Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Today I was part of the funeral and burial of Arlene--someone I never met and yet know very well and who was a gift to me in a profound way.

It started like this: my friend, Maggie, who I know because we both do work for the Mastery Foundation, called me, oh, I think it was six months ago though linear time is not my strong suite. She called with what at the time seemed like a strange request though it turned out to be a gift I never deserved (though who among us deserves the gifts life sends us?)

Maggie's cousin, Arlene, was terminally ill. And I think what Maggie wanted was for someone who was 'spiritual' (though that hardly applies to me) to be in Arlene's life as she moved toward 'that good night'. There were a couple of calls from Maggie and I emailed her something about a story of a young monk who was telling his superior that he was having difficulty meditating because people kept showing up in his life that took his attention. And the Prior told the young monk, "whenever people show up when I'm trying to be contemplative, I always say, 'Jesus Christ, are you here again?'"

Something like that. But any way, since I couldn't say 'no' to Maggie ever, I called Arlene.

The first call was really strange, "Hi,", I said, "you don't know me but Maggie sent me to be your....I don't know what...."

Arlene laughed. And her laugh hooked me.

I talked to her on the phone a more than a dozen times over those months, for hours and hours, and it was always her laughter that hooked me. Arlene, this woman who had battled cancer for 12 years, found something worth laughing about most of the time we were talking. And though I knew from Maggie that Arlene was in pain and losing weight and in hospice care in her home, she was gracious and lovely and positive and oh, so humorous all the time.

We never got around to 'serious spiritual stuff' (what I call 'sss'). And every conversation was full of life and wonder and hope--and if that isn't 'spiritual' I don't know what is.

I never got up to where she lived--somewhere in a part of upstate New York that was as familiar to me as Bulgaria. It would have been a nearly 4 hour drive and she always talked me out it coming to see her--mostly because, I think, she never wanted people to make a fuss about her. But I'm almost glad that we only knew each other on the phone. There was an open casket at the funeral and I realized Arlene didn't look anything like I had imagined her. She was gaunt to a fault--most likely because of the struggle with her disease--and had reddish hair. I had imagined her as a bit over-weight and perky and twinkle eyed and having gray hair. I'm sort of glad that the healthy and vital person of our phone conversations remained the image of her that I had. There were pictures of her around the funeral home and she had been beautiful in her youth, but I'm somehow glad I 'knew' her as the way she sounded--full of life and joy and irony and humor--instead of seeing her in the last stages of her disease.

For me, Arlene was always vital and optimistic and so fully alive. The shell that was her body in that casket wasn't the woman I knew and learned to love. I'll keep my image of her as 'being Arlene' rather than the image of her corpse.

(That's probably why I don't like open coffins at wakes and funerals. I think people should remember people who have died as 'alive'. That's why I've arranged for a funeral director friend to use a flame thrower to cremate me where I fall....Don't look at my dead body, remember me as alive and ironic and a bit crazy....OK?)

Anyway, the funeral was in a place called Haverstraw, up Route 9 across the Tappen Zee bridge, far enough north to have 'real' mountains and the Hudson River being the Hudson River. And one of Arlene's step-sons (I think, I never got the relations down very well) and a friend who had known her since they were in grade school and two of her granddaughters--one very beautiful and the other beautifully boyish--spoke along with Michael, Maggie's husband, reading an email from Maggie, who was in Europe with their daughter. And nothing any of them said did anything but reinforce the Arlene I knew but had never met. Wondrous, full of humor, never complaining, ALIVE, just like that, ALIVE....

Maggie had called me wondering if she should leave the country with Arlene so near to death. I told her what her cousin told her the last time Maggie saw Arlene, "go have some fun" and then she hit her on the shoulder with her frail fist.

Michael seemed to be sending Maggie the service. His smart phone was on a chair in the front row of the funeral home chapel and leaned against the tombstone next to Arlene's grave. I never understand social media stuff, but I did talk to Maggie as the hearse driver was about to take me back to the funeral home from the steep slope where Arlene will spend time (overlooking the Hudson, quite a view). She was still beating herself up a bit for not being there, but that's just crazy. She should have been with her daughter, absolutely, even Arlene told her so, with a punch to her arm.

Here's the thing, you just never know what life will hand you and there is never enough thanksgiving to give for the gifts. Arlene became a part of my life. I've told lots of people about her and half a dozen or more of the folks at the funeral told me she had told them about me.

Someone you never met, face to face, can bring wonder and grace and beauty and great good humor into your life, over a cell phone over six months or so.

What a gift that seemingly crazy invitation Maggie gave me to call her dying cousin turned out to be. I love Arlene. It was a joy and privilege and humbling experience it was to count her as a friend, never met, and to be a part of her 'leaving'.

I once counted up the funerals I had been a part of. It was close to a thousand. Imagine that, being a part of the 'leaving' and walking them to their graves....almost a thousand people. What a humbling honor and privilege.

And this one really mattered in a way I still do not understand.

Often in life, when I'm trying to do something else that I think is important, I find myself saying, "Jesus Christ, is it you again?"

Thank you Maggie. Thank you Arlene. Thank you God. Thank you Life....really....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.