Saturday, January 23, 2010

reflections on last Saturday's memorial

It's been a week since Mom's memorial service, which is, I suppose, a long enough delay. I've been meaning to write this entry since last Saturday, but haven't felt much desire to do anything, let alone write another post. The memorial marked a crescendo of sorts; the week before it was one long buildup to the ceremony itself. By "ceremony," I suppose I mean both the service and the reception that followed. Each event was, after all, part of a larger, ritualistic whole.

Our family had been to the church for a few hours the previous day (Friday, January 15) to consult with Pastor Jeri and Pastor Kim about the nitty-gritty details of the ceremony to come. Quite unsurprisingly, we discovered that we were in the best of hands: Jeri was ready to finalize and print out the church bulletins, and ladies were already bustling about the Christian Education Building, setting up the reception area. There was little to do on Friday but set up easels, position Mom's picture at the front of the sanctuary, drop the guest ledger and 3-ring binder in their respective places, and make sure the digital projector was working. My PowerPoint slide show wasn't finished on Friday afternoon; I would end up spending the entire night working on it. I had been laboring over it all week, but in accordance with Murphy's Law, work managed to pile up at the very end, despite the head start. In such cases, when I face a massive time crunch, sleep is the first thing to go. That's been true for me since college.

On Saturday, I arrived at church around 8:30AM after only an hour and a half of sleep. The slide show was finished, but I had sacrificed several dozen pictures from both the 1990s and the 2000s. Some of those pictures had been given to us by different friends-- folks who had probably hoped to see their contributions displayed in some form or other. Despite the omissions, quite a few of the digital pictures did make it into the slide presentation, but none were shown on the easels. Still, the slide show chapter devoted to the 1990s was severely truncated. I simply didn't have time to finish.

Pastor Jeri had already set up her computer for my use in the CE Building. All I had to do was plug in my thumb drive, access the slide show, then start it running. I had set the show to change pictures at five-second intervals, and had also programmed the entire sequence to loop over and over again. With well over 300 pictures in the tribute, the slide show was about 30 minutes long. I stood for a few minutes and watched images of Mom from the 1960s and 70s; when the show rolled into the 1980s, I left the CE Building and went back to the sanctuary, where there wasn't much for me to do.

Several other folks arrived early: my father and brothers, my Texan relatives, Mrs. Kopf-Perry and her two children, and Sean's friend William McDaniel, who was to play piano during the service. Mrs. Kopf-Perry performed the mike check while I moved to the back of the sanctuary, near the narthex; she sounded loud and clear to me. I hugged my cousins and uncle and several aunts; most of them had flown in from Texas on Friday, and our family, because we were so busy, hadn't even had the chance to see them when they arrived. At first, despite the huge number of empty pews, no one would sit down, but eventually people wandered forward and took their seats in the second and third rows, which had been reserved for family.

Time seemed, somehow, both to crawl and rush simultaneously: molasses and water. It wasn't long before the organist was up in the balcony, playing the prelude while people filed into the church. I'm not the type to constantly turn around to see who's there, but because I've been a member of this church since the fifth grade, I was conscious of the building's dimensions and acoustics, and could feel the sanctuary filling behind me while the clergy took their places in front of me. By 10AM, the church was nearly full.

The organist came down to the front and gave us an excellent rendition of two of the pieces we had chosen: "This is My Father's World" and "Clair de Lune." Music was, I think, one of the most memorable aspects of Mom's service.

Mom's service. The thought was still a strange one, even though I knew she was dead. All this was for Mom. There was her picture on the altar; there was her image, printed on every church bulletin. There were her friends and relatives-- all the people who loved her. You might counter that funerals are for the living; I agree, but such ceremonies have the dead as their reason for being. Mom's memorial. Mentally, I was shaking my head, even as the service rolled on.

