Thursday, October 22, 2009

Celebrations of Life

Wednesday afternoon, the Travelling Six and I drove more than 4 hours in the pouring rain up to Fargo to attend a "Celebration of Life" service as a memorial for my Uncle Jerry, who passed away suddenly during the end of an abdominal surgery last week. Bob drove up directly from work and met us there. My parents had been up there since early Monday morning, going through my uncle's things, organizing, and making necessary arrangements, as most things had been left in the hands of my dad to take care of. My aunt from Iowa and her husband had been up there since Sunday as well.
My uncle had wanted no religiosity of any kind at his service. No prayers, no songs, nothing of the sort. How a pastor from somewhere ended up there, I am not quite certain (and I keep forgetting to ask my parents about it), but he made it implicitly clear that he was not there on my uncle's behalf, but only for us (the grieving survivors). It was a nice touch of spiritual support for those who were saddened. And it gave others the opportunity to approach the podium to share emotions and stories, usually quite entertaining stories, of how my uncle touched their lives.

The main portion of the evening was just as my uncle had wished: a celebration of his life. It was a lovely service, made possible by his creative coworkers at Flint....a publishing/advertising company, well known in it's field. These 70+ people had loved my uncle dearly, and to show it, had made a beautiful slide show full of pictures, and quotes, as well as a wonderful video full of old commercials, stunts, and radio/event speaker spots featuring my uncle and his vast array of talents in the writing, speaking, and acting world. To top off the evening, they all shared a shot of bourbon in my uncle's honor, and grabbed a cigar to go. And with that, they all filed out of the building with laughter (and a few sniffles), my uncle's dog, Buddy, leading the way. Quite honestly (with the exception of the "no God" part), it was a rather nice way to have a "funeral."

We went out to eat at a 4-star pizzeria in a small strip on the edge of town with my parents for a late night dinner. Duane's House of Pizza. If you are ever in Fargo, we certainly recommend it! The kids judged it to be the best pizza they have ever had. And the sausage, pepperoni, sauerkraut pizza that my parents and I shared was almost addicting after the first few bites! The kids did great throughout the evening, and were eager to go swimming back at the hotel as a reward. After adding a quart of oil to my oil burning engine in my truck, we bid goodnight to my parents, and drove the nearly 2 hour long road back to our hotel in Alexandria.
Why so far from Fargo if we were staying overnight anyhow? Because our second funeral was in Minneapolis, early the next morning, for Bob's cousin. Alexandria was the halfway point, giving us at least a small chance of getting a few winks of sleep somewhere in between. But leaving Fargo after 9pm, made our swimming reward at 11:15pm, a "midnight swim" experience. Though kids were not allowed after 10pm, the pool was abandoned on this Wednesday evening, and so the kids and I snuck in very quietly for their late night swim. They were so good and quiet, a nice, happy, fun treat much deserved after these last two weeks of difficulty and sadness. Even Tubby and the baby remained awake and happy, splashing (very quietly!) in the water until nearly the stroke of midnight.

Morning came much too early, a mere 6 hours after we had fallen asleep following our fun little rogue-ish swim. But once again, my kids were fantastic, awoke without complaint, donning their traditional funeral attire, gathering their things into their backpacks, and sauntered out the door and into the lobby where breakfast awaited them. Having really no time to spare, we made our breakfast "to go", climbed into the truck, and drove two hours to our next destination. Bob had driven straight home last night (opting out of dinner), and met us at the funeral home with the two teens who had stayed behind yesterday due to college classes, band rehearsals, and hockey.

The funeral for Bob's cousin, was much like any other with the exception that the entire place was PACKED (no pictures of this one, as it seemed too inappropriate in this more typical setting). Similar to my uncle's service last night which was packed with adoring friends, so was this. It is interesting how we as family members seem to apparently have known these individuals the least. Here we had thought that my uncle being single, with no children, but only a doting dog, was living a lonely life. Likewise, given the difficulties Bob's cousin has caused family members in the past, and made poor choices along life's journey, we had never expected such a vast array of thoughtful friends. It was certainly an eye opening experience on both accounts, and alerted me quickly to how easy we can slip into a place of passing judgment on others without even having the slightest clue about the whole story. We see barely a mere sliver of someone else's life. It is impossible to know someone's true heart. And that was the message today.

In the midst of dozens upon dozens of sad, grieving people, the pastor today took a bold and honest approach. Speaking in truth and love, he spoke of Alan's life (the pastor was a friend of a few of Alan's best friends, so had known him for many, many years). He spoke of the reality of heaven and hell, and the saved and unsaved. He admitted we can not know for certain one's eternal destiny. There was no fluff, no lies, only God's loving truth. Though Alan's life attested perhaps otherwise, it is conceivable that his heart had been softened during his sedated two weeks in the hospital, listening to the words of truth spoken to him daily by the pastor and loving family members by his side. The salvation message he preached today was amazing and beautiful, gently, yet firmly calling all of us in that crowded sanctuary to the cross.

Bagpipes led and ended the service, and in stark contrast to my uncle's service, people walked out of the room with tear stained faces, in solemn silence, much as one sees at any other funeral. And though the lunch upstairs provided some nice time for happy stories and sharing of funny memories, I pray that many of those in that room were able to open their hearts to that message of truth, and start on their own journey of living in pure joy, basking in the glory of God's forgiving love.

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