Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Saving Smile

Lilly's service was this past Wednesday, at a chapel in Fort Saskatchewan. A lot of her blood relatives are out Montreal way, but her family of choice, her friends and co-workers, made up the difference, so the little building ended up packed to capacity with those wishing to pay their respects.

A number of my colleagues were in the parking lot when I pulled up, and as I emerged from my station wagon, one of them was saying that Lilly's daughter, Madison, wasn't taking things very well.  This is not entirely unexpected; after all, how well can a ten-year-old be expected to take the loss of her mother?

"Better to know that now than be surprised by it inside," I suggested to mute nods of agreement.

With the service not starting for another hour, some of us wandered off for lunch.  Ellen, Leanne and I arrived back at about quarter-to and proceeded into the chapel.  An attendant quietly explained that the viewing was in the room directly ahead of us, and that the service would be in the chapel to our left.  I proceeded ahead while I still had a little nerve and momentum up; I've no idea if anyone followed me.

Lilly looked like herself, mostly.  Her complexion was a little off, but that may have been the lighting.  The biggest difference was the serenity in her expression; I'd never seen her look that way in life.  Happy, yes; joyful, sure; concerned, discerning, relaxed?  Yes, yes, yes.  But never content.  Not so long as something was left unexplored or unresolved; some improvement, some insight, some discovery, whether professional or personal.  Her peaceful expression seemed almost unnatural, but still comforting, suggesting a person at peace, a woman at rest.

She was not alone in the coffin; her daughter had tucked a floppy, long eared toy rabbit alongside her, as well as a picture she had drawn.  I can't recall it precisely, but I think it was a recollection of happier times; the only detail I can remember with surety was the word "Mommy" in bright red crayon.  Things got a little blurry after that.

The service would not be for another 15 minutes, but not knowing where else to go, I made my way into the chapel, where a number of my colleagues already sat.  Usually I fidget terribly in quiet situations like this, reading anything within reach: brochures, hymnals, what have you, but I simply sat and reflected, and watched Lilly's husband thank other friends and Lilly's brother for coming, while Madison clung to his side.  Looking at her, I thought she was doing as well as any of the rest of us, and tried to think how I would have been if I'd been confronted with a similar tragedy at the same age.  I abandoned that line of thought fairly quickly.

The service was brief and somewhat impersonal; there was no eulogy and very little said about Lilly specifically.  Instead, the priest (at least, I believe it was a priest, he my have been a minister) spoke about the soul being ageless, and that Lilly's would be as unsullied and eternal as that of a baby.  There was a responsive 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd..."), a couple of ecumenical prayers, and it was over.

In truth, I was kind of glad the service was not more personal; I'd wept a fair bit already on Monday, but not as much as I could have.  They were tears like the water trickling between the fingers of a man holding very wet clay, and who can't help but let some moisture escape.  I had no desire to see those hands open wide, for fear they might not close again the same way afterwards.  The all-encompassing service let me maintain a level of detachment, so a part of me was actually grateful

Afterwards, we lined up to pay our respects to Clifton and Madison in the little lounge.  I shook Clifton's hand and told him I was very sorry for his troubles, and how much his wife would be missed in our lives, both professionally and personally.  At least, that is what I tried to say; my words came out in heap, but Clifton smiled, and I think he understood.

Madison sat on a chair beside him, and as I stepped away to allow the next mourner better access to Cliff, I reached down and shook Madison's hand.  What can you possibly tell a child that age who has lost her mother?  The only thing more fearful than saying the wrong thing was saying nothing at all.

"You are going to hear some awesome things about your mom from an awful lot of people," I said to her, "and it is important that you believe every one of them.  Lilly was a very special lady, and she is really going to be missed."

She lifted her head to look at me, and I immediately wished I had instead mouthed a condolence and moved on; if I made her cry, how long would her reddened eyes haunt my dreams?

But she looked at me, and smiled, and said, "Thank you so much."

She smiled, and it felt like a little miracle.

How does someone in that situation have any smiles left?  How do they have one that they can spare for a weeping stranger?

What power in the universe gives a ten-year-old, grief-stricken girl who has had something so important yanked away from her the kind of grace to give something back?  To give anything back?

I squeezed her hand again and pushed the corners of my mouth upwards; my face didn't cramp or fall apart.  "I've written a letter that you will get, along with some other stuff from the people your mom worked with," I told her.  "I hope you take a moment to read it, when you're ready."  She nodded, still smiling, and I let her hand go, and went to sign the registry.

Some former co-workers had come to pay their respects, and I embraced them in turn.  Wiping my eyes, I talked about how we had first heard of Lilly's passing, our disbelief, our sorrow, and how good it had been that we were all together.  I told them how glad I was they had come.

Some of us gathered outside the chapel before departing; we talked about the service, and an Ismaili colleague said she felt it was very inclusive, which I was grateful for.  We chatted, and sighed, and even laughed a little before heading home.

I decided not to take the Yellowhead home, opting instead for Highway 37, driving through dry farmlands  with little traffic and seeing hawks soaring above the fields. My thoughts kept turning back to Madison's smile, and how grief is this terrible awkward period between 'everything is fine' and 'well, life goes on'.  It knows no other duration or boundaries, and there is no way of predicting how long it will stay in your life, but there are waypoints, signposts that tell you that you're heading in the right direction, and that life does go on, and the hurt will diminish, even if you can't believe that right now.  That smile, a shy, quiet smile that would not turn your head if you saw it in a picture, was that kind of sign, and best of all, I could see her mom behind it.

 * * * * * * *

Here is the letter I wrote to Madison:

Dear Madison,

You don’t know me, but my name is Stephen, and I worked with your mom.  I am writing this on the day that we heard about how she passed away on the weekend.   I wanted to let you know that everyone who worked with your mom is very sorry and very sad to hear about it.  Lilly was a very special lady and we are all going to miss her very much.

This is probably a much harder letter for you to read than it is for me to write (and it is very hard for me to write), but I hope you hang on to it, even if you don’t feel like reading it right now.  Maybe you can pull it out later on, if you want to see how your mom affected the people she worked with.

Your mom was an awesome lady; you’re going to hear that from a lot of people, and you should believe it.  She was a ball of energy that swept through a place like a smiling windstorm and even if you didn’t get swept up and dragged along behind her, you probably wouldn’t be the same afterwards.  When she sawsomething that could be done better, she didn’t rest until it was improved, or she had checked every possible option.

The most important thing in your mom’s life was people.  Not just the people she loved, like you and your dad, but also the people she worked with, like me.  She would always ask how my own little girls were doing (they are 9 and 12), and what sort of things we did together on the weekend.  And not just me, but everyone she worked with.  Your mom was one of the most caring people I have ever known.

We could always count on your mom to stand up for us if someone was not nice to us; she reminded me of a mother grizzly defending her cubs.  I bet she was the same way with you.

The thing I liked the most about your mom (and there was a lot to like!) was the way she balanced things.  For instance, she took her work seriously, but it was also important to her that we all enjoy ourselves at work too.  I’ve heard it said that it is important to take your work seriously, but just as important to not take yourself seriously, and your mom did that really well.

Your mom cared about other people so much, she even cared about people she didn’t know or hadn’t met yet; like the people who call our offices every day looking for help or advice.  She felt very strongly that they should be treated with kindness and respect, and not made to wait too long to get what they needed.

I know you loved your mom a lot, and you are going to miss her, and I hope you understand that all of us here loved her and are going to miss her too.  We are thinking a lot about you and your dad dealing with this terrible loss, and hope you will reach out to us if there is ever anything we can do to help.


Stephen Fitzpatrick

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