There’s something quizzically ironic and paradoxical about giving it the title of a Celebration of Life while the stimulus for the event is prompted by someone’s death.
Undeserved in every case, the ill-effects of liver cancer took their inevitable toll. After a fiercely courageous battle, encompassing a span of eight years and against a decidedly relentless foe, my youthful 60-year-old brother-in-law finally surrendered.
Collectively, all who knew him were convinced his living and his dying echoed the spirit of the Apostle Paul, who once penned, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
David’s last earthly breath was taken while residing in a tranquil hospice facility, surrounded by his beloved family, earlier this year in mid-February. At the time, it would have been incomprehensible for any of us to anticipate that a far-reaching and invasive global health threat known as COVID-19 was about to knock at “death’s door!”
As is the case for most all of us, these past months of this pervasive pandemic have forced us to plan then postpone, to schedule then cancel, to invite then to turn away, to “venue” then “de-venue,” and to arrange then rearrange.
Well-over nine months from the date of his death, the weekend had thankfully and finally arrived, for a much-anticipated celebration of his life. With precautions and protocols thoughtfully in place to hopefully ensure the safety of one and all, a limited accounting of family and friends began to converge upon the quaint northwest Indiana hometown of David’s surviving wife, Laura, one of my wife’s two sisters.
Celebrating life brought about through death’s unfolding implies a certain coexistence of what might be described as the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Their spacious house snugs up along the fifth fairway of a plush golf course separated only by a few rows of trees. Of no surprise, their property has gobbled up its share of errant golf shots over the years. Enough, in fact, to fill a number of five-gallon buckets.
With adults reminiscing serenely around a welcoming fire pit, the youngsters had their own way of remembering. With plenty of buckets in hands, they claimed the mulch-bedded woods as a canvas to fashion an “earthy” caricature of their late-great-uncle making use of the endless supply of golf balls creatively outlining his form, end-to-end.
The patio fire was a comforting respite for all the young artisans, especially when bags of s’more ingredients awaited. Careful not to overcook their dessert, sticky and full, they soon dispersed.
All the adults, on the other hand, were invited to indulge in a different pleasure. We were each handed what seemed like reams of various medical printouts, cancer brochures, hospital documents and prescription pamphlets. These too would meet a final resting place assuring David’s suffering has ended as the papers would become a form of ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Amidst my varying duties for the formal Sunday afternoon’s gathering and program, my attention was suddenly diverted by a faint whisper by my sister-in-law seated one table away. Though much of her face was hidden behind a mask, I suspected an unanticipated request.
Deducing the nonverbal directive correctly, I swiftly arose, and she placed in my hand a sturdy and decoratively-etched brown wooden box which had been resting at the center of her table.
Now bearing the somewhat weighty container to the front of the assembly, the realization dawned on me that I was holding the cinerary urn containing the remains of my late brother-in-law, David.
Oddly enough, with a “form” of David in-hand, I now stood to the right hand of another brother-in-law, who also happened to be named David. Serving as the officiant for the day’s worship and celebration, he had just finished reciting the Nunc dimittus, the prayerful goodbye of the ancient Simeon as he held the child Jesus in the Jerusalem temple.
Holding the urn of ashes for all to see, the commendation of my brother-in-law Dave was poignantly directed to my late brother-in-law Dave, bringing the heartfelt formalities to their rightful conclusion with assurances of “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock and a sinner of your own redeeming.”
Typically one doesn’t get to choose a brother-in-law, but I couldn’t have asked for any better! All he leaves behind are loved ones, regardless if they were formally family or not. Try as I might to recollect any unpleasantries as our lives intersected at family gatherings, graduations, vacations, and more, I know nothing but rip-roaring good times, deep and inspiring conversations, unforgettable family memories, and his genuine spirit of grace and peace toward all.
Drawn to tears and overcome with laughter, the day took us for quite a ride, and sometimes it felt we rode in a roller-coaster.
Our day was brought to a fitting conclusion as his wife of so many years smiled and cried her way through the last of many eulogies already spoken. She would close by what we all knew to be true as she recited from the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and the seasons of time. Forced more, as the sage would remind, to “refrain from embracing,” the Celebration of Life still offered us plenty of time to weep and to laugh.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at email@example.com