Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Thoughts Following the Funeral of a Friend Today: The Rare Gift of Being There for Others

I'm sorry to be slow to blog today and to respond to comments, folks. Today was the funeral of a friend and neighbor of ours, who died suddenly last week. I've been rather dreading it, because I knew it would force me to face the fact that she is, indeed, gone — and because I feel so deeply sorry for her husband that I wasn't sure how I'd be able to offer my condolences to him without adding to his misery by breaking down myself.

The church was packed to overflowing, as it should have been, given how many lives our friend had touched for many years as an art teacher in an elementary school — an artist who made memorable contributions, too, by researching, organizing, and creating exhibits of the art produced by Japanese citizens kept in prison camps in Arkansas during World War II, as well as by discovering the work of a self-taught artist, an African-American janitor, and working with great success to place his art in a national spotlight. I particularly liked the many reminders that it was my friend's teaching that made her life so memorable, that it was her excellent teaching for which she deserved to be eulogized and celebrated.

It was something of a surprise to find President Clinton delivering the eulogy. What he had to say and how he said it reminded me all over again of what a mesmerizing orator he is, someone who manages to appear to be speaking quite directly to every person in a room. 

I loved how he zeroed in our our friend's ability to be there, in any encounter you had with her. He framed this in a way that subtly commented on the political scene in the U.S. today, in which so many people claim to be speaking for a heritage, a past, that has dibs on their souls in a way that prevents them from building a future with the rest of us, and from being present here and now to the rest of us.

As he said, having grown up in south Arkansas with our friend and her husband, he knows full well the claims that the past makes on all of us, as he knows full well, too, the truth of Faulkner's observation that the past is never past. But as he also pointed out, the past can place its dead hands on us and trouble us as we seek to engage the world in which we live today, and the extraordinary gift of our friend was to be right there, totally present, in her encounters with every person who had the good fortune to interact with her.

As an artist, she saw, President Clinton noted. She was, as he said, truly unusual in her ability to see in a very accurate and comprehensive way the people around her — a rare gift that too few of us have. And something I, for one, will sorely miss now that my friend is gone.

The passage from Robert McCammon's A Boy's Life is one that my friend's husband, her childhood sweetheart who went on to marry and make a life with her, read at the funeral. He told us that when she first read the passage, she (quite typically) told him he needed to read this book. He responded that he'd certainly put it on his list, and then proceeded to rearrange his sock drawer and switch the labels on the cans in the kitchen cabinet.

No, I mean now. You need to read this now, she replied. And he did. 

And hasn't ever forgotten the passage, because it so perfectly encapsulates his wife's approach to life, her ability to give her entire attention to whoever happened to be with her at the moment, her ability to see, and, above all, her deep appreciation for the artistic creations of countless youngsters in which she never failed to see amazing beauty and potential. One of my little cousins had the great good fortune to have been taught by this remarkable woman, and found the experience life-changing.

So: a mix this very hot summer afternoon of deep sadness and gratitude for the life of a rare individual who left us too soon, who gave us a chance both to cry and to laugh at her funeral, since how could someone not make a Donald Trump joke in remembering such a politically engaged progresive activist, and how could it not be noted that her husband has long come home every afternoon to turn on CNN and shout oaths at Republicans while she worked at the kitchen table with her pieces of cardboard, feathers, glitter, bottle caps, stones and found objects, tirelessly gathering materials for her beloved students to make art with?

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