My soul mate of 24 years died in my arms two weeks ago. She had throat cancer and hadn't been able to swallow much for four months. Got her calories through a feeding tube. She weighed 80 pounds at the end, but the wisdom she went out with was solid gold. I was always the star, the one on stage, the one saying "Look at me!" and Annie was always holding the spotlight, directing their attention -- what Bette Midler would call "the wind beneath my wings."
All our lives, Annie O'Flaherty was an introvert with a capital I. All through our years at St. Anthony of Padua, all during our times in the convent as Sisters of St. Joseph, all through our roller coaster relationship of 24 years. What happened then, I had to wonder, when days before her death, she decided she wanted to have a memorial event while she was still alive? The department heads from her workplace were coming en masse for a visit and Annie decided to turn the whole thing into an (A)Wake. Your choir can sing, she said, but only these three songs. Nothing sentimental. No poetry. Just these three phrases that have been meaningful for me all my life. "She wanted me to make a soundtrack using the overture from the movie BABE (she became a vegetarian the day she saw it and never ate meat after), Lee Womack's I Hope You Dance and Celebration Time Come On!
"You can read my phrases," she said, "but don't go taking over. This is MY memorial and I don't want any extras thrown in. I want it short and upbeat. And I want everyone I know to be invited." I put out a call to my mailing list for people around the country to send email notes to Annie that she could have at her event. Hundreds came pouring in. When I asked Annie one night what she wanted to be remembered for, she said "I want to be remembered as a person who was kind, funny and compassionate." Every one of those emails said exactly that.
The night came and dozens of people gathered to see Annie off. They sat by her as she kept her post on the patio couch. My 90-year-old mom was there. The Gnostic Gospel Choir was there. People she'd worked with for years came to sit and whisper their gratitude in her ears. The rabbi came. The priest came. People called in from around the country. And the words she wanted read as part of the ritual: from Hamlet, "The readiness is all." From Mary Queen of Scots, In my end is my beginning." And from Dag Hammarskjöld, "For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, Yes!"
A week before she died, she wrote these words in her journal: "I am happier than I have ever been in my life. Even when falling in love with Jan. That was ecstasy, wildness, promise. This is different. Deep. Rich. Given unsought. Calm. Rooted. Peaceful. Lasting. I am blessed. And at peace."
Annie O'Flaherty's body is gone, but her tone is still resonating. I am changing every day as this glacier of grief moves through the landscape of me. The backyard is still the same. BABE still sits on the altar. The orchids are still alive. But I can't go out there yet. I can't dismantle the stage she created. I can't look out there without crying, half for sorrow, half for joy, that this woman I loved created a space for everyone to love her back before it was too late. A template, perhaps, for a new way of moving on...