In less than a year I have attended the funerals of three impactful lives. The first was heartbreaking. The second was heartwarming and inspirational. The third made me want to live a better life and love everyone more.
Love without speaking a word
In July, a child whom I was privileged to photograph two weeks after she was born went down for a nap and never woke up. They said it was SIDs. Riley was just shy of three months living. The word “devastating” continues to describe what it was like for her parents and for us closest to her. In the midst of working out my grief, the light that stands out is something said by her father at her funeral. Though she never uttered a word or interacted in the ways we would call interaction, she taught us to love. Until then, I had never considered that a child teaches love from the moment she breathes in our mixed up mash of atmosphere we call air.
Her short life begs reconsideration of what it is we call Love. Could it be that we have strapped Love down with all kinds of misunderstood notions and unfulfilled longings, so much so that we are frustrated when Love doesn't seem to "do" what we want it to? Riley was a baby whose daily existence revolved around sleep, eat, poop, repeat. In between, there were moments of wonder and crying. But she taught Love without speaking a word. She moved her parents outside of themselves, outside of their perspective, stretching their notion of sacrifice and selflessness. She made their world bigger and made them, and those near her, more human. In my experience, that is always how Love works. The grief and sadness over her death is, in part, because I wonder what more Love could have been learned and seen through Riley's living.
A Life that Resonates
At the other end of the life timeline are the two funerals I attended within a week of each other. Martha Dell's dying was at the end of 84 years and not three months. She crammed in to 84 years a life that will resonate for years on end, effecting lives worldwide. In a packed church on a Monday, the first words of her memorial service were, "Everyone here is here because they thought they were Martha Dell's best friend." Though not literally true, it spoke of how she made every individual feel who bumped into her.
Imagine living such that each person walks away feeling accepted and having gained a new friend. Martha Dell met plenty with whom me she didn't agree or maybe drove her crazy, because we all have those people in our lives. That said, she was the kind of woman that still accepted you even if she didn't agree with you. She was the kind of woman that looked at why you drove her crazy, knowing that the crazy more likely in her than in you.
Making beauty out of the mundane
At the reception following her memorial, I had a call from my wife saying Grandpa Henry had just died. He was 95 and the previous few days he wasn't doing well. He knew the light was growing dim and accepted it more than those he was leaving behind. On that phone call, my wife shared how he had asked that I be one of his pallbearers. He was getting things in order and one of his last request was an act of honor and love reflective of how he lived.
I was the latest in-law, marrying his granddaughter of whom he had the utmost delight. He said to me that he thought he was losing his granddaughter but discovered he was gaining a grandson...his last. He knew how to make you feel you were family. Every grandchild thought they were his favorite. And they were probably right.
Within the past year I had the chance to sit with him and simply ask questions. I was new to the family and didn't know all the stories, his story. When you live into your 90s you have a lot of story and wisdom tends to drip off them like morning rain from a tree. It doesn’t come as euphemistic words of advice spoken with a gravely voice, but moments of living that speak for themselves.
He was an Iowa farmer who moved his family to California in the early 1950s even with his wife resisting the journey. She came to love the move and they lived 60 years in the same house, raising three girls and one mentally handicapped son - who lived with them until his 60s. Quite a different understanding of parenthood when there is no such thing as an empty nest.
Henry worked in landscaping until he was 83. He mowed lawns, planted trees and flowers, trimmed and cultivated. He was a master Gardener. He worked with dirt and learned how to create environments for young things to thrive and grow, making beauty out of the mundane. There was no distinction between his work and how he lived in the other areas of his life. There, too, he nurtured thriving and beauty.
My wife is one of these examples. For he saw in her what she did not and through his constant delight, wooed that spark into a fire she carries with her. It is no surprise that she is a master artist with flowers, taking what is already beautiful and creating something that brings out even more beauty. She has his garden blood and it shows.
Leave it all out on the field
Three lives and each have at their core a version of Love that makes me want to be better at loving. Much of what that looks like has very little to do with words or convincing arguments.
Touching death turns our heads to catch a glimpse of our own mortality. When the dust settles and the dust returns to dust, what then? An old coaching term lingers in my thoughts: Leave it all out on the field. I know there are parts of my story that have waited patiently to be told, gifts to be given, love to be offered regardless of response. There is art to be crafted, beauty to be made more visible. Imagine what a sad life it would be to be buried in the ground with all that great stuff? Here’s to leaving it all out on the field, taking none of it to the grave.