Memorial Portrait by Nichole Torbitzky
If we lose our ability to mourn, to feel grief at a loss, we loose our ability to value life. Take this time to value Mary’s life by mourning her loss. We do celebrate all that she was, good and funny, true and kind in the act of grieving the loss of all she was to each of us, of all she added to the world, of all she will be unable to add. I might at times, have to ask you to bear with me, as it is not easy to lead the funeral service of one you held so dear, whose loss I feel so keenly.
Mary gave me two strict instructions as we discussed what she wanted to have happen here today. Her first and firm request was that I do not talk about Jesus. She knows I’m a Christian minister and that she wanted me to lead you all today, and she knows that most of you would rather not get a perfectly good funeral mucked-up with all that Jesus stuff. So, after I said, “None at all” and she firmly replied, “None,” I quickly agreed and I assure you there here-to-fore said-person will not be discussed. Rick has been instructed to tackle me if I slip up!
The second instruction she gave me in no uncertain terms is that if I hear anyone say, “God needed her more,” I am to punch that person in the nose. When I quietly objected that I wouldn’t possibly be able to punch anyone in the nose literally, but would try to give them the tongue lashing of their life, she flat out refused to accept it. Instead I was to punch them and then tongue lash them…the opposite order would be acceptable, but skipping the nose and punching part was right out! So, I implore you, please don’t utter this phrase in my presence, or, out of respect for our Mary, I will be forced to punch you in the nose.
Most of you are not surprised to hear that Mary would feel strongly about something. And most of you are probably not surprised to hear that Mary would feel strongly about a horrible piece of theology about God. Even though Mary wasn’t too churchy, didn’t really have anything to do with him-who-shall-not-be-named, Mary loved God. To think that God could be so horrible and so selfish as to willfully take her away from us is a belief about God that she could not support. God doesn’t take people away. God doesn’t cause cancer. Mary believed, and I fully agree, that God is love. And love allows for freedom and choice and therefore the free workings of a sometimes all too painful world. Mary believed that cancer is free to do what cancer does. It is no respector of age, or gender, race, or religion. It doesn’t care if Mary was one of the most brilliant and funny and talented and caring people we ever knew. Mary knew that cancer will do, what cancer will do. God never meddled with her freedom, she expected God do the same even for cancer. Even if it meant that she could fight the good fight and loose.
Maybe it sounds a little like it, but this isn’t an abstract God, some Jedi force that balances the universe. Mary knew that she wasn’t alone. Not only was she surrounded by her friends and family, she was also cherished by God. She believed that we were never promised that life would be easy, but that we were promised that we would never be alone on our journey. She knew that every fiber of her being, every beat of her heart, every breath in her lungs was cherished by God as a mother looks on her sleeping newborn…wondering at every detail, starting at every cough. She knew that God was with her, fighting with her and her doctor, suffering with her, calling her to the novel and the best possible. She loved her life to the very last moment. She lost her hair, the use of her right arm, and a lot of her energy, but cancer could never take away what was best and truest about Mary. She never lost her sense of humor, she never lost her passion. She never lost her wit, her sense of wonder about the world, her ability to care or her love of play.
And when it came to be that cancer will do what cancer does too well, Mary was still not alone and is not now. The God who fought at her side, who marveled at her very being, now takes her in wholly and sustains her perfectly. God mourns her loss with us. This world is just a little less for the loss of our Mary. Even though we knew it was coming, it was too soon. But now she knows…all of the things you wanted to say to her, but never did. In God she knows all of the ways you loved her but never saw, now she sees. In God, all of the beauty and intensity, novelty and good that came out of even the worst moments in her life, are saved, purified and magnified. All the rest, like so much chaff, is burned away into the triviality of nothingness. She knows completely how very much you love her and how much she means to you. She is not lost, but is now perfectly saved, and I believe, waiting and watching until that sweet someday when each of us will know completely too. This is, basically, what Mary believed about what happens after we are gone from this earth. That, she said, or, there is nothing, and then, what do I care? I think I laughed through my tears, at Mary, so practical and funny even when it was hard for her to get out of bed.
In the midst of that conversation about what will happen to her after this, she brought up this poem. It is a portion of the Little Gidding section of Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an ends and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone” and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
I am tempted to give you a long explanation of why this poem meant so much to Mary and what she wanted to say about life in general, her life and specifically her life with each of you. I will give you the short version. She believes that this end that we mourn together is also a beginning. One for her and one for us. From this end, we start and yet continue a dance that when it is right, has an end and a beginning where the words fall into their proper places and support one another to make sense for the next sentence. We are never separated from what came before us, from what is no longer with us. It is the foundation upon which we continue to make sense for ourselves and other people. Mary was proud to be part of that foundation. She hopes you will take the best of her with you as you build your next phrase and help others build theirs.
Then she told me a quote from the great American author and literary critic, Henry James, that helped her to sum up what she hoped she had offered to each of you with her life. James says, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second, is to be kind. And the third, is to be kind.” I am quoting Mary when she said, “I didn’t always get there, but I tried.” She hopes that she dealt with each of you with kindness. She asks your forgiveness for those times when she didn’t. She asks each of you to try to lead your lives with kindness too. Because she said, in the end, it is only your kindness that truly remains.
It was really kindness that she practiced with her Cancer Chick, newspaper articles and blog. Her goal with all of that was to show the kindness that only a fellow-sufferer can show. She wanted to let other scared and confused women know that this is gonna be “icky” but it will be OK. She wanted them and you to know, that even if the battle is lost, it will still be OK. She gave me another poem to read to you all to explain what she felt doing her Cancer Chick thing. It is the poem “Prayer to Persephone” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Be to her, Persephone,
All the things I might not be:
Take her head upon your knee.
She that was so proud and wild,
Flippant, arrogant and free,
She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell, -Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee:
Say to hear, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.
I almost didn’t read it to you, because it took me a minute to understand that Mary considered herself to be filling the role of Persephone. Her goal was to take those women who were walking through the Hell of cancer like a little lonely child and assure them, “My dear, my dear, its not so dreadful here.” But, she also wanted to assure you, those of you who mourn her loss, that where she is now, is not so dreadful. She wanted you to know that you too will be OK. Just like Mary, her concern for her eulogy was not that I make sure you all heard the great achievements in her life, her concern was for you. Her kindness still astounds me.