Today I attended my great-grandmother’s wake. We weren’t particularly close, not in the last few years at least. I was there because I thought it is important to show that the time we did spend together meant something to me, and I’d like to think that it meant something to her as well.
It’s weird to see people you’ve never met cry at your relative’s wake. It makes you feel like you ought to know them, and that’s probably true. The faces of cousins once-removed, great-aunts, people who are vaguely related to you wash over you as you struggle to remember names, or why they know yours, and you feel guilty for not spending more time with your family, guilty for moving so far away, guilty for never visiting.
My great grandmother lived to be 98, and she was mentally present until the very end. The last three years of her life she spent at a nursing home as doing household chores became ever more difficult. Apparently my great-grandmother and the pastor met at a nursing home service, at least that’s what the pastor said in her eulogy. She said a bunch of things that were not quite accurate when she recounted my great grandmother’s life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she only mentioned that to create an emotional connection.
The pastor tells the congregation how much my great-grandmother enjoyed visits from her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lists my name with all the others’. I cringe. The last time I saw her was three years ago, shortly before she moved into the nursing home. I feel like a bad relative again, and I am, at least by the standards of the rural community I come from. You don’t move so damn far away, and if you do, you come to visit. The only moment where I have to wrestle with tears is when the pastor says my name, and that my great-grandmother loved seeing me so much.
I have a cold, but I haven’t had a coughing fit all day. Of course as soon as the pastor speaks, tells everyone about my deceased relative, recounting the important moments of her life as if she was reading from a history book, talking about a Great Person, my throat starts to itch. Soon I fight the urge to cough until my eyes feel like they might pop and my throat wants to explode. I finally give in: I cough, I cough again, and then again. It doesn’t stop until the sermon is over, until the organ starts playing, until it doesn’t matter anymore. Isn’t it always like that?
I didn’t even know she was religious. On paper everyone is Christian here, but few actually go to church. I wonder if she always did, or if it was one of the things she found in the nursing home. I wouldn’t know. I never visited. Never.
All of us could be better, as lovers, friends, relatives, as people. It’s okay to feel guilty. It’s not okay to let my guilt tell me how to live my life, not when it’s unreasonable.
I’ll have time to talk to her now, to remember her, to sit down with my memory of her, and to let her speak to me until my heart is full. I don’t know whether I’m speaking to her or to myself, and I suppose I’ll never find out, and in the end maybe it doesn’t matter.