Saturday, August 1, 2015

Choosing Joy

From Sarah's mother:

A numbing fog settles over a person when someone close to you dies. This may be some sort of protective defense mechanism kicking in as we slip deeper into a survival mode abyss. There are children to care for, dogs to feed, support to be given and received, people to call, arrangements to make,... a seemingly never ending series of tasks. The world continues to spin, but we feel detached.

Stark, undeniable reality lay before us. We mourned our daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt and friend as our hearts broke into a million pieces. Sharp, shattered pieces, so unrecognizable we feared they could never be reassembled in any meaningful way. Sarah was born naked and she died naked. My beautiful daughter. My sweet, smiley baby girl. Now, a shell of skin and bones. Her skin was yellow. I touched her hair, kissed her and tried to memorize everything I could about her. I ran my fingers along the scars from her c-section and portacath and biopsies. I touched the bruises from her taps. I baptized her with her mother's tears. Cancer is cruel, so fucking cruel. I tucked her favorite soft fleece blanket around her. Family and friends came to her bedside. All the while, Amore lay nestled in the blankets covering her mom. Cancer may have stolen Sarah's body, but it could never take the joyful spirit that had danced inside... 

Mark called a local funeral home. When a minivan/hearse arrived outside. Mark said, "Oh, no! Not a minivan! Sarah hated minivans." A man in a suit and a woman in a suit and heels came in with a stretcher to take Sarah's body away. Larissa refused to leave her mother's side. She held on tight and cried, "You can't have my mom!" We tried to comfort her, console her, but she was having none of it. Eventually, we had to tearfully and forcibly pry her off and hold her close as these two people secured Sarah's body on the gurney and navigated a treacherous flight of stairs.  

Mark shared with her sisters and me that Sarah had a private Pinterest Board called "Fun Roll". As I looked at the posts, I thought of Sarah creating this and adding to it. It contained quotes, songs, poems, stories of other people with cancer, and ideas to help children when a parent dies. One entry was the cover of a book entitled, "Being Dead is no Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting the Perfect Funeral." Just like Sarah, I thought. Making us laugh through our tears. 

Sarah had made it known she wanted to be buried in her Nick and Nora pajamas. After seeing our dog, Buddy, cremated a few years ago, she decided she didn't want that for herself. She wished to be wrapped in a blanket and returned to the earth. She liked the cemetery in Red Wing where her great-grandparents are buried. She liked the hills and bluffs. She liked the Lakeview Cemetery in Minneapolis with the beautiful monuments and park-like setting. Sarah also expressed that she would be furious if money that could be spent on her family was wasted on her funeral. I remembered reading something about the first cemetery in Minnesota to offer green burials. I found contact information and passed it on to Mark.

Mark's brother, Steve, had flown in from Chicago and his brother, Dave, offered support while navigating the funeral industry. They had just buried their mother a few months ago and the process was fresh in their minds. As we sat with the funeral home representative, I couldn't help feeling we had just stepped into an episode of "Six Feet Under." A show we had all watched and liked, because of the ways it challenged our culture's sanitized view of death and grief. Mark told this man about Sarah's wishes and was met with some disapproval and even outright refusal, because apparently Sarah's funeral represents them and their business more than it represents her. It felt like an interview process, but twisted in the wrong direction. Mark had been in touch with Tony Weber at Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens. Tony told Mark that his family went to the same church as Mark did and he had known Mark's mother. Mark called him to coordinate a burial that would work for all. 

Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens is located in Inver Grove Heights. The property used to be an old farmstead, but had been rezoned as a cemetery with several churches showing interest in the property over the years, but they were never built. Tony's son, Jon, originally bought this land to build a house for his family, but discovered he couldn't due to the zoning. He sold the property to his father and they opened the first exclusively green burial cemetery in Minnesota. 

We met at their office. Tony explained that green burial isn't really a new thing, but simply returning to the way things used to be before funerals became an industry where money could be made by exploiting vulnerable, grieving people. He spoke of the chemicals released into the earth by embalming and we learned there are non-toxic substances that are biodegrade if families want a viewing. He spoke of the way bodies are typically buried in our culture- filled with formaldehyde, hermetically sealed in caskets, enclosed in cement vaults. We are sold an illusion that our loved ones will be safe inside forever when it only takes longer for these materials to break down. Today a growing number of people are considering how our choices, how our lives and deaths impact our planet and many are seeking alternatives.   

