Life is full of many trials. We're born, we grow and adapt and evolve, and then we die. It's simple science, yet sometimes science is interrupted. Car accidents, homicides, natural disasters, disease. We choose how we live our lives, yet have no control over how we die. I'm sure many philosophers have spent endless nights pondering the injustice of that fact, but when it comes down to it we as humans have a strong capacity to accept the inevitable. It's not easy, not by any means. But we sigh, we suffer, we move on. The human heart (the emotional one) is remarkably resilient; but pain and love are equal neighbors.
I consider myself a fortunate man. I'm not well off; I drive a beat up vehicle, live in an apartment I can scarce afford and continually lament my low standing in life. Fortunate! See, I am fortunate, because I have my family and I have my health. Loss is something I've not much had to experience thus far in my young life. I attended no funerals growing up, had no jarring losses to mold and shape me. My parent's divorced when I was young, too young to really remember, and my step-father has risen remarkably to fill the role as my one-true dad. Loss and pain can define a person, and I managed to escape my transformative years relatively unscathed. Sadly, all good things must come to an end.
My grandfather passed last October. He was a good man; boisterous, talkative, with a flair for the unbelievable. He loved his legacy, his self worth defined by stories of his past. Ultimately, he wanted to matter; not to just his family and friends but to mankind in general. He was the kind of man who could strike up a conversation with a stranger on the street and know their life story five minutes later. This quality made him both endearing and also a bit exasperating; stories were told on continuous loop, gradually embelished to the point of strained believability. In the end, I knew more about my grandfather's reputation than the man himself. I grew up states away, seeing him in fleeting visits once a year, so at his passing I found myself struggling with how to feel. I loved my grandfather, without question. But I was saddened to realize that I never really knew him.
At his memorial, stories were told about this larger-than-life man. He was a hero and a rascal, a father and a husband, a ladies man and stalwart friend. All these things I didn't know, couldn't know, until it was already too late. My emotions were off that day. So many different feelings swirled within as I was forced to really face the tragedy of loss. All these things I was hearing, I wanted to know more, to understand the man in the over-sized picture. And I would never get to ask him. Loss is fickle that way. And unexpected.
On April 15th of this year my girlfriend, Lauren, lost her mother. Filippa was a young woman, only fifty-one years old at her death. She was diagnosed with lung cancer eighteen months prior and had fought tooth and nail to live that long. Once again, just six months later I was feeling loss, but at a completely different level. Lauren and I have been dating for over two years now, so I was already entwined with her family when the cancer was discovered. The following months after were some of the most confusing of my life. I barely knew this woman, having only been in the picture a few short months. But I felt for her in ways I couldn't explain. I saw the fear on the faces of the family, the courage and strength needed to carry on, the bond created by this terrible disease. I didn't know this woman; but I wanted to.
A week before her death, Filippa was hospitalized. This was commonplace at this point as the disease was continually progressing. She'd get better, she'd get worse, back and forth time and time again. But the simple fact remained; she kept winning each fight. This time was different. The cancer had finally spread to an area that couldn't be treated, finally pushed beyond the powers of medicine and prayer. Her family, me included, insured that not a single moment of her last days were spent alone. And while we were worried about her, she continued to worry about us. Such was her way. Even in her last days her giant heart simply wanted to help. The amount of well-wishers and guardians around her was staggering, but not surprsing. Over the course of that eighteen months I had gotten to know Filippa. Her warm spirit and open heart was impossible to ignore; in her eyes, everyone was family. Including me.
The funeral was beautiful. It was my first one and even still I can say that it was better than most. The church was packed to the brim with family, friends and well-wishers, so many in fact that some had to stand. The tributes given by Filippa's children were heart wrenching; honest, unflinching and real. The pain was palpable, unbearably so, yet in that pain came a sort of peace in the knowledge that her battle was over. In the end the cancer may have claimed her, but she had still won simply by uniting her family. I found myself emotionally devastated as the casket was closed. A part of me wondered “why?” She wasn't my blood, wasn't related by any sort of bond or union save for the one of welcome she offered me. Ultimately, that proved enough. I hadn't lost a relative but the world had lost a light. Though no kin I felt the sorrow emanating from Lauren and her family more directly than I ever thought possible. I learned then that loss is all encompassing. The human heart is built to heal and last, but no scars ever fully fade away. It pains us now to have them gone, for the number at the other end of the line to no longer answer. But our memories are our salve, our stories our armor so that we can push through the anguish with the belief that we will one day be okay.
After the funeral my mother told me that right now my grandfather and Lauren's mother were talking up in Heaven. I'm not a religious man, preferring to place my faith in my friends and family. But if any two individuals did deserve to meet in the ever after it would be those two. My grandfather would say hello, offering a bright smile and pleasant greeting. Filippa would return in kind, invite him in for a meal, and together the two would share the stories of their lives.