Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Last Word

My family ain't average folk. Truth be told, we barely fit into the range of what's considered normal. We're a stoic lot -- figuring feelings are at best quixotic, at worst treasonous. So, as a rule, we tend to avoid emotional displays. That's not to say we're a passionless dour barrel of pickles. Quite the contrary, we feel things very deeply, and enjoy a good joke like no other family I know. But because our emotions are such violent beasts, we instinctively understand that we have to keep them caged and approach them cautiously.

The year 1974 was both momentous and tragic. In the spring Mom went to the doctor because of some swelling in her right arm. The diagnosis was lymphatic cancer. She began chemotherapy and radiation treatment, growing weaker and more uncomfortable daily. In August of that year I graduated from college and received my commission as an Army officer. Mom, though frail, was well enough to attend my commissioning ceremony. Her life (though, in one sense, a near-empty hourglass) in the one way that really counts, was an overflowing cup. I faced the audience as took the oath. Mom was radiant -- a light shining from the depths of the valley of the shadow. The professor of military science permitted each of us commissionees to speak for two minutes. Two minutes (as it turned out) was just enough time to say, "Thank you, Mom and Dad." I remember Mom glowed with joy as I spoke my few words. I left home two days later; Mom went Home less than two months later.

I must digress to explain that Mom had a long-standing habit of pausing in mid-sentence whenever she was speaking. Usually she'd continue her thought after pausing a few seconds. But occasionally the sentence would finished itself silently in her head and then mom's thought would fluttered away, leaving everyone guessing at Mom's point. Sometimes the thought had wandered so far from Mom's mind that no amount of our coaxing could entice it back into her head. "Go on, Mom; you were saying," would be met with a blank-faced, "Saying what?"

On a beautiful late October day our neighbor, Mrs. Clark, was helping Mom get ready to go to the hospital for a routine blood test. As Mrs. Clark stepped out to open the car door before helping Mom into the front seat, our oft-inconclusive conversationalist (seated in her wheel chair) was saying how pleased she was that the hospital had made special arrangements to facilitate her blood test. "I'm so glad I don't have to get out of the car to have my blood taken, because ..." and then she paused in her customary way. Only when Mrs. Clark came back through the kitchen door and found the earthly shell slumped over, did she discover that Mom had departed along with the rest of her sentence.

So the family (which now included one grandchild, 22-month-old Jomona) gathered to share our loss, stoically hiding tears from each other as we roamed a house that still smellt and felt like Mom. But now, instead of hearing Mom's laughter, we heard Jomona's giggles. Instead of seeing Mom's ever-frailer movements, we saw Jomona's ever-boisterous frolic. Instead of conjecturing about Mom's unfinished sentences, we puzzled over Jomona's near-intelligible verbalizations.

The funeral was unremarkable. Pastor Jack officiated and, to be honest, I don't remember a thing he said. (Missing the point of Pastor Jack's sermons was hardly a new experience, but candor compels me to say that on this occasion my inability to focus on his message was probably my fault, not his.) However, I do remember the closing prayer. The good pastor asked us to bow our heads. The tears were brimming in our eyes as we silently bowed and listened to his softly spoken benediction.

Jomona was being very well behaved, bowing her head with all the rest of us. Pastor Jack, in recognition of the solemnity of the business we were about, paused as he spoke the words, "In Jesus' Name ...." And Jomona (knowing perfectly well where Pastor Jack was going with this subject) joyfully punctuated his sentence with an ear-splitting "Amen!" Pastor Jack conceded he'd been bested and let Jomona's staccato hallelujah conclude the service. So the final word at the funeral of the woman who didn't finish her own sentences was that of Jomona finishing someone else's.

We managed to suppress our mirth until we got back into the limousine, but someone among us (I can't say for sure who) let slip a fair impersonation of Jomona's finale and we all burst into laughter. Only then did we look up and realize that the car windows weren't as well tinted as one might hope. The congregation was filing past staring us, no doubt wondering what was so all-fired funny about burying ones mother. Dad's continued tear-filled chortling was all the license needed for us to ignore the congregation's censure. Thus it was that, with Jomona's help, one of our saddest moments reinforced our reputation as a family on the fringe.

Happy birthday, Jomona!


Hula Doula said...

Where there is death there is a life that blesses us. Is it not wonderful that children can just fill our lives to the brim. Even though they do not understand because of their innocence they tend to heal our hearts. Happy Birthday Jomona.

joyce said...

You made me cry. Ah... And I gotta confess that I shared via forwarding to your siblings to show them your good gift of writing. or, is writing a honed skill? What English teacher would you like to thank? Jomona is so gonna love this story. And from pictures, it looks like Gisela was the cute baby at your Dad's funeral?

Jomona said...

A gift like this one is seldom given and long treasured. Thank you so much for a wonderful birthday gift and a memory of a woman whose life spilled into mine through her children.
I have to go now, though, 'cause I think I'm going to cry too.

Joel said...

Though I have heard that story in bits and pieces throughout the years,this was the first complete rendition that I have heard. Thanks Uncle Bob for sharing a story about my grandmother's homegoing and Jomona's exclamation point on it. Happy Birthday, my big sis!

ShalomSeeker said...

And now, I cry again. I can't wait to meet this woman who shaped so many beautiful lives.
I love you, you know.