“Eleanor, I’m sad that we have to meet again on such a sad occasion.” Marta looked briefly upward – towards heaven, no doubt – and then gestured languidly. “How are you?”
“And your husband? Oh, what is his name…”
“He’s fine as well. He sends his regrets. He still can’t move very well after the skiing accident.”
Marta moved closer, too close. Somehow she managed to completely envelop the space around her even though she was small and slight. “You look a little rounder than the last time I saw you. Are you…?”
“Marta!” Despite herself, she blushed.
“You’re getting old, you know. To think that your father passed away without seeing a child from his youngest daughter.”
“I – I really must go.” She abruptly pulled her simple black skirt towards her and then joined the crowd of people moving towards the church. For the past two days she had managed to contain much of her emotion. Papa’s death had come as no surprise to anyone and thankfully had been quick and dignified. Despite this, she felt considerable grief and beneath that an amorphous feeling, perhaps fear, that took little provocation to bring to the surface. Marta, of course, provoked her with dispatch.
With a brief glance over the crowd she spotted her brothers and began to move towards them. They huddled together smoking at the base of the stone stairs that led into the tidy Episcopal Church. Maybe she was wrong to avoid her grief. But she did not deny death’s inevitability: she defined her life with death in mind. Of all the members of the family she was certainly the one most focused on enjoying her life. Peter and Arianna saw no more of life than their offices and the inside of their commuter cars. Cameron, though he indulged his emotions was not at peace with them.
Her two brothers separated slightly and drew her into their circle.
“How are you doing Ellie?” Cameron hugged her affectionately and then slide his trademark silver flask into the palm of her right hand. She looked for signs that he had been on a bender and saw none. Though he had probably slept in his clothes and his eyes were slightly red, he was quite composed, his hands were steady and his enunciation was good. She felt relieved. Cameron was such a loose cannon. You never knew what would set him off and how dramatically he would act. Everyone was worried that he would be a spectacle during the eulogy. With a quick, practised gesture she took a large gulp of scotch, put her arm around his waist and returned the flask to his right pocket.
“Come here, hold me.” Peter grasped her unsteadily and then fell towards her in an extremely sloppy hug. Despite herself, she pulled slightly away. The three of them swayed unsteadily for a moment and then Eleanor gently extracted herself from her brothers. So Peter was the one to watch out for. He had always been such a source of stability. In fact his sobriety and pragmatism frequently annoyed her. She put her arm through Peter’s and rather firmly escorted him up the stairs into the church.
The dark wood and stone interior of the church was formal, cold and not very comforting. This did not bother her. Death was not a time for soft comforts. She did not want any form of ministration to distract from her grief. She and her brothers walked towards their seat in the front pew of the church and sat down between their vigorously weeping maiden aunts and their uncharacteristically quiet young niece Leah. The histrionics of the aunts at first annoyed and then unsettled Eleanor. The aunts had the deepest faith of her relatives. They attended mass daily and prayed for their family’s wide array of sins. This faith seemed no support to them now. But then again how could any faith alter the undeniable fact of their loss? As the service began the aunts gradually settled down, comforted by ritual.
After a brief, though tedious, introduction by the minister Cameron rose to deliver his eulogy. He ascended the pulpit with sombre dignity. It was almost surprising to see such a militant atheist as he act so reverentially in a church. He was like some form of anti-priest about to give an atheist’s sermon. Eleanor remembered how he had liked to play priest when he was much younger and much more impressionable. She smiled at the memory. Perhaps it was true that we hold our greatest hatred for what we despise in ourselves. This thought caused her to worry again. She knew that Cameron’s grief was quite great. This eulogy was very important to her and she feared that he would blow it. A flash of anger coursed through her at the thought of her brother engaging in a drunken rave. She fought it down. She knew that Cameron was fine. In fact she suspected, or at least hoped, that he was in good form. He cleared his throat and began.
I read recently in a newspaper about two towns in Nova Scotia which neighbour each other. The first town was, I believe, called Altruism. The good citizens of Altruism were concerned about unfortunate members of their community, the sick and afflicted. So they established a generous social welfare system. The citizens of the neighbouring town, Parsimony I think it was called, also cared about the disadvantaged, but they had other concerns as well. Because they fretted about freeloaders and high taxes, Parsimony’s welfare system was not quite as good as that in Altruism. The result was that all the sick and unemployed people in Parsimony moved to Altruism.
