By Madonna Hamel
Kathy stands beside me telling me over and over: “I just am so blessed, I feel so… blessed. I don’t know what else to say.” I know what she means – there are times when you want to express your appreciation for all you have, and yet there seems to be no words to express your sentiments. This incapacity for language most often occurs at times of great joy or sorrow – like the funeral of someone who has led a full life, surrounded by loved ones.
Kathy was hanging a collection of photos of her father-in-law whose funeral luncheon we were preparing for in the town hall/movie theatre. Each decade reveals a rich life of a man who lived into his 90s. We see a man and his family, including children and grand-children and great grand-children in snapshots of different shades of colour, beginning with black and white, and in different styles of clothes, hair and vehicles. I am always entranced by these retrospectives, how the young couple, wiry, silly or serious, always strike us as movie stars from another era – and how, as the years go by and the photos catch up with us, here in the present, they become ‘mere humans’ like the rest of us.
I was in the kitchen, cutting sandwiches, when Kathy arrived with the pictures. I went up to her and gave her a hug. There is something extremely touching about moments like these – when our guard is down, we drop the odd etiquette of daily life and show an affection that is not necessarily that of old friends, but of one human to another, acknowledging the universal mystery hat is death.
We need to be there for each other – for ourselves as much as for the bereaved – to recall the real reasons we are here: to witness what it means to live and die together, to experience the subtle growth spurts that generate from deep within our being every time we perform some small gesture of comfort or support, a gesture that can easily surprise even ourselves, as small and spontaneous as it is. Maybe we just give a hug, bring them a piece of cake, share a story about the deceased, hold their hands, hand them a Kleenex, stay near.
When I heard of Gordon Grant’s passing I felt a pang of regret. I met him and his wife Steva not long after I moved here. Maurice and Pat introduced me to him when we decided we’d start collecting stories of the families who had a significant part in making Val Marie a community. Gordon began farming early, his father died when he was just a child. His hero was his mother, with whom he worked alongside, along with the hired help, to keep the family farm alive. His, like so many of his generation, including my parents, was an intensely physical life and he was “used to hard work”. At 13 Gordon was building dug-outs for the PFRA. He worked on thrashing crews, built fences and he walked the huge distances between home and school in every kind of weather.
Like so many who have lived on the land, he could measure those distances without the aid of any tool but his innate knowledge of the territory via eye and foot, a legacy that comes with 100 years of farming and ranching. His math was an intimate math, a cellular understanding of the living things surrounding him. I have no doubt he could lift any of his grandchildren and estimate their weight within a few ounces.
When Kathy spoke of being blessed she referred to the fact that her and her husband lived on land alongside Gordon and Steva. I try to imagine what it would have been like for me to have had my grandparents just over the fence. There is a strength in standing flanked by the elders on one side and the wide-eyed new blood on the other. And while, no doubt, every young person at one point feels the urge to “get out of Dodge”, they know where to go when life gets messy. Having never married nor had children, I watch these huge, extended, and ever-expanding rural families with a sense of awe and respect. Mine is a huge family, and, like Kathy, I have felt blessed by them. But they are not all nearby, and as we get older, I realize there is no one who will be carrying my story forward. (Which is one reason why I write them.)
I was visiting with Ervin when I heard about Gordon’s passing. Angie, the school principle in charge of calling the village for food for the reception, called Ervin for a jar of pickles. The men usually bring pickles, the women, sandwiches. I waited to be called. I wanted to be called. When mom was still alive we would be called to sing at the funerals, but they have their own tradition here, and I knew, especially at Gordon’s funeral, the Grant family would perform the country spirituals as a family, as I once did with my own siblings and mom.
Eventually I called Angie and offered food and help. I brought my sandwiches to the hall. Turned out that egg was the sandwich of the day. But there were stacks of tuna, salmon and ham and cheese as well. And they kept arriving, along with sweets: cakes, cookies, muffins and the old reliable comfort food of every prairie occasion: squares. All morning, women in their best winter coats and shoes and men in their cowboy hats and dress pants came and left in a steady stream, dropping off food on their way to the church.
Fr. Joe’s homily was longer than the usual nine minutes. But his congregation was bigger. No doubt there were those itching to get the service over quickly. I’m not always in the mood for church, but lately it seems to give me a chance to slow down, get present, count my own blessings. I don’t know why a 20-minute homily, when not filled with shaming or fundamentalist fire and brimstone, should be any more irritating than a half-hour of television packed with the latest petty squabble considered justification for contempt.
“Let’s talk about this mystery of death,” began Fr. Joe. “OK. Imagine when Gordon was just a few hours before he was born and imagine that you could talk to Gordon. He has been living in the womb for quite a few months, and was quite comfortable there, its whole environment is geared to him. He lies there with his eyes shut and his fists tight–” and here Fr. Joe digresses, in his inimitable fashion – “hmmm, you know, we die with hands laying open – there is a symbolism there… Okan, anyway – you say hey Gordon – all you know is darkness, the gurgle of your mothers stomach, but what if I can tell you of another life where there are the sounds like the song of birds, and the patter of rain on the tin roof and the laughter of children and the words of love. And colours like the setting sun in the Saskatchewan winter evening, would you like that? And he says: ‘”Oh yeah, I would like that.” Well, it will be yours but first you have to die. And Gordon says, I don’t want to die, but outside his father is outside dancing around, passing out cigars, because he calls it birth.
Then Gordon is on his death bed and an angel comes and tells him: ‘There are colours and sights and sounds so beautiful I cannot describe for you and they will be yours today, but you have to die. But God is dancing in heaven, and passing out cigars and calls it birth.
Everything in the womb is geared for the leaving of the child from the body. Then there is this stage we are in now- our sense tells us that this is all there is. But everything in this stage prepares us for the next stage. Anything in this life that does not allow this third stage to be successful is ‘bad’ and anything that allows us to move to that third stage, is “good”. So what is this difference between “good” and “bad”? Ah, there is only one thing that makes truly human, and it is not what we have acquired- land, another combine, money. There is only one thing that makes us human. It is our relationships.”
Over at the hall I ask Ervin: “Why does it take a death to remind us of what’s truly important?” And I remember what I once heard a recovering alcoholic say: “I’m pretty sure when I’m on my death bed I’m not going to be saying: Man, I’m sure glad I got my BMW detailed last week! No, I’m gonna be asking: did I help others more than I hurt them.” Did I remember to cause someone, like Kathy, to say: “I feel blessed?”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.