The eulogies given by Mrs. Kopf-Perry, Mrs. Burns, and Mrs. Burns's daughter Beth, were touching tributes to my mother. All three speakers emphasized Mom's caring nature, her concern for others, and her kindness.

Then it was up to us guys-- three of us, not four-- to speak. Sean had already chosen to speak through his music, and he did so brilliantly throughout the service. The Babadjanian piece was a trio for piano, violin, and cello; we're thankful not just to Sean and his friend William, but also to Regino Madrid, who did a masterful job on violin. Later in the service, the Rachmaninoff piece was played only by Sean and William. It, too, was just the sort of music that Mom had loved.

I was the first family member to stand at the lectern. The walk up to the stage felt more as if I were floating; the service had taken on a surreal cast, not because I was nervous, but because-- after nine months of telling everyone around me to be realistic-- part of me still couldn't accept that I was about to deliver a eulogy for Mom. I managed to get through my notes without too much trouble, but I think I went way overtime: the original plan had been for me to speak only five minutes.

David went next. I remember being curious about what he would say, since none of us had shared our eulogy ideas with anyone else in the family. As it turned out, David delivered a eulogy that was both touching and humorous; it was a fitting tribute to Mom. Dad came next, and he, too, uttered words of love and laughter. I don't know how funerary speeches go in other cultures; I don't know whether levity is kosher outside of the modern Western context, but personally, I was glad that we three guys were each able to evoke our love for Mom in ways that provoked a smile and a chuckle. None of it was meant in disrespect. And Sean's music was the wordless paean that capped it all off.

I was thankful for Pastor Jeri's sermon, which emphasized familial love-- a theme that resonates with all human beings, but which would have caught the attention of the Koreans in attendance, for they all would have been thinking about the concept of hyo (Chn. hsiao, filial piety), a Chinese term whose meaning, in the Confucian context, refers to the bonds of love and duty that link the generations. I don't know whether people realize how much Jeri, in addition to her other duties, suffered alongside us, often coming at least once a week to see Mom wherever she was-- at home, in the ER, in the ICU. This was a feat of devotion and commitment unmatched by almost anyone else. As far as I'm concerned, Jeri can come in and out of our house whenever she likes, even if it's just to crash on our couch or in a spare bed for a few minutes before she moves on to the next thing on her never-ending to-do list. I can say, about many of the people who came to see Mom, that our family can never pay them back for their kindness, but this goes doubly for Pastor Jeri.

The service ended with "Arirang"-- surprise, surprise. But the music, however stereotypically Korean it might be, felt as right as breathing in this context. Our family crossed the distance between the sanctuary and the CE Building in an uneven line; some of us hung back while others of us marched right on over. We saw the round and rectangular tables, all now laden with food, and we took our places in the building's main hall, in front of the stage, waiting for the congregation to file in for the reception.

What followed was a blizzard of handshakes, hugs, and tears. Not my tears, nor those of my father or brothers: we smiled, we greeted, we talked; we ended up hearing the same questions and saying the same things over and over. People congratulated us on a beautiful service, complimented our speaking ability and our composure, asked us what we would be doing next. "Where do you go from here?" wasn't a question I felt ready to answer on that day; even now, a week later, I find it hard to peer into my own future. But I suppose it's natural for people to wonder what the next step is. If the moment of death is a threshold, then of course people want to know what lies on the other side-- not merely for the dead, but for those who survive the dead.

We were all impressed by the sheer number of people who came on Mom's behalf. Not only were Mom's Korean friends in attendance, but also a ton of friends and coworkers from her old job at the National Association of Letter Carriers. People we hadn't seen in years also came to see us, and along with my childhood friends, I had the chance to meet two blogging buddies (one of whom I'd met before-- apologies for not recognizing you right away, Jason!).

I don't know whether Mom would have been proud or mortified. She would never have wanted such fanfare for herself, but she was gregarious enough to enjoy a good party. Whether a memorial reception qualifies as "a good party" is debatable, but I saw folks talking and laughing and eating. Mom would have enjoyed that.

