funerals and birthdays…

Mom & Aunt Ruth

Yesterday, I went back to my hometown for my aunt’s funeral. For my mom’s oldest sister, my Aunt Ruth, whose tiny body held death at bay for so long that no one could understand why or how she did it. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise though. Everyone in that family did everything on their own terms.

Covid funerals are strange things. Only 10 of us could be there, which was sort of a living billboard for how small our family is getting in number and for how few times we all get together anymore. We wore masks and couldn’t sing her favourite hymn. A few of us stole a hug or two outside, letting the need for the comfort of it outweigh the fact that it’s almost a crime right now. Yet still, the service was lovely and the burial, in the church cemetery right next door to my other aunt and uncle’s house, was nice in it’s own way, under a sunny spring sky.

It was already warm when I’d left in the morning so I drove back home with the roof open and the window down. I turned off the radio and just sat with the wind. As I rolled into town, past the corner of Hope Street and the 14th Line — the corner where I waited for the bus every morning of my high school life — I turned there and cruised slowly through my old Rudy Ave. neighbourhood.

Our house at 152 was always backed by a cornfield that went on for miles every summer. Those summers, my older brother grew a few pot plants out there just beyond the wire fence, obscured by a few rows of corn stalks. Today, that backyard, beyond the birch tree where our first dog is buried, is a sprawling subdivision of cookie cutter houses that seem to have sprung up overnight. In the winter, a gang of us neighbourhood kids used to cut through that field to ski or trudge, with our skates, back to the pond in the woods next to the town’s lagoon.

Jarrett Rudy was among us then. Coming out of the subdivision, I passed his parents’ house and wondered to myself how they’re doing. I picture everyone’s parents from when I was a kid as like 40, but I know they must be in their 70s now. Jarrett passed away suddenly about a year ago, just shy of 50. He was the first boy in the elementary school class I travelled from Kindergarten to Grade 8 with, to leave us.

I know, it’s a weird way to keep track of people, but that’s the kind of marker you inherit if you hail from a small town and die young. Jarrett remained a good friend through high school, always encouraging me when he could see that I was maybe losing my way — even though I couldn’t. He was the first boy I ever kissed. The last dance at prom. He had the kindest heart, and always a smile. It’s a loss I still find difficult to comprehend.

As I made my way uptown, I drove over the tunnel under the road, near the old woollen mill, where a few of us learned to smoke Winston cigarettes one year during March Break. I loved the smell of the woollen mill as a kid. I crossed over the railroad tracks at Benny Weston’s Bakery, that a bunch of us used to walk down, drinking the occasional six pack. I passed the park where we’d all climb into the rafters of the horse barns on summer nights to do the same. I turned into the parking lot of the family-run funeral home where I have attended so many visitations in this lifetime, right across the street from the furniture store where I first kissed the guy who would grow up to be my kids’ dad. He was 15 then.

After the service, a few of us sat on the back deck at my aunt and uncle’s house — the home of my mom’s other sister — occasionally checking the progress the cemetery workers next door were making as they lowered Aunt Ruth into the ground. We shared a pizza and talked about old times, and life and death, and what we think comes after. We talked about how hard it is to lose people. At times, the words were hard to find. We have all lost so much these last few years.

You have to have had a vast love in order to miss somebody. I missed a lot of people simultaneously yesterday. I felt, weirdly, blessed.

And, I was so glad to be in that moment with family, sitting in the sun sharing memories. I am glad to know that death isn’t some kind of enemy. It’s just death. A departure with a new destination. I hope that, if anything, so many losses have given us all the gift of knowing that. And of knowing that grief comes to all who love: it’s literally the aftershock of love.

It’s my Mom’s birthday today. Two years gone, I don’t think I mind the grief this brings. As Jann Arden said, I don’t mind missing her. I don’t mind the pangs or the jabs or the throbbing aches that stretch across the muscles in my chest sometimes. I just don’t mind it. It’s lovely in it’s own way. Makes me keep trying to live.

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