He Will Always Be Part of YOU

My brother, who was six years my junior, died suddenly, in Montreal. He was in ill health from a young age and lived long past the doctors’ medical prognosis. Growing up in our family life expectations were, for the most part, governed by an ancient feudal standards.  The eldest son was to inherit everything while the remaining siblings would have to fend for themselves in the world.  According to my parents’ wishes, if the eldest boy died first then the next male child would inherit everything.  We were all schooled in these proceedings from the age of six.  The girls in the family were expected to marry and produce offspring, with their choice of possible career being given little or no thought.

Consequently, there were feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness residing in all of us.  These feelings very much colored how we dealt with each other as adults.  For many years, I had very little contact with my siblings.  The occasional phone call was about all we could manage at the time.  Real or imagined slights often took on immense proportions and meaning.  We had all grown into extremely judgmental adults, especially when it came to family members.

In the later years, I tried to keep regular contact with all of my siblings.  By then I had learned the important lesson of not accepting every little comment as a personal attack.  Communication became much easier for me.  So it was that my brother and I were in almost bi-weekly contact, when I received the news of his sudden death.  To say that I was in shock is putting it mildly.  I was on auto-pilot for the next twenty-four hours, packing making arrangements for my pets and my temporary house guest, and scraping together enough money for the plane fare from Prince Edward Island to Montreal.  My cousin, whom I had not seen nor spoken with in years, met me at the airport.  He was so kind, and we so comfortable together as he ferried me around the never-ending city detours.

I had thought that, since my younger brother was the executor and sole heir to the older man’s estate, he would be the one to make all the arrangements.  I found out that absolutely nothing had been done.  Of course I had to go into fix-it mode (a habit acquired from raising four children).  To the hospital to claim the body and collect the personal effects, to the funeral home to make arrangements for the cremation and to compose the obituary.  No one had the funds available to make the immediate payments, but as the result of some kind of premonition, I had just transferred all that was necessary to my bank account.  What I failed to realize was that my account was restricted to a daily limit.  Well, I tried to figure out how to make the payment – perhaps transfer the money to a credit card, or pay them in daily installments. However neither plan would work.  The funeral home would not even accept an e-transfer, only cash or credit card.  I can’t remember a time when I have ever felt so frustrated!

Finally, through installments, I was able to pay everything off.  The final day when we went to collect the cremated remains, I made the last payment.  My sister stated, “We have come to ransom our brother”.  The shocked look on the undertakers face sent me into a fit of giggles .

My brother’s final wish was to have his ashes scattered on his farm, which he loved so much. So a 2 1/2 hour drive led us to this destination where, once again, nothing had been planned. To my surprise, there were almost one hundred people.  Everyone had donated food; and it was definitely a mix-and-mingle kind of gathering.  For two hours, not one person came forward to offer their condolences – not one.  However everyone had a story to tell that demonstrated how much my brother meant to them.  I realized then that this was his family, and what an amazing family it was! And what a privilege it was for me to have met them all!  Through this time there were a few tears and much laughter.  It was truly a Celebration of Life!

As I said, nothing had been planned in advance.  It was the first time that I had ever experienced such a celebration.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that we had not scattered the ashes.  And how does one do that, I wondered.  Again as if on auto-pilot, I gathered everyone present around a tall pine tree in front of the house.  I announced that the container of ashes would be passed around the circle, and each person could speak whatever their hearts moved them to say before taking a turn to shake loose some of the ashes.

That was an intensely emotional time for all.  I was so moved by this image of my brother that I had never witnessed before!

My youngest sister, my younger brother, and I were standing around with a few of the guests.  I walked towards my brother to let him know that there were still some ashes remaining.  Looking down I noticed that not only was the lid of the cylindrical container loose, but the inner tube was slightly raised.  No problem, I thought.  I would just fix that inside the house.  Younger brother noticed the raised lid at the same time.   His hand raised, and before I could shout “No!”,  he smacked the top of the container firmly.  My mouth had been open.  Startled, I inhaled.  A severe coughing fit ensued.  Then I laughed when I realized that coughing wasn’t going to help.  It was too late!  From then things seemed to be happening in slow motion.   I stared at my brother whose many feelings wrote themselves across his face – shock, horror, fear, embarrassment!  Suddenly I became aware of some helpful woman beating on my chest in a futile attempt to clear the fine coating of grey from my black jacket.  I couldn’t help it as a loud laugh erupted from me.   My brother’s response was, “Now you can truly claim that your brother will always be part of you.”   Just for a second, I swear that I could hear laughter coming from above!

