise the friend’s attentiveness and care, mentioning things we know our own friend has done as well since her aunt’s body began to fail. Several times, these men, each speaking in turn, address the grandson and tell him he was cherished and loved and spoken of often. They tell him again and again that he matters, and I think, that’s good, because I know this grandson hasn’t always been whole enough to love well. We three sit waiting—waiting, waiting, waiting, shifting in the pew, gripping the polished wood and the velvet cushion, looking straight ahead, listening for mention of our friend, the special niece now brokenhearted. Finally, one of the men speaks of her, just one phrase about how her aunt had loved her visits, but no more. No more. No more. No more. No more acknowledgement of our friend’s grief, of the depth of the relationship the two have shared; no acknowledgement of the love her aunt has felt for her. They speak of our friend only in the third person, never resting their eyes on her face. I watch tears slide down her cheeks and land on her shoulder, and I reach into my purse and pass her a tissue, squeezing and patting her shoulder from behind. I know. We know. I want to lean up and whisper this in her ear. Before the one phrase, I honestly wondered if I could interrupt, if somehow I could get up and say something about what they meant to each other without hurting anyone else. It will be the first time I’ve ever interrupted a funeral, I thought, but I didn’t really care. I just knew that someone had to acknowledge my friend before she broke into pieces right there in the pew.
We file out of the chapel and back into the parlor room that masquerades comfort, and each in turn wrap our arms around our friend, who shatters and splits and audibly cracks. Our eyes are dots, our arms tight. “Sign the book so at least they’ll know I was here, I had someone here,” my friend says, her voice wavering, dying away, “and then let’s get out of here.” But before we move, the grandson walks in, looking for my friend, moving deliberately toward her. I don’t hear all of what he says, but I see him bend down, I watch him hug her, and I hear him say, “I love you.”
It’s at the cemetary that he finds her again, that he gets out of the car and walks her way, that he stands in the grass and says, “I want you to know that even though they hardly mentioned you, I know my grandma loved you. Every time I came to town, she talked about you. I know you did a lot for her too. I know you were special to her.” He says this and I walk away to give them time, whispering thanks. Thank you for someone willing to say it out loud; someone willing to see her; someone with words confirming the reality of a relationship; someone willing to treat their years, their laughter, their honesty, their time like something that mattered, something that made a difference. Thank you for knowing how much she needs this.
Days later, my friend confesses that this lack of acknowledgement before those assembled to remember her aunt’s life has left her feeling unnecessary, insignificant, invisible. All these feelings widen the ugly cracks left by her loss, and I hurt with her over that pain. In the end, this is our mutual need: the acknowledgement of relationship, the open understanding that other lives have been altered somehow by our love and presence here. Maybe it seems like a prideful thing, this ache we feel to be known, to have mattered somehow, but I think instead that it is the impression of God on our souls, yet another hunger He gave as a gift that we might understand the true source of its satisfaction. Acknowledgement is an expression of love that God Himself requires in relationship, and it is also one He has promised. “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name (Psalm 91:14).” I think of my friend and wonder how God feels when we fail to acknowledge Him, when we treat our relationship with Him as something secondary, something not worth time or testimony. Clearly, it matters to Him. God says that those who acknowledge Him will be listed as children born in the heavenly city, His city (Psalm 87:4), and then, from the mouth of the Savior, this: “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God (Luke 12:8).”
Days later, and I think of this, praying over my dear friend and her crushed spirit, and it’s the promise of His acknowledgement–this reassurance He presses into me–that makes me stand still, that fills me, that makes me ask my friend if I can tell her story. If you acknowledge our relationship here, He has said, I will acknowledge you before the angels in heaven. This, then, will be our balm in this very ache, the only comfort for this hurt my friend knows a bit more presently. This is the why behind our great and mutual need. This also must be the satisfaction we seek:
When the day comes and we leave this place to enter His holy city, it will not be anything we have done nor any merit of our own that satisfies the accuser’s charges about our lack of right to remain. They don’t belong, his testimony echoes across time, carved right into the ugly ache, cut in with all our feelings of insignificance and invisibility. And in the face of holiness, we will all sadly agree. But it will be the King of Kings who establishes our place there, holding us with His own love-scarred hands, proclaiming loud before all assembled: Hear now. Listen, clear. I know her. She’s mine. We have been everything together. She belongs with me. She stays. She stays forever.