Saturday, September 2, 2006

Funerals and Connections

My Dad, Ted Lambert, passed away on August 20, 2006. He was 83 years old, living independently in his own home (Mom died in 1991), and in full control of his intellect. While he had suffered many years with chronic health problems, and was in the hospital for treatment of an acute episode, his death came suddenly and unexpectedly. You are invited to visit our family website to learn more about Dad and our family.

Certainly there are tragedies in our lives, such as when death comes at a young age. But death is inevitable, and I find that while I mourn the ending of an earthly relationship, I am also able to find joy in the 'gathering of the clan' which happens around a funeral.

Our family has always been a little far-flung. Terry and I have lived in Columbus our entire adult lives, and have raised our kids here, a four hour's drive from our parents. My brother Jeff and Terry's sister Elaine also came to Columbus many years ago. Other siblings are in Charleston WV, Huntington WV, Ripley WV, and Virginia Beach VA. Our collective children are now beginning to spread out: Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana, and Iraq. We have first cousins in Florida, New Jersey, Kentucky, and California.

As our individual families grow, it seems that the horizontal connections in the family tree get a lot less attention than the vertical ones. Our primary focus is on our children, and in time, on their children. We also retain that strong bond to our parents, but the frequency of contact diminishes, especially if they aren't close by. And as we have now experienced, there comes an end to their time on earth, and you never feel you spend enough time with them.

The bond to siblings never diminishes, but again, the frequency of contact goes down as we deal with all the demands on our own time. The contacts beyond that -- with aunts, uncles, and cousins -- become quite rare. Some families are better than others at getting everyone together. Our family, driven by Mom and sister Pat, had some great family gatherings in the 1980s. But after about three of those, we just never got one together again. I really think it's about the logistics. A family gathering is a big deal, and it's simply hard to find a time when everyone can attend, and not be excluded simply because of scheduling conflicts.

When a close family member dies, that trumps everything. The time from death to funeral is a matter of days, and you simply have to drop other commitments and get yourself there.

Terry's Dad died completely unexpectedly, at age 63, when he still had a lot of life to live. His death was tragic because he might well have survived had they lived closer to a emergency medical center. It was a sad time.

Our mothers both died of cancer, with a lot of time to come to grips with the fact that we were experiencing the end of their days. Terry's mom had a beautiful traditional service, and it was an opportunity for me to meet a number of members of Terry's family that I didn't know. For my Mom, we held a gravesite service in the morning, then a memorial service and visitation that evening. People got up and told funny stories about times with Mom, which we all knew she would have loved. The gathering time afterward was wonderful, getting to see many of our family and friends.

A few months ago, Jay White, the younger brother of a very good friend Jim White, passed away suddenly. When Jim and I both worked at CompuServe in the 1970s, we became very close and took part in many activities together. I got to know Jim's family well, including Jay. When Jim married Karen and moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh to raise their family, our contact became limited to the annual exchange of Christmas newsletters. When Karen called to say Jay had died, there was no question that I would head to Pittsburgh to honor Jay and support Jim. We had the chance to spend the whole following day together, and found that we still shared common interests and enjoyed spending time together. It was a funeral that created the priority to connect once again.

Dad's death was not expected, but then it was. He was in the poorest health of our four parents, but ended up outliving them all. His funeral created that excuse for the gather of the clan, beginning with a wonderful dinner by Rita Shaffer, the granddaughter-in-law who had been taking care of Dad's housekeeping and being his weekly companion (along with her daughter Sarah). For the visitation and funeral, we saw many friends and family, including the last two members of my parents' generation: Dad's sister Betty and Mom's brother Don. Aunt Betty was accompanied by cousin Jane, while Uncle Don came with cousin Donna and her husband Mike. We got to see old neighbors such as Jim and Marg Hively, Chester Flick, and Sada Douglas. Denver Rucker, one of Dad's dearest friends came with his wife. Mrs Whitman, and two of her daughter, Alice and Rebecca were there. While together for dinner at a local restaurant, we ran into Rose Marie, a high school classmate of ours and childhood friend of Terry's. And friend Jim White came down from Pittsburgh to spend the day with us as well.

The following day was one for me and my sibs to get together and begin the tasks of getting Dad's stuff in order. I got to spend a fair amount of time with Sammie and Josh Lambert (Joe and Becky's kids, Ted Lee's grandchildren) and Kristen Casanave (Vikki's daughter, Pat's granddaughter), grand-nieces and nephews that I didn't know very well beforehand. New connections.

I hope that when the day comes, my funeral is a time when lots of people gather to reconnect and celebrate our interwined lives. I wish I could be there!

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