Smile and Have a Party – I’ve had a Wonderful Life

I have written many blogs about weddings.

But not today.

Today I am going to write about funerals.

Not because I am feeling macabre or sad but because  I have recently realised the hope that can grow from saying goodbye.

In the last few weeks I have attended 2 funerals: Sheila’s, someone who has lived on our road for as long as most of us can remember, and my uncle’s.

At 92 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, the death of my uncle was truly merciful.  For a long time he had been suffering and confused.

Tended devotedly by my aunt, we watched as day by day the person who had survived travelling to England on the Kindertransport, created a life in an alien country and become a pillar of his local Synagogue, gradually disappeared.

His days became a tangled, darkening mass of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety, his view limited to the window from his bed in the living room. The only way he could be moved was to be hoisted, like a lump of meat, into a chair by one of his many daily carers.  .  In life he was a strong-willed, dignified, private man – his slow death stole all that he valued from him.

His funeral was as he would have wished it to be, the age-old Hebrew words building a scaffold of tradition that brings comfort and predictability to a world that must change when it is left by someone we love.

It is the unfillable spaces left behind that makes death so hard to bear.

The stillness where there was once motion.

The quiet where there was once noise.

The lacking where there was once completeness.

And that is how it feels in the house at the end of our road, Sheila’s house.

Sheila was the life and soul of our street.

Famous for grabbing the microphone at our first street party to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee and then getting the words to God Save the Queen wrong, she seemed to dance her way through life.

Always there with a smile, never happier than when she was driving her famous green camper van down our road, her grandchildren constantly by her side, laughter never far from her eyes..everyone knew Sheila.

So when we heard that she had died suddenly, the sense of loss sent waves of grief and sadness through our homes and hearts.

She was taken too soon, with so much left to give, unlike my uncle, her death wasn’t slow but sudden and unexpected.

Yet even in her death she wouldn’t let us stop living.

The morning of her funeral was hot and sunny, the world awash with the colours that come with the first warm days of Spring.

The crematorium was overflowing,

It turns out Sheila was not only loved by her family and all the people in her street, she was loved by everyone who had ever met her.

No one wore black.

We were determined that her goodbye would be a colourful one. And from the moment the familiar green camper van turned the corner into the crematorium, led by a brass band, and with the coffin made out of her late husband’s canoe in the back,  we knew it would be.

If Sheila had been there, she would have been marching with the band.

 

If Sheila had been there, she would have danced through the service.

If Sheila had been there, she would have told us to stop crying.

The eukalele group she belonged to played “You are my Sunshine.”  The local community choir she belonged to sang out to “When the Saints,” and the sun just kept on shining.

Through laughter and tears her daughter spoke of the days and years and holidays and love they had shared. ” Every year for the 40 years of their marriage, for her birthday and Christmas, my dad, John would make her a wooden toy with moving parts, and always he would carve onto it ” J loves S.”

That seems like one of the sweetest love stories.

That seems like true love.

That seems like a marriage to envy.

Left behind with her will, Sheila had written by hand:

“Smile and have a party. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

So that’s what everyone did.  People queued to write a goodbye message on her coffin and left to party the rest of the day away.

People always do what Sheila says.

It is hard to believe that a funeral could give us hope.  But somehow it did.

We, each of us, left, with the warmth of a smile drying our tears.

Sheila seemed to squeeze joy from every drop of  life.

Whatever the obstacles, she overcame them, whatever  mountain she had to climb, she sang her way to the top and relished the view from the summit.

In life, Sheila never looked backwards. ” No regrets,” that’s what she told her son and daughter.

No regrets…in these strange, uncertain times it is hard to turn towards tomorrow without fear.

But the traditions that are important to us, whatever they are, the values that help us to do what we believe is right… they cannot be so easily torn asunder.

As I stood in the Jewish cemetery watching the men of the family throwing the first sods of earth onto my uncle’s coffin, as I watched Sheila’s campervan driving past me at the crematorium, I could feel the threads of a complicated, multi-coloured web that joins together random lives being spun.

It is a web of hope because however great our differences, whatever our beliefs or traditions, what binds us together, what makes us human, is always greater than what divides us.

The lives of Sheila and my uncle have touched each other in death.

In saying goodbye, what I have gained from knowing them both has become intertwined.

I take much from them:  The strength to continue against the odds, to start your life anew,  the understanding that traditions can stop our world from crumbling, the capacity to love unconditionally,  to seize the day, to live every moment to its full, to know that tomorrow always has the potential to be better than today.

I’m not sure what it is I believe in… hope – maybe, love- perhaps, that the world could be a brighter, kinder place – definitely.

But whatever it is, I know that I am not going to let fear stop me from believing.it.

No blade of terrorism will be sharp enough to cut through the multi-coloured web of hope that binds us together.

We are all of us a product of our confusing past, but it is the future that will sustain us and like Sheila, I will turn towards tomorrow with a smile ( and a quick drive down the road in our camper van ).

And when I sit in our garden at night, staring at the star sprinkled sky, there is something strangely comforting in knowing that somewhere out there,  Sheila is  persuading my Jewish uncle to smile and have a party before the Friday night prayers.

 

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