For the first time this week Eleanor felt at peace. Cameron was up to some mischief. She was relieved that his delivery was sly and not sarcastic. Certainly listening to Cameron’s parable thus far was better than listening to some doddering stranger talk platitudes. He continued.
Suddenly, the two towns became polarised. Altruism, which started off being only slightly more generous than Parsimony was forced to become very generous. This annoyed many of the citizens of Altruism, who like their cousins in Parsimony were also concerned about high taxes. They experienced resentment because they were being forced to be good, and they couldn’t do anything about it because no one would step forward and openly advocate being less generous to the poor. In contrast, the citizens of Parsimony ended up being less good than they intended. Rather than helping the poor less, they ended up not helping the poor at all. This disturbed many of the citizens of Parsimony because they didn’t intend to be bad, they merely wanted to economise. But again, no one could do anything about it because no one would step forward to support raising taxes.
Eleanor looked around the church at various generations of friends and relatives. Attention levels seemed to correspond with age. The children were very restless and bored. At the beginning of the service they were certainly on good behaviour because they sensed that their parents were upset. However, the intensity of their parents’ emotions could not muzzle the children’s immediate needs for very long. Beside her nieces and nephews sat her older cousins who were attentive but not much less restless than their children. The most attentive people, she noticed, were those closest to death themselves. She wondered how much of their weeping was for their lost friend and how much was for themselves. Perhaps Papa was one of their dwindling circle of companions and they mourned their increasing loneliness; or perhaps they cried out of fear of their own impending death. These thoughts were not cynical. It struck her as sensible that people should mourn this way. Indeed, she was disturbed by those who did otherwise.
A child started screaming out of boredom and an embarrassed mother hustled her out of the church. “Better get to the point Cameron”, she thought.
Just as the people of Altruism and Parsimony were forced to be better and worse than they intended, so too are most people directed on the paths of good and evil by circumstances which distort and exaggerate their moral inclinations. Sometimes being good is easy, because it corresponds with our self-interest, and sometimes it is difficult, because the entire weight of the world opposes it.
Most of us play the moral odds, dramatising our virtues and disguising our vices. My father was unique among the people that I have met because he didn’t play these odds. He never deliberated and chose to be good. He just was good. For this we were very lucky children. Though as a family we suffered losses and experienced some deprivation, we always had his guidance, support and love. To his memory we can look for an example, and for his life we can give thanks.
Cameron voice’s wavered as he finished the last words of his eulogy. He paused briefly to collect himself and then walked, head bowed, off the altar and sat down. The priest, in a great show of dignity then rose and continued with the service.
As the priest began to talk a quiet voice whispered into her ear. “Aunt Eleanor. Aunt Eleanor.” Her youngest cousin Leah lightly but firmly tugged at the sleeve of her dress, excited, or rather distraught by some thought. “Aunt Eleanor”, she whispered, “they’re going to put grandpa in the ground aren’t they?”
“Yes they are.” Leah moved slightly closer to Eleanor, seeking comfort. Eleanor put her arm around Leah, seeking comfort herself.
“I’m never going to see grandpa again.” she stated simply.
With those words Eleanor’s calm was shattered. A feeling of sadness and rage welled up within her. She wanted her father back now. Her feelings were naive and pointless. Nevertheless they completely possessed her. The feelings resonated within her and then were replaced by one enormous feeling of emptiness. Her grief didn’t matter. Papa was not coming back. Shaken by these intense emotions she sat quietly weeping through the rest of the service until people rose and began to leave.
As they walked out of the church to the car Eleanor watched little Leah’s tentative efforts to understand the actions of the adults around her. For this moment roles were reversed. So often Leah would be the one raging about loss and powerlessness, usually in the context of an early bedtime or restricted access to TV. Now she watched the adults around her adapt to their own feelings of loss, denial and powerlessness. Leah timidly held onto the skirt of Eleanor’s dress and then grabbed her hand. Eleanor looked down at her. What was Leah learning from the actions of her aunts and uncles? Was this just a lesson in social graces? Was she learning to live her life in the shadow of death, or merely to be careful with people who swayed and stank of alcohol?
