March 5, 2014

When Death Becomes A Near-Delete

Yesterday I received an email informing me that a family friend had passed. Elmer was a quiet old fellow, who blended easily into the background of most social gatherings. Unless you coaxed him out with a question or two, he seemed quite content to enjoy the babble of conversation flowing around the room. He always had a slight, apologetic smile on his face, as if grateful for having a place in the universe and being allowed to wake up each day with new purpose.

I admit I didn't know the man well - our family is big and boisterous, and unless you're prepared for verbal fencing, it's hard to get a word in over the shouts of laughter, incessant teasing, and unfinished sentences. On the few dozen occasions when Elmer joined us, he shuffled in, sat down politely and talked softly when engaged in conversation. He always had a slight smile on his face, ready to erupt into a hoot of laughter at someone's joke.

I remember being surprised when, one year, he presented us with fresh white pillowcases as gifts, each one carefully and expertly embroidered with our first names dancing on an edge of linen in colorful silk threads. A man who enjoyed embroidering? This was rare. And one with such generosity of spirit, who felt we were deserving of the effort! I thought of him sitting for hour after hour, working on these lovely crafts, perhaps thinking of our appreciation - but most likely, just happy to have some way to put a smile on our faces.

The email made me sad. I knew he had been ill, and I've reached an age when death does not alarm me so much as remind me of our collective destiny. What made me even sadder, though, was that Elmer was disappearing in death as he had in life - quietly, politely, and with no fanfare. There would be no ceremony, no gathering of the small group of people left behind. In terms of family, only one niece remains. His live-in partner is over 90, no doubt devastated by his loss and overwhelmed by the logistics of his death.

Life is precious. We have a short time to make an impact on the people we meet in life, and with some nine billion people on the planet, a hard time making a difference. Yet each person's journey has so many fascinating stories of losses and gains, ups and downs, defeats and victories... they are all an important part of the big picture.

When I went to delete the email, it just felt wrong. There's no other way to put it. I guess before email this would have been a phone call. I guess if there had been a ceremony, I might have attended to pass on my condolences and tell his niece my impressions. I would have been able to talk to other people who knew him, and perhaps get to know him even better in death than in life. It happens.

The death of a passing acquaintance announced in an email, though, deserves no less respect than one announced on the front page or in an engraved invitation. Every life is worth remembering. And so I decided to print out the email and tuck it into the pillowcase that Elmer gave me over 20 years ago, stored now in a drawer. R.I.P, Elmer.

1 comment:

  1. You brought a tear to my eye, what a lovely story Lorrie. I so enjoyed reading this. I hope the pillowcase gets passed down to someone who will carry the story on for many years.

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