There was a man present who had been a friend of my mother’s (I was to learn this later) and a good friend to my deceased brother.  He had a sad but calm air about him.  After most of the guests had left, he called me over to ask, “Have you received any messages?”  He seemed to need to hear something from me, but I couldn’t help but wonder why from me.  There were two other siblings present.  I had never been asked such a thing before, and I wondered how he knew about my inner self.  I was truthful when I answered, “To receive an actual message, if that was going to happen, I think I would have to be alone and quiet.  But I can tell you that my predominant feeling right now is one of joy and peace.”  Those words surprised me most!  The friend just smiled and nodded.

So, my brother’s funeral – Celebration of Life – was a seriously transformative experience for me.  I had so much work to do on myself – shedding my pre-conceived ideas of others, letting go of the demands of ego, opening myself up to the expressions of love that are all around me.  What an exciting journey I have been on ever since!

Taking Care of Family Business

This leads me to the narrative of my experiences with my father’s funeral.  After the shocking events regarding my mother’s burial, all of the siblings agreed to take care of family business ourselves.

First of all, I want to share the events leading up to my father’s death.  My husband was an adult trainer with the government and he travelled at lot giving courses all over the country.   For the first time I was able to accompany him to Ottawa, so we left on Friday and stopped in Montreal to visit my sister and my father for the weekend.  It had been such a long time since seeing my Dad and I spent the hours chatting and thoroughly enjoying the visit.  When it came time to leave, I was sad to say goodbye but promises were made to visit again soon.   As we were about to pull out of the parking lot, a tremendous wave of sadness washed over me, and I began to sob uncontrollably.  My husband was startled, to say the least.  He had never seen me like this.  It took a good few minutes for me to come to myself again.  When I could finally explain, I said, “That’s the last time I will see Dad”.  My husband assured me that we would return the following month, I became quiet.  But I knew that next month’s visit would be too late.  I just knew it!  And I was right.

Although I stayed calm during Dad’s wake and funeral,  I was nervous about the plans that we, siblings, had agreed upon to “take care of family business”.  I went with my sister to make the final arrangements with the funeral director.  At first, my sister did all the talking as she finalized the choice of coffin, costs, and time for the wake.  When that was done, I spoke up and informed the director of how things were going to happen at the grave-site.  I said we were going to make sure that the grave-robbers would have no use for the coffin when we got done with it.  The funeral director’s face became extremely red when he realized that we knew all about the casket scam, that was prevalent in the area.  He agreed to allow us to ‘do our thing’ when the time came.

I have very little recollection of what happened between the funeral parlor and the grave.  However, the memory of five middle-aged, trench-coated, miserable-looking folks, bundled against the bitter, damp. cold November day is deeply etched in my mind.  It occurred to me at the time that we must have looked like a bunch of druids as we shuffled around the grave, shifting from foot, in our nervousness.

After the graveside prayers, everyone else left the site.  We then asked the mortuary pall bearers to lower the casket and remove the straps.  The poor young fellows looked almost as nervous as we felt.  Finally one of the found a small ladder and descended into the hole to remove the straps.  My youngest brother, who does not handle emotional situations very well at the best of times,  was his usual unpredictable self.  “What would happen if we took the ladder away and left him down there?”  We were used to his warped sense of humor, but the look of horror on the young man’s face was worthy of any scary movie!

When the pall bearers finally left us to our own devices, we began the work.  Brother number 1,  retrieved several shovels from his car, and we set to work.  Each of us selected some fairly good-sized rocks and hurled them down on top of the casket.  I said a prayer with each rock that I threw.  This was the last gift I would be able to give Dad.  By the time we had exhausted ourselves with this activity, the casket was badly dented and scarred – hopefully of absolutely no use to anyone else.

This event made us, five middle-aged siblings, a unit, probably for the first time since we were kids, when it was “us against them” (whoever ‘they’ were).  I left with a strong sense of fulfillment, of resolution at last!  I realized then that, no matter how we are separated by space and time…no matter our differences, our family is strong.