Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A New Farewell

It was an unusual weekend.

Exhausting, emotionally wrought, and yet I can't imagine not doing it.

This time last week word got to me that the Father of one of my best friends had suddenly passed away.

For me it was one of life's benchmarks. Not many parents of friends have died before now, and those who have passed away have done so in tragic and premature circumstances. This was different. John was 70. Still younger than one would hope, yet old enough that it is hard to make the argument that he didn't have a good run. On top of it, last year he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's had nothing to do with his death, he had a stroke. I am only speaking of myself, I would not presume to speak for John's family – my friends – when I say that on some level his sickness had sub-consciously prepared me for the eventual and the inevitable, but this was no less than years earlier than expected. It was a shock to hear he was gone, and it hit me hard. I underestimated how much it was affecting me when I called Demetri, Ruth and Frances. As I left a message for them on voicemail, I spoke out-loud for the first time some of the things that were racing through my mind, and that made them real, and I barely... okay, hardly at all, held myself together as I extended my condolences to them. While trying to throw out a buoy of support I was simultaneously discovering the mortality of my own parents. If I could do it over and save that phone call 'til after my own soul crushing realization, I would.

The next two days dove-tailed with my best Christmas present ever & the Trevor Linden jersey retirement (they are connected, directly and may be their own blog post), making for an emotional few days.

Friday night I hopped on a plane home to Prince George to attend the funeral service. The plane was delayed by nearly two hours due to weather. At the time that was a pain, but by now the weather across the country is keeping people stranded at airports for days, like some twisted hybrid of Kafka, The Terminal, Planes Trains & Automobiles and Castaway. I'm betting that Christmas Day at YVR is not what people had planned. I feel a bit cheap complaining about the two hours of lost sleep I had, considering the hassles some people are having.

Saturday morning came early. I had thrown out lines to a few people I don't normally see when I'm in PG, thinking that habits would persist and at best I'd only connect with one. It was a busy morning. Breakfast at 8am (after getting in at nearly 3) after which I squeezed in the obligatory shower and shave, followed by the proverbial second breakfast... okay it was really just coffee.

On my way to the service itself I had the realization that as sombre and occasion as it was, it was bound to be an awkward reunion with many people I had not seen – in some cases for twenty years or so. Dad pointed out that I had better get used to the idea, 'cause that is what life is going to keep doing to me, and that in many cases the people who I am reunited with will be people who I don't see again until the next funeral. Hadn't really considered that, but he's right. Don't feel guilty about it. It's the way it is.

I arrived at the church with minutes to spare. Got one of the last seats, seated beside a friend who I hadn't seen in five years or more.

The service itself was a first for me. Practically the first time I've been to a liturgical service. I have been to one vaguely religious funeral, but it was mostly lip-service – definitely lacking in ceremony. In any case this was definitely my first Trisagion – if that was indeed what it was.

Many of our theatre traditions find their origins in either the Catholic Church or Greece. That said, a Greek Orthodox Funeral is not particularly compelling theatre. But I did find it interesting in its own way. I definitely don't feel the need to attend another one in order to hone my appreciation though. Most significant to me was the music. I think technically it was chanting. I'm sure that someone better schooled in such things might delight in telling me just how wrong I am and that the subtleties are far from subtle, but it sounded an awful lot to me like music from a bit further East along the Silk Road. This is an old ceremony. Traditions that can be fairly qualified as 'ancient.' In my mind just more evidence of how close... how similar we all are, despite superficially different theistic traditions. Does it really require stepping outside of the theology to see it? It shouldn't.

It seemed that most of the people in attendance were not Greek Orthodox, though certainly that must have been the faith of the greatest number of attendees. One woman within arm's reach of me seemed to know the service very well and chanted along, crossed and bowed at what seemed every appropriate customary moment. I felt a bit guilty that it unnerved me so much. It must be an accepted part of most religions in the world now that we are so homogenized as a society that where once an entire village would attend the same church, that now in the most moderate sized western towns the variety of belief is wide and the intermingling so inevitable that there must be an acceptance that non-believers of some stripe are going to desire to come and show their respects and support to the bereaved. I have no great insight here – I am simply mildly curious what the development and history of this has been over the centuries.

