I suspect that most of us will agree that 2016 has been a pretty terrible and terrifying year. And with two months and a fairly important Presidential election to come there is still plenty of time for more tragedy. I have a feeling that things are going to get worse before they get even worse. And I am an optimist.
Not only have we lost a disproportionate amount of much-loved celebrities (and yet held on seemingly to all the much-loathed ones) and the world’s oldest panda, personally-speaking it’s been a bit of a bleak year.
Last week was the funeral of my wife’s grandmother, Joy, a clever and slyly humorous lady who I’ve had the good fortune to know for the last nine of her ninety-three years. Each Christmas she would read us a long poem about how many days it took to deal with the turkey leftovers. It was as much a dire prediction as it was a joke.
Along with my own formidable grandmother Doris, she provided the middle names for my daughter (and my wife is also able to joke, “Joy is my middle name”) and was the level-headed matriarch of her family and we’re all going to miss her very much.
Funerals are never an enjoyable experience, but I’ve noticed the burden increases the more of them that you go to. Because inevitably each new one reminds you of the others you have attended in the past and you end up grieving (or at least reminiscing) not just for the recently departed but all those you have lost over the years. There are smiles to be had. I reminded my wife of how my dad had nearly killed us all at my grandma’s funeral by driving the car on the wrong side of the road as a huge lorry came round a blind corner. We laughed at our near miss! Comedy and tragedy are often separated by a split-second of good or bad luck.
Another time when we were singing a sombre and not entirely familiar hymn, one mourner was singing loudly and drowning out the backing tape, so everyone in the congregation became badly out of sync and it was like we were involved in a tuneless round. My sister and I started giggling and when you’re in a situation when you’re not meant to be giggling, it is even harder to stop giggling. Suppressed laughter is somehow the best kind.
It’s a positive thing really, that those we have lost are never out of our thoughts and that each fallen friend and relative makes us think of those that went before. But each one is another weight added to the growing chain around our hearts.
The family did a brilliant job of commemoration, choosing to lead the service themselves, rather than have someone who never knew Joy throwing out clichés and aphorisms. She had a full and caring life and endured hardships in her youth that she had not allowed to break her spirit.
My wife, unsurprisingly, became emotional as she gave her own eulogy to the grandmother who had baked for her, played games with her and fastidiously corrected her grammar with red pen on every holiday letter. As tears fell she needed a second to compose herself and my 20-month-old daughter, seeing her distress, grabbed a bottle of water from her mum’s bag and toddled over to give it to her. It was the most remarkable and magical thing, simultaneously heart-melting and heart-breaking, but a testament to the continuation of the spirit of the woman we were there to mourn.
My daughter does not get this instinctive empathy from me, but on her return to her seat, she saw everyone looking at her and they gave her some applause and she gave a look of supreme satisfaction at being the centre of attention. So she’s definitely mine.
Her original action had been selfless and kind, but more importantly she stole the show and there is no doubt that that will be the memory that we share the next time we are gathered to remember whoever goes next….
I hope my daughter can live up to the two women who gave her her middle names. Early signs are that she’s got a good shot.