Tony took us to a small storage room and showed us the caskets they had for sale or rent. He explained they were made of wood, cut to hold together like puzzle pieces, secured with non-toxic glue and wooden dowels. The only metal on them were small hinges to hold up the lid as these were required by law. He had other options: wicker caskets, heavy paper-cardboard boxes or cotton shrouds. There were no velvet curtained display rooms in this building, so Tony and his son pulled a casket into the lobby and opened it so we could look at it more closely. It was beautiful in its simplicity. We went back into the small storage room to look at the other options. I was standing at the back of the group in the doorway. I turned to see Olivia climbing into the casket. I quietly moved toward her as she lay inside, wiggling around and touching the soft fabric lining.

"Whatcha doin', Livi?" I asked her. 

She sat up, smiling, "It's really comfortable, Grandma." she said. 

We got back into cars and drove to the actual cemetery, still in its infancy. There were hills and oak trees and fields of wildflowers. There were butterflies and bumblebees and a nest of baby hawks calling to their parents. Someday, this will be a park with walking trails for reflection, a chapel for prayer and wild places to picnic, visit, tell stories and remember. I loved it. I thought Sarah would love it. Natalie, Larissa and Olivia chose a burial site in the middle of a field of flowers with trees on either side of the field. A plane flew overhead- Sarah loved to travel. A UPS shipping building was down the road- Sarah loved to shop and get mail. To me, it was perfect, but Mark struggled wondering if all these pieces of Sarah's wishes could possibly come together in a way that honored her spirit and her presence in our lives and in the world. 

The next day, we went to the Catholic Church of St. Paul to plan Sarah's funeral  mass. Prayers and music were thoughtfully chosen. Food ordered. I was given the job of preparing the program which I have never done before. Judy at the church  gave me the format, I wrote it and Sarah's niece, Coral, ended up getting it ready for printing. Amy and Coral downloaded songs from Sarah's "Fun Roll" Board to play at the burial. Mark went through pictures to create a slide show. Sarah's sisters and I went through photo albums to create her picture boards. 

My chubby baby smiled at me from the pages blurred by tears. I thought about all the times Sarah used to sneak up on me and snap my picture over the years. Surprise paparazzi shots. Hideous and awful. She would always laugh and tell me, "Hey, I'm going to need some pictures for your funeral board someday!" Smart ass! Had I only known... I am glad I didn't know. 

Sarah's FUNeral took place at 1:00 pm on Friday, July 18, 2015 at the Catholic Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, MN, preceded by an hour of visitation by family and friends. Sarah wore Nick and Nora Pajamas and the wig she had worn for her driver's license picture. We were surrounded by family from near and far, friends, neighbors, people from our Children's Hospital family, along with the thoughts and prayers from all those who couldn't be there in person, but were present in spirit. We were also approached by people who had never met Sarah, but felt they knew her from reading her blog.

In the chapel of the church, Larissa hovered over her mother. 

"She never wears make-up!" Larissa said, wiping make-up off her mother's face, looking at her fingers, then wiping them on her dress, wiping lipstick from her mother's lips, looking at her fingers, then wiping them on her dress, over and over again. 

The priest led us in prayer. Then, Larissa insisted on walking next to her mother from the chapel to the church for the funeral mass.

As I followed my daughter's casket into the church for her funeral, I was grateful for the numbness that kept the full horror of the moment just beyond my reach. I was grateful for the written script I had typed and held in my hand to keep track of where I was in space and time. I was grateful for all those who gathered around us, willing to share with us our darkest of days.

Blessings. A spirit returned to a Higher Power, to God. Lifting Sarah's casket into the minivan/hearse. A traditional funeral luncheon. Mingling among people who shared with us what Sarah's life had meant to them. 

We drove to Inver Grove Heights in rush hour traffic to the burial site. A pathway had been mowed into the field of wildflowers leading to Sarah's grave on the hill. A heavy cardboard box rested on 3 boards over the 4 foot deep opening in the ground. Beside this was a large mound of dirt and three shovels. 