“Aunt El, I miss Grandpa and want him back”.
“So do I. So do I.” As the car pulled out of the church parking lot Eleanor had the feeling that it was wrong merely to let life go on. Leah’s loss and her loss were both real. A good man who brought joy to the world was gone. Certainly his time had come, yet to deny her feelings of remorse felt wrong, was wrong.
They shortly arrived at the family house for the wake. The house, as always, looked small and drab compared with the vivid memories of childhood. Thankfully the feelings of shame that characterised the visits of early adulthood had long since subsided. Though the house was in ill repair and was definitely in a poorer section of town it represented a life from which Eleanor had successfully escaped. Now she could view it calmly as one of many important influences on her. In fact, as she moved among the hallways and rooms a feeling of reflective nostalgia infused her.
Her own room was nearly untouched from the time she left home for the last time to go to college. The significance of this hit her for the first time. Clearly Papa had missed her more than she had realised. They had always had an awkward relationship. Peter and Arianna had led lives that Papa approved of, and they had remained in constant contact. Cameron he rarely saw or talked to. She was somewhere in between. Papa had never fully understood her, nor she him. For him, life was a series of inevitable sacrifices. She often accused him of sacrificing even when not necessary. Of course, her life had required so few sacrifices. Because of her stable character and her supportive family and friends, she had avoided being seriously hindered by the pratfalls that mar all lives.
She walked absently into her room. Try as she might she could not think of it as anything but a museum. She methodically began examining the artefacts of her life. The room was filled with Austrian symphonies, books on German philosophy, French poetry, the trappings of aristocratic European culture that had fascinated her during her early adolescence. Here and there pieces of African and Asian culture hinted at the direction that her interests would take during her first decade away from home.
From habit she opened the drawer of her dresser and withdrew the little safe that contained her personal tokens, diaries, letters and photographs. “How Papa raged at that little safe”, she thought. It seemed so trivial, but because it defined in material terms a part of her that was no longer dependent upon him it had marked an important passage in her life. She sat down on her trundle bed and idly began to sift through her most treasured effects.
She slipped easily into the past. Death is a time of completion, a time for recollection and summation. Methodically she went through stacks of pictures and notes. At one time many of these things would have embarrassed her. She was prone to fads which she embraced with enthusiasm one day and abandoned with derision the next. Today she felt no shame at all. These artefacts had been, and still were a part of her.
She picked up a folder of photographs and glanced idly through it, beginning with the last page and moving backwards towards the first. One page in particular caught her eye. It contained pictures from a wilderness retreat she had taken with a group of friends from university. They had camped in a meadow on the wide flood plain of a river. She had a vivid memory of hiking after midnight through fields of flowers, giggling, half drunk, half clothed, going to the river to swim. A mist had formed where the warm air of the river valley met pockets of cold air from beyond. The light from the full moon shone strongly but unsteadily through this damp air. The fragrant mist and the slight sting of flowers brushing against her skin had made her feel very primal, like a participant in a rite of spring or a bacchanal.
Eleanor removed the photograph and noted the names and the date written on the back. She turned the picture over and looked at it again. She felt disturbed. Something about it caused dissonance. There were no sad memories attached to the trip. She recalled her friends’ names and smiled at the positive feelings they evoked. “What is wrong with this picture?” she thought again. Then she realised that this was the last time she had ever spent with any of the people in the photograph. During the last year of college she had seen them less and less and then this last time and no more. For the second time that day a feeling of loss surged through her.
Eventually all the threads of life end. We mark many of these endings but miss far more: life is full of little endings that individually or cumulatively can far outstrip the impact of a sudden, though foreseen death. A childhood friend who one day moved away never to be seen again. A phone-call never returned. A letter never opened. An impact never felt. Non-events that mark the stages of life so quietly and so conclusively.
“Auntie El…” Leah’s timid, demanding voice disturbed her reverie. “Ariana says you have to come down now.” Eleanor carefully put the picture back, then put the folder away. She then took Leah’s hand and returned with her to the wake.