Midwest Stoicism, and other exorcisms

Sometimes the good Lord reminds me people do read this blog. The latest reminder came at a funeral just this past Saturday.

The funeral was for someone well-loved who passed from the effects of leukemia. The time between its discovery and his passing was barely over a month. He leaves behind a wife and very young daughter both brave beyond their years. He was 47. Way too young. Always, way too young.

Just after the service I caught up with a friend who I used to work with. “I’ve been reading your blog,” he said almost instantly. “Been working on any books lately?”

I had to tell him no, because it’s been hard to write anything period. For one thing, as I pointed out a few entries ago, this death thing has been a rather persistent presence lately and that’s to be expected when you break 50. It’s just the law of averages. The older one gets, the more people he knows, the more people one knows, the more likely before he passes himself, others will pass. Sometimes it happens to people way too soon, like the mutual friend and co-worker we were both mourning, but in most cases It’s just nature. It’s just life. It’s reality.

All that said, I wish reality would knock it off awhile.

This year is not quite six months in and already two co-workers and friends, a cousin’s wife, a high school friend’s mother, and the last surviving grandparent of my boss, have all “transitioned,” as someone I currently work with would put it. Only one was no surprise. Maybe two. The rest, uh, no.

Sounds like I’m complaining about it, doesn’t it? What if I am? More importantly, what about the survivors of those people? Don’t they most of all have the right to do a little fist-shaking at the sky?

This past weekend’s service, like most, had a time for those who wanted to speak about the bereaved. I didn’t keep track of how many went up.  I can tell you with confidence it was more than any other funeral service or celebration of life I’ve attended.  My God, this man was loved. And why not? This man was so loving. He had the gift.

Then a minister said one of the most honest things I’ve ever heard a preacher say, not exactly these words but close enough: “This isn’t right. We shouldn’t have to say these things right now for someone as young as this.”

He’s right, you know.  Yet more often than we care to admit, we do.

I need to take you another direction, one that will make the title of this entry make more sense.

Six days earlier we had an absolutely glorious Sunday morning, perfect for walking, so I did, to church and back. My Vivofit claims that’s a ten-mile round trip. I don’t think so; an old digital pedometer I once wore said it was merely six. Either way, it’s healthy, and you do build a thirst. A new convenience store on Santa Fe in Olathe sells Yoo-Hoo, one of my worst vices since childhood.  I stopped in and got a bottle. There was a line three-deep before me.

“How ya doin’?” the friendly lady of a certain age behind the cash register said to a tall man in either business or church clothes, I wasn’t sure which. Either way he looked liked a young professional. Does anyone still call them “yuppies?” Like that.

“I’m dying,” he said casually. Like he had a cold, maybe.

“Oh, come on,” cash register lady said, still smiling, “it’s not all that hot today.”

“No,” he said matter-of-fact, “My doctor told me a few days ago I have cancer.” He grabbed his stuff. “Have a great day,” he said, just like anyone else would have said it.

It got quiet, and stayed that way.

I told my wife about it later. She was disgusted.

“I get the shock,” she said. “Five stages of grieving and all that; he’s in Denial. I get that. But God!  No one has the right to casually drop bombs like that on people they don’t know!”

She’s got a point–she always does, that’s why I love her–but I didn’t see it that way, then or now.

Posting a summary of it on Facebook, I asked if anyone else could face being told ‘you’re dying’ as calmly as he seemingly was, admitting I couldn’t. (Don’t let my ‘fraidy bump‘ entry fool you.)

“Midwest stoicism can be an asset at times,” one friend posted.

That one nailed it.

“Denial?” Maybe–yeah, probably.

But also the realization “hey, this happens to us all, now it may be my turn, and at least I got a little warning.”

Would we all get such grace.

Back to the funeral. A slide show was part of the visitation. Along with the usual pictures of happy times with friends and family at wonderful places, there were also pictures taken during his last month, during treatment–including one where his face was completely covered with what I believe was an oxygen mask. He was hugging his little girl, also wearing a face-covering oxygen mask.

It looked like aliens having a PDA.

That makes it sound funny. It wasn’t, at least not to me. It was more shocking than anything, at first.

Then I thought no, wait a minute. This is some more of that  Midwest Stoicism my Facebook buddy was talking about.

This picture, when taken, was acceptance of the reality that at least for a little while, life would require a full-faced oxygen mask.

Not only was the good man we were mourning good with it, you could tell in that picture he was finding a way to love his little girl right through it. She wasn’t scared at all. It was still Daddy, and she was still Daddy’s girl. Her own mask proved it.

How better to exorcise the demons of loss than to stare right into their faces and say “I don’t fear you?”

Grief is its own exorcism. Not of the beloved’s memory, we forfeit that at our souls’ peril. But, ultimately, of the shock and ache of loss.

We know the exorcism is complete when we’re able to think of that person and think “I was blessed to have known him, I will never forget him, and now I must move on,” and the next voice we hear isn’t the word “No.”

It’s not bottling your emotions. Rather, it’s facing them head on and telling them “I don’t fear you.” Even if early, that’s a lie. Given time and repetition it becomes the truth.

A lot of people are in shock right now over this man’s passing, but we will move on and we won’t fear life without him. Nor should we. He’d probably laugh and say so.

And now we’ll move on.

 

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