Tuesday, February 2, 2010

eulogies and the power of forgiveness

I wonder what they did for Amelia, I wonder how you mourn someone when there's no consensus. I wonder this because with my father, there wasn't even an urn. He sent his body out to sea, there's no marker other than a bench my nephew bought and sealed his name to on Riverside Drive. He loved to walk there, so if we want we can go sit in the bench and remember. My father walked from home to work up until six months before his death. He walked with long strides, the steadiest sort of pace, he was hard to keep up with until the cancer took over. Even when he knew he was dying, he walked. We gave him a service, and hundreds came. I wrote a speech, one that differed considerably from the ones given by my brother, my sister, my nephew.

Two nights ago I woke and found myself writing a speech for my mother's funeral. She's not dead, but she'd dying. Dying in fits and starts, her mind almost gone, her body giving out on her. It will be so different from what I wrote for my father, you see I know who she is and was. I barely knew him. And I don't question her love for me, while with him . . .

I think of what was done for Amelia, her husband declared her lost on January 5,1939 (although a book I'm reading says January 6th, I'm going to dig into the research and see why this discrepancy). It was done so her will could be probated. By then some had given up, but others never did. So many theories have been proposed. In my novel I have a character point out that "everyone loves a mystery." Having written a few of my own, I know it's true. We like the puzzle, and we like the idea that there's a solution we might get to. But when someone dies, we also like to remember them and speak about them in ways that helps us mourn. I wonder if her family got to do that for her.

In my novel, I let Muriel get her shot. I let her talk about her sister, warts and all. I let her say what most of us never say when they can overhear. The best memorial services are the ones where you listen and think, "That's right!" You see them whole. You can't grieve for a saint. You can only admire them.


  1. "When someone dies, we like to remember them and speak about them in ways that help us mourn. I wonder if her family got to do that for her." : For many years, Amy Earhart seemed convinced that Amelia had been on some sort of government mission, which I interpret as her way of clinging to hope that Amelia would turn up alive (indeed, she kept a care package of supplies at the ready for the day Amelia should show up). I think this must have put Muriel, who accepted much sooner the probability that Amelia was dead, in a difficult position. I would imagine that all those years Amy was denying Amelia's death, Muriel couldn't have remembrance conversations with her. It seems like Muriel must have been deprived of part of the mourning process, at least around her mother.

  2. I so agree, and then what did she do? Plus the difficult relationship the sisters did have and then the years she spent speaking about Amelia as if she was the perfect sister. It's all so compelling to me, and so sad really. Families have such quirky dynamics, but what went on here seems to have resonance. The idea that a mother can never let go of believing her child is still alive, given the option, while the sister is left being the realist.

  3. I have an image of your father walking with his strong stride even as he knew he was dying. My son's friend Dylan died a few months ago from leukemia at age 9. He was on life support and his mother gave the green light to pull the plug, a few minutes later he was gone. His mother called us sobbing so hard she could barely talk thirty minutes after he died and said, "I had to call you because Jack was Dylan's best, best friend in the whole wide world." Death, according to Native Americans, is a miracle. Now your mother is dying bit by bit. I often wonder about my own death, for some reason it seems hard to imagine not existing...

  4. I guess that's why we keep trying to figure out how to make ourselves still in some way. I believe that our knowledge of death, as a race, shapes everything we do. Religion, politics, etc.
    Some of us are willing to try anything, even if it's incredibly risky, others are more staid and stable, all of us have a relationship with the inevitable. I only wish I could think of death as a miracle, I'd like to. In my mother's case, it would set her free. So maybe that's the miracle we're all searching for.

  5. Colleen, could you expand on the Native American idea of death as miracle? What is meant by that?

  6. Kent Nerburn quotes Ohiyesa, a Native American man born in 1858, as writing, "...we see miracles on every hand- the miracle of life in seed and egg, the miracle of death in a lightening flash and in the swelling deep!" (from "The Wisdom of the Native Americans") When I came across this passage (the whole passage is great, but would make a long post) it really bowled me over. Everyone seems to think that birth is a miracle- but I had never considered that death is a miracle. Death is a supreme magic trick, a vanishing act, and without it, the cosmos would be pretty constipated...Naomi I think it is very "nail on head" when you say that our knowledge of death shapes everything we do. Since I don't know much about the Native American idea of death as a miracle, I googled it, and it happens that there is a book (not by a Native American) called, "The Miracle of Death"- after reading the 11 reviews on amazon, I ordered the book.