Four years ago on December 9th we celebrated my husband Joe's life and then laid him to rest in a cemetery just up the road from where he grew up. Many things about that day are a blur, but there are a few that are still as clear as if they had happened yesterday.
While in the shower that morning I started piecing together in my brain some words that I wanted to say at the service. I had no idea if I would actually keep it together enough to say them, but I figured it was better to be prepared if I ended up deciding to do it. I started writing on the way to the funeral home and continued scribbling words on various scrap papers while I was waiting there to say my final goodbyes. Then, on the way to the church I took my scribbles and wrote everything over so I could actually read it if I found myself staring at a sea of sad, expectant eyes.
I remember every part of reading these words and the combination of numbness and superhuman peace that allowed me to do it.
One thing that stands out to me about Joe is that he lived every day full of life, loving others and doing the things that brought happiness to himself and those around him.
I feel like his diagnosis put these last two years on fast forward, but he certainly didn't miss any opportunity to enjoy his days.
Joe and his dad took Domani to see the Somerset Patriots for his first baseball game and Joe, his mom, and Ross took Domani for his first visit to the beach.
We went trick or treating in the neighborhood with the Franklin Park crew on Domani's first Halloween and Joe celebrated Domani's first Christmas with some new Mets outfits and a Curious George stuffed animal, just like one of Joe's own favorites from childhood.
Joe was the one who made Domani laugh for the first time just by saying "PJs!" We watched Domani's first steps together and got excited when he learned to turn off his own bedroom light at a young age.
Joe was the one sitting with Domani on a blanket outside our house on our son's 7 month birthday, waiting for me to come home from work, just so they could show off Domani's first tooth. (And, I'd just like to point out that our overachieving son, had his 2nd tooth by the next day!)
We watched Domani do the wiggle butt dance on the changing table, shake his butt to the Conan theme song,, and later, climb, run and laugh like a wild man all around the house with his cousins.
We visited Cooperstown, surrounded ourselves with Mets players at the Ritz Carlton in DC, and took Domani to his first game at Citifield.
We enjoyed an amazing family vacation this past July which included Joe and his brother Jimmy spending 4 hours plus on a hunt for a charcoal grill (which, if you didn't know, is necessary for making szalonna...and if you don't know what szalonna is, you will have to ask a Deak!), countless hours splashing in the waves and playing in the sand with Domani and his cousins, me slamming my finger in Joe's car door and him calmly driving me back to the beach house while I freaked out in the back seat, and many hours of eating great food, drinking adult beverages, watching movies, and playing games.
Most importantly, after only about $30 in quarters Joe conquered the crane game and won not only a Mets bear, but also a stuffed Elmo for Domani. It was the perfect family vacation at the perfect time.
We camped out in the basement of our house during Hurricane Irene, saw Greg Dulli once more in concert, and celebrated each special moment like it was a grand occasion.
There was no shortage of love or special moments in Joe's life and it is to those moments that we can cling now.
We will have to teach Domani about his amazing father as he grows, a task that I think will come quite naturally to all of us.
It was Joe who inspired my words on our blog which seemed to catch on like wildfire. A good lesson for today and always:
Hug your loved ones and smile at a stranger. Today only comes once.
I also remember the words from Anne Lamott that I had chosen - we had videotaped my reading of this in advance, knowing it would be difficult for me to read the whole thing during the service.
The passage from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith still sits with me and I have returned to it for encouragement many times over the past 4 years:
"But you don’t know whether you’re going to live long enough to slow down, relax, and have fun, and discover the truth of your spiritual identity. You may not be destined to live a long life; you may not have sixty more years to discover and claim your own deepest truth. As Breaker Morant said, you have to live every day as if it’s your last because one of these days, you’re bound to be right.
It might help if I go ahead and tell you what I think is the truth of your spiritual identity…
Actually, I don’t have a clue.
I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, or whether you start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn’t what you do, it’s…well, again, I don’t actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher; I should have stuck around. But I know that you feel it best when you’re not doing much – when you’re in nature, when you’re very quiet or, paradoxically, listening to music.
I know you can feel it and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes: in Chopin and Eminem, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Bach, whomever. You can close your eyes and feel the divine spark concentrated in you, like a little Dr. Seuss firefly. It flickers with life and relief, like an American in a foreign country who suddenly hears someone speaking English. In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and strains to hear.
We can see Spirit made visible when people are kind to one another, especially when it’s a really busy person, like you, taking care of a needy, annoying, neurotic person, like you. In fact, that’s often when we see Spirit most brightly. It's magic to see Spirit largely because it's so rare. Mostly, you see the masks and holograms that the culture presents as real. You see how you’re doing in the world’s eyes or your family’s or – worst of all – yours, or in the eyes of people who are doing better than you – much better than you – or worse. But you are not your bank account, or your ambition. You’re not the cold clay lump you leave behind when you die. You’re not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are Spirit, you are love, and even though it is hard to believe sometimes, you are free. You’re here to love, and be loved, freely. If you find out next week that you are terminally ill – and we’re all terminally ill on this bus – what will matter are memories of beauty, that people loved you, and that you loved them."
Those moments were deep and meaningful. But, in what remains one of the most spiritually profound moments of my life, I remember joining my fellow bandmates in the front of the sanctuary to sing the final hymn of the service. We faced the congregation while we sang Amazing Grace. My brother-in-law played one of Joe's guitars and I looked out over the family and friends who had gathered with us in that familiar space for that sacred purpose. In that moment I just knew deep in my being that God's grace was amazing indeed. It was an assurance that has stuck with me. It has not been an easy 4 years and there have been times when I have wanted to just throw in the proverbial towel. But, I can say with confidence that it has been four years full of gentle love when I'm at my most alone, unexpected miracles when I'm overwhelmed with grief, and amazing grace when I'm feeling downright hopeless. For that I am thankful.