I have come to believe that it is a useful exercise to go to funerals of people you didn't even know. I am not suggesting this as a subject for Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn's next comedy, nor am I suggesting you seek funerals out on a first date. But whenever I end up at one--usually because the deceased is related to someone I know--it is almost always an illuminating experience.
At the very least, these services are reminders that while most of us are not public figures, we have likely touched many others. As well, we often hear of people who had every reason to be bitter and depressed at the end, but somehow maintained who they were---and then some. They are perspective enhancers, making you ashamed of the venting over the lines on the face or the child's last report card. Finally, memorials remind us that we need to show up for the happy occasions, even if they seem inconvenient at the time.
I went to a service this past weekend in New York for one Deirdre Russell Murphy Bader. I never met her, but have become slightly acquainted with her mother at our local coffee shop. Deirdre, I learned, took her first bicycle trip at 32, became obsessed with the sport, and ended up on a cycling team at the Sydney Olympics. (She had dual citizenship in Ireland and competed for that country) If that wasn't enough, she then ran a successful program for children in New York called Star Tracks. (Many kids in the packed church wore the non-profit's T-shirts)
Her personal tale was equally impressive: She went on a blind date in her early 40s with a man named Larry --a lifelong bachelor--and they were married 14 months later. She had her first child in her late 40s, an angelic little boy, now seven years old. Shortly after she gave birth, unfortunately, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Deirdre apparently spent the following years fighting the disease with spirit and determination, and never lost her enthusiasm for life. Her husband recalled the night of the day they heard the news: they were expected at a party for the new partners of his law firm He didn't want to go but Deirdre insisted: "She said she didn't want to stay home and be sad, she refused to be defeated," he said.
That made me think of the time I ran into a woman who had flown across country for a friend's retirement party. I was surprised to see her and made a crack about how we should be saving our miles for all the funerals ahead. Without a moment's pause she said, "That's all the more reason to go to the celebratory ones." I never forgot that.
People talked about Deirdre's incredible thoughtfulness and generosity, which apparently never waned. One man spoke of visiting her in hospice and as he started to leave, "she wanted to make sure I had a ride home." I thought back on our old friend Mark, who died way too young and was truly the kindest, least narcissistic person on the planet. When my husband went in to say goodbye, he came out shaking his head: "the first think Mark said was "how's work"?
I guess the moral here is good people manage to stay that way, even when they have all the reason not to. Still, it's hard not to think of that seven year old boy whose words to his mom were read by someone at the service. It seems he was a football fan of the 49ers while she preferred the Giants. "I loved you, but not your team," he wrote. He also said, "you fought so very hard and now you're gone, and I'm so very sad." Out of the mouths.....
They say we should all either go to our own funerals...Derek Jeter claimed he sort of did during his retirement season---or at least think about how we want to be remembered. I never met Deirdre Bader but I am inspired by how she lived and just as importantly, by how she died. We often go to these things to support a friend or relative. But if we listen carefully, and look around the standing room only rooms, we realize everyone had a story. It was not yours, but it was likely a good one.