“Why does everybody go eat a big meal after a funeral?”, I was asked. Seated among friends, relatives, and strangers who shared a common loss and sympathy, I replied, “So the family won’t have to be alone right now”. Until this moment, I had no words to describe feelings and events throughout the passing of this young woman’s health and life. Numbed by the eventual reality that she was not going to be one of the cancer survivors, I couldn’t think with my writer’s brain; only that I (like everyone else) wanted to be one of the strong helpful sort who are always good to have around during troubled times. “Like a bridge over troubled waters”, a band-aid, an encourager – those are what I want to be. But I didn’t want to write about illness, tough times of carrying on family life in the face of fear, nor the burdens that are shouldered in silence and the tears that are hidden. Maybe I was waiting to be inspired by a rosy glow, a happy account, to report that all the effort turned out exactly the results desired by all. I was not however, until today, inspired to write. Although this is not about me, in order to get back to my point of inspiration today, I must explain my viewpoint. I concede to the fact that I am most often good at carrying out a plan of action or suggestions from others rather than having the foresight to see the need and initiate a plan myself. I have a sister-in-law who is a champion at that – she can, as the saying goes, fly by the seat of her pants, see what needs to be done, and just simply grabs the proverbial bull by the horns and gets going. I guess those would be called the ring leaders. Without them, there would be uncertainty as to who could do what and when.
Then, there are those who watch. Standing by, ready if needed, they may be the security guards or the audience. Some watch critically I guess, or so it seems. Perhaps they are just observing life, like one watching a circus; after they’ve watched one ring a while, they simply turn toward another ring and watch there a while. They can be silent or enthusiastically applauding and only they know how much they are troubled by or enjoying the performance. Others watch with the anticipation of being called down to center ring as a volunteer to participate. Practically jumping out of their seats to help and running headlong down the aisle, they bolt over the hurdles that separate the ring from the audience. I love those people. They watch for the call, i.e. see a need, and off they go. Those are the ones who carry a family through tough times; the fund-raisers, the casseroles carriers, the transportation teams, on and on as the needs dictate. They don’t seem to even have time to think about it – they just DO! God bless them!
And there are the reporters. They announce the circus is coming and hope to get a large crowd interested for the best turnout. The thinkers, the praying. They are down on their knees reporting all the needs to God (who already knows) and asking on behalf of the troubled ones for help, healing and strength. Like a recording secretary, they are trying to keep all the facts together, as if organizing ‘how long its been’ and ‘how long until’ could make the healing quicker. They have that deep longing to write it all down so that they can write in a happy ending. Or at least to think of some profound thing to say that will give the hurting a great deal of hope and encouragement. We mean well. And all of these groups are necessary in life.
Most people are some combination of all of these; the thinker-feelers, the rush-in-and-doers, and the applauding supporters. Today as I looked around I saw all of these and more. There were relatives and friends who spoke encouraging words, with the wit and charm to keep the young and old smiling; there were the co-workers who spent tireless hours in support; the church family who prepared the meal; the immediate family who so lovingly cared for Jana and her children; and there was a cloud of witnesses – petitioners who begged God’s mercy and strength for Jana and her family. There before me I saw the rosy glow I’d searched for, in the faces of his long time school friends who were just there for the most important purpose of saying to Eddie, “we love you, you are not alone”. I heard my happy ending as the preacher reminded us all of Jana’s victory over death as she truly deserves, perfect and whole now with Jesus her Lord. As we see time after time, in the good times and the bad, there was inspiration and encouragement from God’s Family that we sang about today. We sang also of Jana’s “Last Mile of the Way”; knowing that it only refers to the way of this earth and that her journey has now become one of peace, praise, and forever singing. I remember that she had a beautiful voice. I’ve heard it said that it’s not the destination, but the journey that is life. I’m not so sure we can separate those two. It has been Jana’s journey of life that brought her to her destination of life forever. Her own three-ring circus, with its ups and downs; from the price of the tickets to the hoops she jumped through are all part of who she is and where she is.
We met Jana when she was five, our daughter was four, and “Ganna” as she called her became a household name. They attended church together from then until college, in each other’s homes frequently, were classmates from sixth through 12th grades, basketball teammates, sang in the high school chorus together, and later Jana married our nephew. I had the blessing of helping bring her firstborn into the world. Our lives took different directions from there, but being in the same community, I was able to see her poise and personality continue to bloom with grace.
Today, the young preacher so wisely said, “Jana was the real deal”. This is her reality, that she was a genuine Christian lady, soft-spoken, kind, brilliant, and had her priorities in place; clearly a credit to her upbringing. She had a shy Hollywood smile that said ‘don’t embarrass me by telling me how beautiful I am’, because she did not want attention brought to herself. She was one of those whose fruit bore witness of her heart. Her children’s beautiful trusting faces that say ‘its gonna be OK’ and the strength of her husband are the results of her influence. She genuinely supported her husband and children, putting their interests first. Her reality was a brutal disease but a gentle spirit; a daunting diagnosis but a very real hope in heaven; an immense knowledge that her children would likely finish growing up without her here, but that God would provide the strength for that to be done. How does a young woman face that and maintain a sweet and stoic smile? Only her innermost circle of loved ones knows how she said goodbye. But it is knowing we will say hello again that made it possible.
I don’t know that there is a ‘right’ thing to say when people are hurting. I do believe there are many roles to be filled in helping another bear his cross. I am not surprised, but truly amazed at the flexibility, strength, endurance and calm that have characterized Jana’s caregivers. I believe these are reflections of what they all saw in her. True strength is shown only when it is tested, and produces effects. Jana, you had a profound effect that will live on in the lives of your family, and community. I look forward to seeing you again someday so that I can tell you that I too have learned from your life. God gives his children what He sees they will need. I guess He knew Jana’s family and friends would need a surplus of smiles to pull out on dreary days, because Jana certainly gave a million away.
So, why dear, do we follow the survivors to the place where they last see their loved one’s body placed, and then on to share in a meal? To help them say goodbye, and to remind them they are not alone. To help them see the feast that awaits us on the other side of this time of preparation. And to assure them that we will be given the opportunity to again say hello.