I cannot remember the date. Or how long it had been since she died. But there were seven of us there that day: Me and my two children, and my sister and her three children.
It was cold. Snow had melted, leaving the ground muddy and the concrete slick. We were all bundled up, shivering as we breathed in the sharply chilled air. We stared up at the crypt, eyeing the target of our duress. Then my sister and I looked at each other.
She grabbed the extension pole.
The story goes that as my grandmother and mother zipped around the cemetery in the funeral director's golf cart, she'd spied the crypt. As they pulled up to the square of marble housing its honored dead, she'd pointed to the top and said, "I want to be up there." My mother said it was so that Gigi could be as close to heaven as possible.
Heaven. Well, okay. I write fiction for a living, so I often recognize tales, no matter how ancient the source. Some stories parade around as truth. However, I'm not here to discuss my own views about the afterlife, but I will tell you this: My grandmother's faith was solid. And beautiful. And comforted her in a long life that had too much sorrow in it.
My sister is more graceful than I, but wielding a long, metal pole in an attempt to remove the plastic vase from its ring "up there" requires more than grace. It requires concentration, strength, and paying attention to where your children are located.
I remember Gigi talking about dying. About her funeral arrangements. About what we should do--and I stopped her. "I don't want to hear this," I said. "I don't want to think about you not being here." And she said, "It must be taken care of, so that my family doesn't bear the burden." She was practical, and organized. Now that I'm in my forties, and I've lost one of the people in my life who was the dearest, who I did not appreciate enough, hug enough, take care of enough ... I, too, think about death, and about how to make it easier on my family. But here's what I know:
You cannot prepare for the grief. You cannot imagine what it is like to walk into a hospital room and see the woman who influenced you the most, who gave you everything you asked for and so much more, lying so still. There is nothing, nothing, that you can do to make it hurt less. And as you sit with your family holding vigil over the vessel that had once been a vibrant, lovely, generous woman ... you feel overwhelming devastation. It gets into your lungs, crawls into your heart, fills up your mind. This feeling does not go away. Not for days. Not for years. Not ever. It will always be part of your breath, your heartbeat, your thoughts.
My sister maneuvers the pole underneath the plastic vase. She misses several times, but finally manages to get the clamp around it. As she lifts it up, it turns over ... and dumps freezing water on her oldest son.
Then the pole slips and boinks him on the head.
Because we are who we are ... because we are a family that is broken and weird and grief-stricken ... we laugh.
We laugh a lot.
We stand beneath the crypt of the woman we loved so much, in a graveyard that should invoke solemness, and laugh.
Even my nephew, who was the unfortunate recipient, offered up his laughter like a prayer to Gigi's heaven.
Death is not sacred. That is the lesson, I think, that Gigi wanted us to understand. The people we love, the memories we create, the joy we find in the smallest (and sometimes inappropriate) of ways ... there in lies the sacred.
Death is not sacred at all.