Living Wake

Mom and I both said it at the same time. This evening had turned out to be – with no prior intention – a wake. The impromptu party of old friends, with tales re-told, pictures snapped and the general volume of the room increasing as the night progressed, had truly become a living wake. Had there ever been such a thing? mom and I wondered aloud to each other. How fantastic a gathering it had been, and how important for all of us. Likely there would be no such gathering after dad’s death; so this had been it. We had gathered around dad’s bed, telling stories and laughing, then gradually made our way to the living room filling in all the available seats. We all stayed much longer than I think any of us had planned. And while my father opened his eyes only once or twice in the four hours we visited, we all agreed that he had been present for the party. Stories were recounted, old photos were passed around, and there was laughter just like in the old days. (Our house had always had humor if nothing else!) And somehow, although she had not planned for it, mom rose to the occasion as ever she did in the days of yore, pulling cheese, crackers and wine out of almost-empty cabinets to continue her long-standing role as queen hostess.

Back in the days of my father’s early music festival he’d always had an assistant to help him during the summer. The duties of said intern were wide-ranging and went far beyond simply picking musicians up at the airport and manning the box office. These various and sundry jobs were the subject of hilarious tales re-told tonight, none of which had to be elaborated upon to be entertaining. And what made this all the more precious a night was that two of dad’s long-standing assistants were here: the two Jims. They are more than former employees, they are family. I’ve known them both far longer than I’ve known just about anyone, and while I don’t fancy myself an old person, the way the tales were flying tonight I think that my generation now qualifies for that category. One of the Jim’s son was also there along with his girlfriend, and I found myself suddenly very aware of how old we all sounded. As a child I can remember my own parents talking of things that happened long before I was born, and thinking them irrelevant and, well, ancient. I looked at my own father and realized in some new dawning awareness that one day I too would not only be old, but very old. Sometimes it’s more than hard to believe; it’s scary. But it’s the crazy and unpredictable stuff that happens in the middle that makes the trip worth it I guess.

If I’d wondered how my brother would fare in the face of our father’s imminent death, I had my answer tonight. Andrew wobbled in during the party absolutely stinking drunk. Thankfully everyone (save perhaps that poor young girl) knew the deal. More than that, they responded with love and compassion. One of the Jims even let my poor brother collapse in his arms as he succumbed to his grief. I’m grateful to him for understanding. This is a tricky situation for anyone, and much more so for someone who doesn’t have it together emotionally. My mother was also able to get teary, although I haven’t seen her out and out cry yet. But it’s coming, I’m sure. I found it strange, but as we were wrapping up the evening and making our goodbyes she began to cry a bit, and I didn’t. In fact, I felt almost cried out. It almost feels as if this waiting is just too much. Like I’m done already. Only thing is, I know I’m not. And I’m still so very scared.

It’s late now. And it’s Christmas Eve, too. I’m so tired. Mom must be tired too, but it’s not over yet. We’re almost there, mom I think to myself. I also think to myself that dad must have – on some level – appreciated the company tonight. He shifted positions nearly the whole evening seemingly in search of a comfortable spot, yet I’ve heard this is simply a phenomenon that happens near the end of life. And although he seemed mostly gone from the room, he was able to nod a time or two in response to a question, and had us roaring with laughter at his agreement. Yeah, I think dad knew what was going on. He’s just pooped is all. Just too tired preparing for his transition, too tired fighting this defeated body to speak, to engage. After all he’s been engaging, performing, teaching and living for eighty-five years. I can understand.

Thanks, dad, for throwing such an awesome party.

8 thoughts on “Living Wake

  1. It sounds like this party was generally a success. Although it wasn’t planned as a “living wake”, it naturally turned out that way, and it is good that you did this. Years from now, it will be a sweet memory, and you can be glad that it happened when it did. Your new post is an interesting parallel to what you wrote about those past Christmas parties that you used to have in Illinois. Maybe this wasn’t as spectacular, but it was definitely more meaningful. You wondered if anyone had ever done a “living wake” before. Somewhere I read about somebody who knew that he was dying, and so he invited friends and family over for some sort of “sending off” party. You’re doing good. Have a nice, peaceful Christmas, and a good new year.

  2. Liz, our hearts are with you…I mean really with you. Frank and I have both been following your public journal. Thank you for leaving the window ajar and allowing us to curl up on the couch in the Hillhouse. You are an extremely eloquent writer and you have touched both Frank and I more than you’ll ever know. Last week we said goodbye to Frank’s very close Aunt (like a second mother) as she was “promoted” off this planet. It was difficult for both of us seeing her in pain from cancer. Hospice in the hospital was the best option for her as my M-in-law could not handle it at home. I HOPE you are with your dad on his final breath…I really do. You will see his chest rise off the bed (IF he’s on his back) and know his soul is free. He will try to hold on to this “plane” as long as you (or your mom…really) allow it. I think it best Elihu is with Fareed right now…but what do i know. He is such an insightful little man – Elihu. He SEES rather clearly…a gift. You do too!
    We wish you peace on Earth. Your Dad is ready. When your Mom is ready he will go. This we know. Merry Christmas to you my dear old friend. Let Love in…Frank and I are sending it NOW… to you and your family.

    xoxo Sandy & Frank

    1. I can’t thank you enough for those words. And I am so relieved to hear from you personally after all these years… you and Frank have truly helped give me extra strength I know I’ll need in the coming days. I, like you, believe that he’s on his way to a better place and that in some way my mother’s emotions may be holding him back. But he’s comfortable, and he’s at home. And I too hope I don’t miss his final moment. Such a strange mix of hope and fear and sorrow and relief. He’ll go when it’s his time, that I know.
      So sorry to hear of your loss, you are where I’ll be shortly. Such a sad planet we’re on, it’s sometimes hard to even imagine things will one day get better. I’m sending you my love right back… xoxo

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Elizabeth. My thoughts are with all of you. I played at Union College on Sunday with Boston Camerata so I was in your “neighborhood” and was thinking of the time your dad and I played at nearby Siena College so long ago. I have many wonderful memories of your dad. He will be missed but many wonderful memories of him will live on in the many people he touched.

    1. Oh Steve, thank you so. I will remember you to dad today when I see him. I still go on the faith that while he can’t respond, he still hears, and appreciates. xo

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