December 28 would have been our golden wedding anniversary.
I didn’t expect her to die that day. April 19, 2004.
We both knew she was terminal but I had the hope of a Summer together – and maybe more. Then the hospital called. “Come quick”. I called my eldest daughter at work but before we could get there she was gone.
We never saw my wife’s body. I remember seeing my dead mother and thought at the time there was no point. My girls and I agreed we would remember her as she was. We went to the neighborhood funeral home, picked out a casket and made the necessary “arrangements”. My eldest daughter picked out mom’s finest clothes and most expensive shoes (she was a shoe freak) in which to be cremated. A female Methodist minister conducted a short service after two days of viewing before we all said our goodbys.
Hundreds came to the funeral home to be with us. Family, friends, her girlfriends from high school traveling from as far as Virginia, colleagues and bankers, future in laws of my youngest, check out ladies from the local supermarket. We had a gallery of pictures of her during happy moments of her life.
I had her ashes placed in a bronze box. My daughter wanted a small bronze cube filled with ashes which she would keep with her forever.
Now what to do with the rest of life. Oh yeah..Life goes on. Long after the thrill of livin is gone.
I was 61 and retired four months. I thought about moving to a new place; a new home for a new start. It was important to me that my girls know dad was able to take care of himself.
We decided on Florida to be near family. We began throwing things away. Cleaning out closets. Giving away the bedroom we had slept and loved in for forty years. Some things I kept. I still have her ratty old robe in my walk-in. It still smells of her.
We took what we wanted and discarded the rest. The movers came and then we got in our cars with one cat and a bronze box and headed South to our new lives.
Both girls married, One went to work. One went to law school. then to work. My cat passed last March..
After a year of having the bronze box on my bedroom dresser we decided it needed a permanent place. Family members had no place to visit their sister. We decided on a glass niche at the local cemetery in a room called the “library”. It is a quiet mahogany paneled place where you can sit on a leather sofa or chair and be alone with your thoughts. I can sit there and see the bronze box with a small framed photo of the two of us taken at a Coney Island photo booth.
On what would have been her 60th birthday we placed her ashes in the niche after a short service. I spoke these words to our family over the bronze box.
“How painful the words of John Greenleaf Whittier:
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'”
This might have been a happy day. What might have been Joann’s raucus 60th birthday party. On her last birthday with us two years ago, our daughters and I were already making our plans. Lots of over the hill gags, an AARP membership, a senior citizen discount card, the latest age spot removal cream…perhaps a shawl; a gathering of family and friends.
Joann, of course, was already laughingly saying not to plan anything because she was having none of it. There was no way we were going to get her out to any surprise party. She was staying home that day. She would not dress. She didn’t want anything. “So don’t plan it because I won’t be there!”
Men and women make plans….and the gods laugh at us.
Instead of a happy birthday celebration today, we are gathered together to place Joann’s mortal remains in a final resting place.
It is fitting that she is close to Nana and Poppa. She is physically closer to them now than she was in the last 25 years. Although separated by the miles, she never missed calling every Saturday until Poppa passed away and then calling Nana until one day she realized it wouldn’t matter much if she skipped a Saturday now and then. She called even though it depressed her to know the essence of her mother was slipping away.
She loved her family – her sister and brothers, nieces and nephews and of course, her girls.
One of our more observant friends in North Carolina called Joann a closet intellectual when she caught her listening to an album of Elizabethan music. Joann’s knowledge of art, music theater and popular culture was much greater than she ever let on. Her taste in music was, to say the least, eclectic. To this day I cannot listen to Antonio Carlos Joabim’s Brazilian albums that she loved so much.
Her collection of Christmas music ranged from popular to medieval Spanish, Italian and French. She loved to visit the art galleries when in Las Vegas because they weren’t crowded. She stood in silence studying a carved set of rosary beads carried by Henry 8th of England and the uniform worn by Czar Nicholas 2nd at his coronation. She passed that quiet love of art, music and theater to her children.
She made friends easily because she was genuine and always herself.
A grad student at Wake Forest University was working at the bank in Charlotte during the summer and later full time. She was a young girl from Massachusetts in North Carolina during the 1970’s – she was there because the scholarship money was good. Otherwise she didn’t have much to spend and she lived alone in a small apartment.
Joann invited her to the house during the July 4th holiday. Our grad student never forgot the barbecued steak – “You fed me when I was hungry” she would later quip. She never forgot the kindness. Later she worked at the bank in Rhode Island and my girls got to know her as the “bagel lady” for always bringing fine bagels when she visited. Joann and I went to her wedding.
A single act of kindness made a friend for life. Joann was like that. Checkout girls from the grocery came to her funeral. When Michael died, she anonymously gave his virtually new clothes and his wheelchair to a single mom with a Michael of her own. I still have the letter from the young woman which was passed back to Joann through the school. That young woman realized that those gifts meant that someone had noticed her trials and cared enough to think of her in the hour of our sorrow.
Joann knew what was important and what was not. On our 30th anniversary in 1993 just before I left for London, she gave me a bottle of sand for an hour glass asking only for “more time”.
When I forgot what was important I need only look at a snow globe on my desk which she gave me. It contained two geese on an icy pond. Engraved around the base was a quotation from the “Meditations” of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius – “Remember this – it takes very little to make a happy life”
Joann’s remains will be placed in a quiet room in this building; a place where, when one of us feels the need, we can sit and be with her. In her niche will be a picture of her and I – the way we were in 1963.
As the years go by, we too will pass away and there will be fewer visitors until in the end no one living will remember her. The room will be quiet and the decades will pass. The occasional stranger will walk by and see the name and our picture just as we do when we come to these places and see the names of others.
As we are, she once was. As she is, so we will be.
Joann was not much for religious services. I think she gave up on prayers when, too many times, her prayers were not answered. Perhaps no one was listening. Perhaps the answer was “no”.
She prayed for Danny, who would have been 32 today. She prayed for Michael. She prayed for others. Then she prayed no more. She continued however to live a life of quiet virtue – always compassionate and always kind to others.
So let us take a moment of silence to reflect on our Joann, the daughter, the sister, the aunt, the mother, and the love of my life – the girl I was so excited to take to the senior prom all those years ago.
Let us, her family. carry her ashes to her final place.
The door of the niche will be closed – the next time it is opened it will be opened for me.”
On Saturday I will visit my girl and leave her a note as I always do. “Wait here for me. I will join you in the blink of an eye”