Somehow, our family-- Dad, my brothers, my aunts and my uncle, my cousins, and me-- all got through it. The line took about two hours to peter out, and when it finally did, I allowed myself to turn around and look up at the wall on which the slide show of Mom's life was playing. I watched each moment appear and fade: fleeting glimpses of a beautiful, smiling Mom throughout the decades. And even though my mind knew that existence is marked by impermanence, my heart tugged in a different direction, and keened for Mom. The images weren't her.

I finally cried then, and while the tears were streaming down my cheeks, Dad found me, and for the first time in nine months, we allowed each other a vision of our private pain. When we looked into each other's eyes, we saw the same sad embers burning there, the same desolation radiating from both our hearts. We were Mom's 24/7 caregivers, and now she was gone. Dad cried, too, his face showing more naked anguish than I had ever seen. We had, all of us in the family, experienced an amputation of the soul. My aunt was right: none of this was fair. I have no idea whether anyone saw me and my father gripping each other in a desperate hug; earlier on, many people in the reception line seemed to think that we guys had all "held it together" or "been stoic" during the service. Perhaps we had, but if those people were secretly thinking that we weren't outwardly sad enough, they were wrong. No structure, however large, could contain our grief-- not a church, not the entire world.

But the tears were, in their own small way, therapeutic. The reception was essentially over by 3PM, and a desultory cleanup operation was already under way when I silenced the slide show, collected my thumb drive, and helped folks to package food and recover unused plates, cups, and napkins. I spoke with my relatives a bit, and with my buddy Sam, who kindly hung around with his mother and sister. I can't remember much of what anyone said. Perhaps it's best just to remember the mood, which was one of fellowship and conviviality. A few more hugs, a few more words and waves and bows, and the day was over.

Our thanks go out to the people who came for the memorial service, to those who helped with all the preparation, and to those who helped with the cleanup. We also need to thank the Washington Korean Women's Society for their enormous financial donation to our family-- this being over and above the many visits, food deliveries, cards, and letters we've received from society members (many-- if not most-- of whom are Mom's personal friends), not to mention from everyone else.

My father is busy writing thank-you cards to everyone he can think of. He's a better man than I am; personally, I'm content to leave matters with this public thank-you. Dad's old-school, though, so many of you will be receiving a small card from him in the mail.

I haven't forgotten my promise to link to an online slide show featuring the pictures shown at the memorial. That is, in fact, my very next project: file size reduction and slide show assembly. After that, despite the fact that the house still needs renovation work, Dad and I are going to take time off to do our separate things. Dad says he wants to go to Texas to see our relatives there; I'm planning to find a spot where it's completely silent, and just hang there for a week or two. The quiet might do my troubled heart some good.

PS: To all the people who, during the reception, thanked me for having written this blog, I say: You're welcome. It served the practical purpose of keeping people informed, and also allowed me to vent my frustrations (at least partially; much remains unblogged, but can be found in private emails to various friends). Although I've been extremely disappointed in the number of people who couldn't be bothered to keep up with Mom's news, on January 16 I learned just how many people didn't fit that description. So even as I'm saying "You're welcome," I offer my humble thanks in return to all those dedicated readers-- especially the ones who have stuck with the blog from the beginning.

PPS: Along with the above-promised slide show, I'll be writing an epilogue of sorts. I can't say when that will happen, but when it does, it'll be this blog's final entry. Comments will remain open, though I'll still be vetting them before allowing them to see the light of day (as always, please see the comments policy for details).

A big, massive hug to you all.



Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm sorry that I couldn't have been there, Kevin, for the service sounds lovely. Thank you for posting about it . . . and for all of these posts for the past nine months.

Jeffery Hodges

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Anonymous said...

Hey Kevin, sorry that we couldn't be there for you, but you and your family have always been in our prayers. If you need anything just call, my door is always open. Love as always, Chuck