I was sitting at Finaghty’s Irish Pub the night before we were to celebrate the life of my father. I was with my husband and daughter and surrounded by my sisters, most of their families and my stepmom. Family had been arriving from out of town and were still trickling in. We are not a demure clan. At all. We are story tellers. We are bear huggers. We are belly laughers. We are family. When I arrived with my youngest sister, I was greeted with the most amazing hug by a niece I had not seen in a while. And as each person arrived there was more. My brother in law is a great hugger so there was a bit of a line up for that one. It’s hard to describe what it means to be part of this boisterous family. I imagine we are a bit overwhelming to newcomers trying to follow the four conversations happening at once – picture the floor of the stock market. I picture a new boyfriend or girlfriend trying to find an opening like a squirrel trying to cross a four-lane highway in rush hour. It would be daunting but totally worth it when you get to the other side. As everyone was catching up, someone asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m OK.” I had this moment of guilt wash over me. I shouldn’t be feeling OK. I just lost my dad. But I realized that in that very moment I was absolutely OK. If my dad had been there, he would have been better than just OK. He would have been elated. He loved it when everyone was home for dinner. And I do mean everyone. The more the better. Every seat in the house taken. Every room swollen with laughter. Everyone in each other’s space- figuratively and actually. So, I let the guilt go. I enjoyed the night surrounded by people I love. I soaked up the laughter. It heals your heart. Listening to my brother in law and daughter tease each other about spilled orange juice and dented bumpers stitched my heart right up. Sharing stories about past holidays, youthful indiscretions and those little things that we thought were the biggest things at the time- that is the medicine. So right then, I was better than OK.
It occurred to me that really this is why we all come together to mark the passing of someone we love. We come to share our grief and mourn the loss but in so doing there are moments of joy and laughter that heal us. It reminds of our shared history. How we are woven together through this person that we loved. At the time when we most feel like we could unravel from the sharp pain of loss, we know we will be ok. While there is a tear in the fabric, it won’t unravel. Every generation at the table can look around and see the people who will be there to stitch up the tear when the time comes. I think that the rituals that we have are so important. I come from a Catholic and a Greek Orthodox tradition which have similar rituals to mark our passing. It might seem morose, but I have never dreaded them. It is the time in between that I feel adrift. When everyone comes together, I feel like I am wrapped up in this big blanket.
I remember I was splashing in the tub on the day of my great grandmother’s funeral when my parents came in to say they were leaving. I asked where they were going. I suppose my parents were trying to shield us from the pain of loss or maybe they were trying to preserve our innocence the way parents do. They said that they were going to say goodbye to Big Grandma (as we called this tiny woman). All I can remember is being really sad that I didn’t get to go say goodbye. It must have made a deep impression as I still remember that moment nearly five decades later. I remembered it when my grandmother died not long after my daughter was born. When I went to lead the rosary, my sister held her tight and rocked her (she has a gift for rocking babies). During the mass, I held her to my chest. I listened to her tiny breaths, feeling them on my neck, and it eased the grief. Afterward, when everyone was gathered, she made the rounds from aunts to sisters to cousins to sweet old ladies I did not know. She was part of the joy that balanced the grief that day. With every giggle she stitched together hearts.
As we go through the next few days, celebrating the life of a man we loved and mourning the sharp pain of losing him, there will be moments of joy. And we should savor every one of the moments. We will see people we haven’t seen in years and those years will not diminish our love for them. There will be joy in catching up. There will be joy in remembering. There will be joy just knowing we are part of a family and community. We should not miss one minute of that joy.
I chose this photograph because because it embodies joy to me. I caught this eagle soaring over the Skagit River on a cold, clear winter morning just soaring- joyfully!
(1/1600 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 450 mm)