Tuesday, April 28, 2015
The many comments I received personally about the previous post made me appreciate again the power of stories, especially life stories gathered when someone has died, to give life to the living. I am particularly fortunate in this way, having gathered and been touched by countless such tales. The following is about an unusual friend who died five years ago, almost to the day, and is reprinted from an op-ed piece I wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Monday, April 13, 2015
This was my view just two days ago, Saturday morning. The returning radiant warmth and light of the spring-sun played upon the living and the dead in this small, humble church graveyard in Stillwater.
I was with her family to bury her.
Like every phrase we use to describe death, "bury her" feels wrong, or, at least not quite right. Nor does "laid to rest," "passed on," "passed away," or even "dead" (and certainly not "in a better place," which bears the taste of saccharine). In the face of this ultimate, and most ordinary mystery, language--and attempts to "make sense of it"--fail.
Perhaps especially in this case.
She was 64 and died in her house. In a fire that started from a worn electrical wire. She could not escape, so she crawled into the bathroom where she died of asphyxiation.
Then came the "making sense." The media explained: "There were four-foot stacks of items; clothing, stuffed animals, throughout the house." This made it difficult for her to escape and for firefighters to rescue her. Then they quoted an expert on "hoarding," to voice the moral of the morality tale.
It's not untrue, but it's not right either. To the reporters' credit, they did not reduce her life to this. Much also was said about her love, generosity, and dedication to her work. But that's not what drew attention to the story. When I mentioned to anyone that I performed her funeral, the response often was, "Oh, the hoarder. I saw it in the news."
When viewed from this perspective, that story seems to make sense:
Yet the funeral gathering provided a fuller story:
Like the rays of sunlight shining on the dead leaves and the graves, this remarkable woman was re-membered in personal stories. The room was packed. Coworkers from two previous jobs turned out in force (with a substantial collection they had taken up). A former boss cried as she recalled how she was so much more than an employee, taking care of her children--and dog--as though they were her own. Nieces and nephews recalled her taking them on trips with Conway Twitty playing on the 8-track. Childhood friends remembered the sassy, tough girl who never forgot them. One coworker held up an engraved snow-globe she gave her, and another a porceline cross with the "Friendship Creed." Her neighbor wept.
Everyone knew that the smoke that killed her was partly from burning items that she had picked out, not for herself, but for people she loved. For them. The Macy's dress shirt she got for a dollar. To give, and to spend time with friends and family, was her treasure. She was not a hoarder. She was not crazy, but quite sane.
To me, "hoarder" applies to people who have a million times the money they need to live on, and keep accumulating. We call them "wealthy." But this woman embodied a passage from the Sermon on the Mount: "The meek shall inherit the earth." Her love and generosity shone in the faces of those who gathered. She was simple, caring, and joyful. Her riches were relationships. The fire that took her was in tragic relation to all of it, but not the result of who she was.
Her house was on my garbage route on Mondays.
I have not verified whether our truck picked up her trash specifically. It is Monday morning now, and I will check. Her brother told me her house was not a "trash house." She was impeccably clean.
Because of all of this, I have been moved. Her life has spoken to me. Her radiance has invited new life in many people, even from the grave--so to speak. Who among us does not live with some insanity? But how many of us channel our crazy energies toward simple generosity, love and care? For this is what gives life. Like a snow-globe...