Yesterday was a day of thick, dark solemnity at the church where I sling Shepard’s Pie and order linens. There was a funeral first, the final celebration for a man only ten years older than I am. He was busy, active, healthy, a father of two young adults, lost to a sudden heart attack. I am used to these things now, or rather, as used to them as a person can be. I smile at the black-coated men from the local funeral home, offer them coffee and conversation, and bustle around making a nice spread. I have built a wall of necessity between my personal response to death and the fact that it is not about me at all. I have moved from a time when I dreaded making the phone call to the bereaved to discuss arrangements to a place where it is sad, and hard, but oddly affirming. They need something, they have been hurt, and I am able to offer calm, kindness, and the solution to at least one small problem.
I moved through yesterday’s crowd silent as a ghost, refilling coffee carafes and collecting used cups for recycling, and felt keen, black pangs. I looked at the picture montage placed on an easel, thinking that I rarely allow my picture to be taken and wondering if there would be an easel’s worth when the party was for me. I could not, as I usually do, moderate the grief in the room by focusing on the work at hand and offering the comfort of helpful, practical normality in an apron.
Yesterday it was not just work, and there was a resonance as black and sticky as tar. It stayed on my shoes as I prepared for the next event of the day, a light supper before Maundy Thursday service. You may be a stone atheist, a lapsed something-or-other, a Hindu, a Jew or a Zoroastrian, but the story of Maundy Thursday is still moving. Even if you don’t believe, even if Jesus was just some nice Jewish guy, the night he spent alone in the Garden of Gethsemane is a night we have all lived through. He was alone, he was in trouble, and no one would stay awake with him, stand by him, or love him. He faced death the next day, a terrible, painful, solitary death. In a long night of anxiety and dread he was utterly alone. We all know that night.
Serving up mashed potatoes and corn before the service, I felt the weight of that lost father, the solitary anguish in the Garden, and that space between searing pain and the inevitable green shoots of healing. By the time I got home, I was leaden, my mind a dark, hard mass. Flailing wildly for distraction, I lay on the couch and watched “The Real Housewives of New York City.” There would be no darkness, no suffering, just cat fights among the rich and self absorbed. The impossibly smooth, high-gloss surface would be the perfect antidote to my mordant, matte black thoughts.
On the show, a blonde housewife named Sonja was asked to serve as Grand Marshall for a Marriage Equality march in Manhattan. Cheekbones sharp as glass, burbling about what campy fun it was to wear a wedding dress to symbolize marriage, she repeated her mantra: “It’s my day, thank you for coming to support me on my day, this is a big day for me.“ She addressed the crowd of people (who were mostly actually gay, and couldn’t actually get married legally) in a spirit of campy “Sassy Gay Friends” fun. She failed to mention, even once, that the goal of the event was to promote the legalization of same-sex marriage. Beneath that high gloss surface there was no acknowledgement of the deeper issue; clearly the real importance of “the gays” was that they were great companions for shoe shopping and Liza Minnelli concerts.
It should have swept me away in a torrent of distracted indignation. Instead, last night, that Real Housewife made me grateful for depth, pain, and all that is not shiny and superficial. It was a long, hard, black, bleak day and I had to use all my reserves so that I could, as my father says, “do the needful.” Seeing Sonja skate across the surface of so much suffering and injustice reminded me that pain is universal, eternal, and as much a part of life deeply lived as the profoundest joy. It’s why funerals are sad, and why Maundy Thursday is sad; it is among the invisible ties that bind us all in humanity.
Except for Sonja, who remains a mystery.