My 97 year-old neighbor died last summer, and her memorial was this weekend. Her family had been our neighbors for 50+ years; almost all of my life. Her daughters were like older sisters to me. Our houses were 20 feet apart; our families were close in proximity and close in feeling. Now the house and Jean are gone. Her daughters sold the house soon after she died, and after Christmas this year an excavator came and knocked the whole thing down.
Almost 100 years old. An orphan in England, she joined the RAF as a young woman, met and married an American serviceman, and immigrated to the US after WWII. She had six children, countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She worked hard, raised her kids, loved cooking and gardening. She had a picture of Queen Elizabeth in her living room.
And now she’s gone. There’s a big hole in our neighborhood. Something that has always been there is gone. Such a long and full life, and now it’s over. Life keeps moving on.
So on Saturday I attended a Catholic mass for the second time in my life. It was dedicated to Jean and her husband Clem, and following there was a buffet and family get-together in another part of the church. Four of her daughters and their kids and grandkids were there, and also another 50+ year neighbor couple, who I hadn’t seen in person for a number of years even though they still come back for the summer every year.
I was raised in the Episcopal church, so the Catholic Eucharist was familiar, though I didn’t really participate. I just don’t believe anymore, so I found it hard to say the prayers and sing the hymns. I sat in the pew and focused on being present and respectful, and I thought about Jean and Clem and the memories I had of life next door to their family, and about how much has changed.
In his homily, the priest mentioned that he would be performing a baptism following the mass. It struck me that in one part of the building we would be celebrating a very long life completed, and in another part a new life was being welcomed to the world.
There it was – the whole thing – start to finish – in one small church on a Saturday afternoon in May. Life keeps moving on. What will that baby see and experience in her life? What will life on this planet be like in 97 years? I wonder what the world was like when Jean was baptized in 1920? Could anyone then have imagined the way her life unfolded?
And the house that had always been there – what will fill that space? In another 10 years, who will remember the big yellow house and the big family who lived in it? Most likely there will be another house, another family. That’s the nature of life – it’s fleeting, and so are we. Nothing lasts forever, not even memories once there’s no one around to carry them anymore.
So I guess that’s what’s so appealing about religion, right? It reassures us that we will go on beyond the physical, beyond memory, even. Presumably God knows who we are and will remember us forever. In the mass Saturday, the priest proclaimed the “victory over death!” and everybody said, “Amen!” That “victory” is comforting when you fear death, fear loss of those you love.
So the mystery of life is less of a mystery to the believers, I guess. I’m not one of them, so I guess that means for me the mystery is unsolved. Lately I’m content to leave those questions unanswered. In each moment is the opportunity to experience life directly and appreciate what’s present and that’s where I want to be. In this moment. I have fond memories of the past, and I love to ponder the possibilities of the future sometimes, but mostly, I like being right here, right now.
Someday maybe, someone will be looking back over my life at the end and remembering me, and that would be nice. Maybe someone will even celebrate that I was here. There will be a point, however, where I am completely erased from memory, and that’s okay, too. I will have enjoyed my ride, but when it’s over it’ll be time for someone else to take my seat and have their turn. That is as it should be. Like a roller coaster, life blows by in a flash. The only way to get your money’s worth is to experience and appreciate it moment by moment. It’ll be over before you know it.
RIP Jean. I hope you got your money’s worth.