“Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by…”
I was ten years old when I attended my first funeral. The deceased was not a relative of mine; they were related to someone in my congregation. It was my first introduction to the burden of grief. I still remember the climactic moment when the body was viewed, and we began singing the hymn “Farther Along”. Our voices could not cover the shrieks of the family though, and to this day I can’t hear that song without those mournful cries in my head. I felt so, so bad for them, but I couldn’t truly empathize. After all, I had yet to lose someone that way.
Three years later, however, IT visited us. Death would take my Grandma’s oldest child, who hadn’t even reached 55 yet. My Aunt was Roman Catholic and her funeral was my first time attending a Catholic church. I remember being so confused with all the rising and kneeling during the funeral, hearing my Grandma’s high pitched wails, full of sorrow at having to bury her child. I see another Aunt bending down to kiss my deceased Aunt’s forehead, her tears gently cascading into the casket. And that hurt too, and I felt bad for my cousins. I couldn’t imagine losing a Mom. A few years later IT came again, taking a cousin. In 1999 IT took my Grandma’s sister. And on a cold February morning IT took my beloved Grandma. My Mama dissolved into sobs as she told me over the phone. By the time I found out she had been gone for hours. I had an early morning meeting at work that day, and as I was eight months pregnant at the time my family was trying to wait until I got home to inform me. But when I returned my Uncle’s call the sound in his voice betrayed it and my mom grabbed the phone from me to tell me herself. I felt like my whole existence stopped. I felt like my soul had shattered. Yes, I knew that the cancer had returned. Yes I knew she only had months left. Yes I knew that she’d just been set up for hospice care in her tiny apartment, and I’d just watched the nurses set up her bed the previous night. But how could my Grandma be DEAD? My Grandma was strong, she took care of everything, she was made out of steel. But she was gone. When I saw her at the funeral home three days later I had to touch her. I recoiled from the shock of feeling her so cold, of encountering nothing but stiffness from the same arms that had held and loved me from the time I was born, arms that had prepared my favorite dish of chicken and dumplings for me even as tumors were bursting and ravaging her body. How i wished that she had at least lived long enough to see her great-grandchild that was due in three weeks.
I thought it couldn’t possibly get worse. I thought nothing could match the desolation I felt at my Grandma’s passing. But just eighteen months later I would learn how wrong I was. The day after my 25th birthday I sat in a hospital room. I was at my mother’s right; my husband was at her left. She’d slipped into a coma weeks before and was not expected to survive. I was actually scheduled to meet with her palliative care team at 10am on my birthday. When we arrived, however, they told us there was nothing to discuss. My Mama had taken a turn for the worst and was going to die by the end of the day. My aunt, an RN, slowly walked over and began removing my Mama’s feeding tubes, crying as she did. I got on the phone to call up family members as instructed so they could say their goodbyes. But my Mama, my beautiful, intelligent and fiery Mama, proved the doctors wrong. She didn’t die until 5:45pm the next day, and no one can convince me that this wasn’t her final birthday gift to her firstborn child. As I watched her life slowly run out those last twenty-four hours, I was struck by the irony of it. Twenty five years prior she labored bringing me into the world. Here I was twenty-five years later, watching her leave it. I wondered what she thought and felt when she was having me. A few months shy of her 22nd birthday, I’m sure she never imagined that she had so little time left herself. When my husband told me that she was no longer breathing I refused to accept it. I told myself that if the doctors had been wrong about her dying on my birthday perhaps they were wrong about other things as well. However, hearing her physician call the time of death made it impossible to continue my denial.
There is nothing in life that has hurt me the way that burying my Mama so suddenly and unexpectedly did. It is not a pain I wish upon anyone. I have had to learn to simply live with my grief, for it never goes away. And right now all of it is flooding back, for my Mama’s younger sister died two days ago. I am still so shocked. I am scared. I am angry. In that hymn that I heard at my first funeral, we’re told that “farther along we’ll know more about it”. The lyrics say we’ll understand it all by and by. But as I sit here at my desk, tears streaming down my face, those lyrics make me livid. For it is twenty-two FUCKING YEARS later and I still DON’T KNOW why this has to happen! I still don’t understand why death must be part of our existence! Sure I remember the reasons I was given in Sunday School-Adam and Eve sinned and death is part of our punishment for The Fall. But isn’t all this pain and grief somewhat of an overkill for taking a bite out of a piece of fruit? I just cannot fathom it! And as I stand at the crossroads wish someone could answer my questions, the same question posed by Bone Thugs and Harmony:
“Can somebody anybody tell me why?
Hey, can somebody anybody tell me why we die, we die?
I don’t wanna die…”