When everyone had arrived, the priest said a prayer. Then, the official funeral people left us to ourselves with only Tony's son, Jon, remaining. Mark removed the cover from the box. Sarah's body lay inside, her head resting on a pillow, tucked in with her blanket. Mark placed roses inside. Sarah's daughters, Sarah's sisters and nieces and nephews put in flowers, pictures, and tucked in notes beside her along with her brother's tissue paper rose. We positioned 3 ropes at the head, middle and foot of the box. We started our play list: "Baby Mine" sung by Allison Krause; "Angel" by Sarah Mclaughlin; "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/ It's a Wonderful World" sung by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole; and "When You Say Nothing at All" sung by Allison Krause. We had only prepared 4 songs. We played them on a loop. We had never done this before. We lifted the ropes and the boards were slid out and we slowly, carefully lowered Sarah's body into the ground...

All the tears that had been numbed into submission or held back by a fragile ripple separating our hearts from this world now rushed forward. The force was staggering and we could do nothing but surrender to it. Crying, holding each other, snot running onto our funeral clothes. Mark took a shovel and carefully put in the first shovelful of dirt. Horrified that dirt would land on his daughter's face, her dad removed his shirt and leaned into the grave covering her. I reached into the dirt, squeezing it in my hands and sprinkled it gently over my daughter. Amy took a shovel. Ashley kicked off her shoes and grabbed a shovel. The children wandered and picked colorful bouquets of wildflowers and put them in the grave. The sun scorched and burned down on us. Sarah's nephew, Phoenix, was sobbing and stumbling. He was encouraged to cry all his tears and to grab some more dirt and put it in. Lost in thought, Lon passed a shovel to someone else and sat at the edge with one foot in our daughter's grave. Jon generously brought us water and gatorade, because we didn't plan for this very well. He told us that some people want to just put in the first shovelfuls, some don't want to at all. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. We took turns. We shared shovels and used our hands and we buried Sarah. Literally.  

Ashley packed in the dirt with her bare feet. More wildflowers and stones were gathered and placed on the grave. Some people took a flower or a stone with them, to remember... The grave was filled. Sarah's body was returned to the earth. Soon the edges would blur. Nature would reclaim and recycle all that is hers. Now, Sarah is part of it all. We see her in the flowers and butterflies and in the blue, summer sky. We feel her in a cool breeze through the trees or when looking up into a starry, starry night. We hear her in the songs of the birds and the falling of the rain...  

We had taken Sarah's wishes, a hole in the ground, a pile of dirt, years of memories, the laughter and love we had shared with Sarah, all the anger, helplessness and sorrow we felt as we watched her die and we gave them all a voice. We suffered. We were sweaty, thirsty, dirty, physically exhausted, emotionally spent and yet... we felt blessed, touched by something so profound, something so REAL. This realness seeped into my body, my heart and soul and has taken root deep inside me. John, Ashley's partner, perfectly described this shared experience as "tragically beautiful"... Yes. Tragically Beautiful it is.  

Thank you, Sarah Joy, for sharing with us your most precious gifts 
and for trusting us to find our way.

Now, each of us must face the work of our grief. We can reach out to those grieving, but grieving at its heart is a personal and solitary process. Wisdom is all around us. It whispers through the trees. It calls from unbeaten paths. It dances in the rain. There are people who have walked with grief, who generously share their insight, however, the most loving and supportive of people in our lives- or the snuggliest of animals- cannot do it for us. There is really no way to outrun it, wiggle around it or project it outward. The only way through it- is through it. A broken heart is an open heart. To sit in the still presence of grief is to pause, to honor love, to care for oneself, to be changed, to be revealed. It's metamorphosis with the faith of a caterpillar. It is to accept grief as our teacher, as Sarah accepted cancer as her teacher. In this spirit, we will find our way- not backtracking to the me we once were, but reaching for and growing toward the light of the me we are becoming...

To all who have shared Sarah's life and journey. From her FUNeral program:

Sarah's family is grateful for all your love and support. 
As we struggle in a world so empty without her, 
we hope to honor her life by living her inspiration...
May we have faith and feel our connection to all. 
May we stand up for ourselves and for each other. 
May we see our trials as teachers. 
May we explore and have adventures. 
May we make time to play with children and pet dogs.
May we never make a purchase without a coupon. 
May we bring the fun with us. 
May we be both fierce and gentle.
May we be brave enough to shine light into darkness. 
May we love and love until love is all we have left.
May we remember to Choose JOY!

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