We struggle to talk openly and honestly about the end of life. I am astounded sometimes by the lengths we go to when it comes to denying the reality of death. A few years ago, one of the ‘doyennes’ of New Orleans left instructions that instead of a funeral, she wanted a late afternoon garden party at her home, where the champagne would flow lavishly and some of New Orleans’ best chefs would prepare a feast for everyone to enjoy. She had made the arrangements to be embalmed and then be placed in her favorite wicker chair on her front porch, with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne on a table by her side. When she died, that’s exactly what happened. There was certainly great humor in that gesture. An insistence that this particular life, that had been lived with exuberance and excess, should be celebrated with the same verve. She certainly knew something about going out in glory.
And. And my heart also breaks, though I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps it is because in those really big moments of life, I find simplicity and silence open the most space for me to experience all the different emotions and responses that go with losing someone I love.
By now, most of you know my dad has been diagnosed with lung cancer. This is the kind of ‘stuff’ that life is made of and there is that odd mixture of sorrow, determination, fear, and hope that defines moments like this. As a daughter, I know I have things I will need to do and be for my dad and my family that will need to be fiercely private. As a priest and pastor, I know we learn from each other, even about those things we would prefer not to have to learn. We make the hard things about life less fearsome when we can actually talk about our experiences and what they teach us.
For now, it is what my dear friend shared with me last week that gives me a great deal of comfort, while we wait for biopsy results for my dad and start getting some sense of what the landscape ahead looks like. My friend had been to a funeral and heard the homilist say, “We celebrate life. But we are here to walk each other home.” What an extraordinary privilege to walk a parent right up to the gates of heaven…