If you have missed it, I am an atheist. Perhaps to be perfectly intellectually honest I'd have to call myself an agnostic or preferably a teapot or tooth-fairy (my preference) atheist. But it must be said that the church(es) make some really beautiful rooms. Garish, for sure – there's no way I'd want to have a shrine, let alone a chapel, for my living room – but it's hard not to appreciate the effort that goes into the decor. Fittingly this particular church was designed by John.

The eulogy was delivered by Demetri, and not too surprisingly it was the best eulogy I have ever heard. I have delivered two eulogies in my life. Two grandparents. It's a daunting proposition to try to sum up a lifetime in ten or twenty minutes. Undoubtedly impossible. Watching Demetri I appreciated why he – and I – are those in our families who are expected to do such things. Writing and presenting are our trades. But that should not be confused with neither the entitlement to the honour, nor the actual ease of the responsibility. I expect to be expected to deliver again, and I now have seen the bar raised and will try to do better than I ever have before, and without an underlying feeling of disgruntledness (yeah, whatever – even writers experience a failure of vocabulary on occasion) or anger at the belief that I should be the one to do it. (Indeed if and when the time comes that I am asked again and there is someone fitting who is up to the challenge, please step forward, I look forward to sharing the responsibility with others as much as possible.)

Back to Demetri. His eulogy did everything it needed to. It provided a brief & essential history of John's life; identified the core of his character; made us laugh; gave personal and heartfelt insight (the real payment for giving a eulogy is the opportunity to share these); and provided us with guidance in how to fill the space where John was with the best memories and lessons of his life. But on top of it all, Demetri aspired and reached a level of art in his structure. By the end he had seemingly effortlessly returned to his starting point from a new direction, simultaneously tying in the most personal sentiment – which had appeared at approximately the 1/3 mark – as he reached his final sentence. It had been pitched at a near perfect emotional level and the people gathered could have gladly listened for as long, yet again. Without the structural flourish it would have been excellent and dynamic, and perhaps I am the only one to have noticed – or appreciated it technically... and to feel a tinge of guilt at analyzing it, but that extra level elevated it to a true work of beauty.

Although we didn't get into it, I expect that my companion on my walk to the reception at the family home also noticed the structural divinity of the eulogy. He too is a writer. Paul and I walked together. It's not far, but it was -27c. As Prince George ex-pats we had to do the trip in two parts, stopping for coffee and heat roughly half way.

The house was very full when we arrived, and sure enough every third person was someone I hadn't seen in years. It was an odd layer of joy to add into the mix.

After the reception – when I left with a group of three there was a single couple left – I went home to dinner with my Dad and his wife, Kay. A damned good dinner too. Simple, but very hard not to go back for seconds. It's Christmas, it's best to avoid the extra helpings right now.

After dinner we watched some hockey and curling – how Canadian – before bed. Pretty much as I arrived in the bedroom Demetri called. He came over for a few quiet hours. I had come primarily to support him (and his Mom and sister) and the understandable chaos of the service and reception had naturally limited our opportunity to talk. A week earlier we had expected that we'd see each other in Vancouver in the new year (and may still, but it will be extremely truncated) but circumstances have changed, resulting in both an entirely new category of things to share and a paucity of time to do so in. It was good he came by, despite both of us being exhausted and neither of us having a night ahead in which we could get much sleep. He had an early morning breakfast with visiting family. I had an equally early flight to catch.

The talk was good. We didn't even talk too much about the preceding week. Some. Not much. We'd spoken a few times while in the thick of it, and I'd got a chance to glean where he was at – what he was experiencing. I expect there will be more once the season has passed and there is time for processing. It could take years to really get it all.

As far as 'being there for him' I felt like most of the evidence of what I had come there for was in the procession out of the church. I gave his Mother a hug – she was remarkably cheerful, I suspect the sheer out-pouring has been an on-going process and the number of people there at the church was a lift to her spirits – and then I proceeded to Demetri. We didn't say much. We just hugged and his voice broke as he thanked me for being there.

Zoi se mas.

My flight home was delayed. It was too cold. The de-icing fluid was freezing.

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