How to create a memorial among people who have some forgetfulness and no common language? This has been my question for years. How to remember a person when you do not remember a person? For the last months I have been reading Francis Weller’s, THE WILD EDGE OF SORROW, after attending an intense one day grief workshop he lead in Berkeley.
By a strange coincidence, Pearl died on the morning of the workshop. A week and a half before her passing she took the community van, with an attentive volunteer, to admire fruits, vegetables and people at the nearby farmers market. She came back tired, not surprising for someone well over ninety years old. Nobody guessed it would be her last outing. The following Monday she stopped eating. Family and staff accompanied her journey until Saturday, the morning of her final transition.
I knew Pearl well. She was curious of people and activities. Her verbal expression was reduced to a few words in three different languages. But her piercing blue eyes and malicious smile radiated a lively presence. Her daughter, Lena, visited at least two times a week. She was friendly, appreciative of our care, always ready to talk, ask questions and share her doubts witnessing the changes and struggles of her mother. During her last week, it was not difficult to drop by Pearl’s room and simply sit with her, to wrap her in the comforting gestures of Healing Touch or sing soothing songs.
I was not able to go to the cemetery for the ceremony held by the family. I was glad some staff was there. Mimi, Pearl’s favorite caregiver, could not attend either because she was on vacation. Maybe this is what pushed me to act. When I sent Lena a text, to be read at the service, about my relationship with her mother, I promised that we would celebrate Pearl’s life in the home where she spent the last years of her life.
After Mimi’s return, we choose a date. Then I started to plan. The chaplain will lead. There will be flowers, a cake. We will sing Pearl’s favorite songs. I will create an altar.
Using Pearl’s obituary picture, I printed out an announcement. It was emailed to the staff and posted around the community. The day before our memorial, I bought a big pot of yellow mum. From my home I brought a little piano/music box, to represent Pearls’ love from music.
On the morning I looked around the activity room cabinets for objects suitable for the altar. I gathered them in a basket. I could not display them in advance. They would have been immediately admired and pocketed as valuable treasures.
At 1:30PM I picked up the cake in the kitchen. I had ordered a simple yellow soft cake to accommodate most diet restrictions. The cook had decorated it with summer berries. It looked so pretty on the large silver platter. I sliced the cake in forty little pieces, and set the berries aside in a bowl. Few of the guests would be able to safely swallow the fruits. I decided to save them for the altar and pass them around afterward.
In the center of the room I opened a card table that I covered with a colorful shawl. Over it I displayed the remembrance items from the basket, and the bowl of berries: here was the altar.
All participants surrounded the altar in a large circle. While setting up, I was announcing: “We are having a celebration, a ceremony for Pearl, who passed away.” Diana was curious: “Who is the person who died?” I answered:”You are going to learn about her right now.”
Lena was first to arrive. I hugged her. “It’s hard for me to be here but I am so thankful you organized that.” Mimi hugged her. Staff trickled in and rotated seating next to Lena, during the celebration.
The chaplain came right on time. I showed him the mike next to the card table. I had told him in advance about the altar. He had answered: “It’s a great idea.” He too, knew Pearl and her family well. Pearl enjoyed participating in his programs about religion, art or literature.
To begin, I picked up my accordion, and played one of Pearl’s favorite songs. Tears came to my eyes. I let them roll. We were here to share the loss. Lena too was getting emotional. Then the chaplain pronounced a short introduction and an opening prayer using a warm and cautious tone. After that he lifted the bowl of berries, for all to see. Smiling he invited comments. Lena spoke: “She liked the berries in her smoothie. I regularly brought her smoothies with vitamins.” A palette, a paint brush and a copy of ART IN AMERICA were shown next. Pearl was an accomplished artist. All of us had admired her framed paintings on the walls of her room. Leafing through art magazines was keeping Pearl in contact with this part of her life. With another smile, the chaplain lifted a tiny bottle of beige foundation. We smiled back. Pearl had a beautiful skin; make up enhanced her pale blue eyes. Lena spoke:” She did not wear makeup before, but when she came here, I thought it would be nice. I asked the caregivers if they could draw eyebrows, to define her face. When I was visiting, according to the shape of the eyebrows, I could guess who her caregiver was that day.” Next was the miniature piano:”It’s so cute!” exclaimed Lena. “She loved all music but particularly classical. –There is a sheet of music on the piano” said the chaplain, lifting the music box close to his eyes “Yes it is classical music. Maybe we could sing together one of Pearls favorite song?” I proposed FRERE JACQUES. Lena and the staff smiled. We all had heard Pearl singing the French lyrics of FRERE JACQUES. In many different languages, including Chinese, we sang full heartedly the familiar verses. The last thing on the altar was a little Christmas cactus. I could see that the chaplain was not sure if it was a decoration or a symbol. I stood up: “The little cactus comes from Pearl’s room. Lena left it for us. We want to take good care of it so we will remember Pearl a long time. Lena added:” “She was kind of a cactus. Not always easy, prickly from the outside, but so nice inside.” A staff member agreed: “Yes, when she did not want to do something she would show us her tongue. –She showed her tongue to me too!” said the chaplain. “We have looked at all the objects, is there more someone wants to add about Pearl?” Lena spoke: “She was a citizen of the world. She lived in different countries and continents. She spoke five languages. She never spoke French before moving into this community. Suddenly she started speaking French.” I realized that this could have been one reason I was attached to Pearl. She understood French. Lena stood up and moved toward the mike: “I want to thank this place. It has been the perfect place for my Mom … and Mimi…” Lena stopped, looking at us. Her mother and Mimi grew so close through years of intimate and loving care. Mimi crossed the room and hugged Lena. I was crying. Mimi took the mike: “Pearl was a wonderful woman and had a wonderful family. Lena, you did so much for her.”
Lena went back to her seat. The chaplain recited the final prayers followed by another of Pearl’s favorite songs. Staff members decorated the cake slices with whipped cream and passed them around. More staff greeted Lena.
I was enjoying the warmth of the gathering when someone pointed out to me that Gerda, a resident, had opened the bottle of foundation and was spreading it on her cake. It was time to clean up and rearrange the room. Elly, who sat attentively in the front row, the whole time, said to me:” This was a very nice ceremony.” Next to her, Alice, who had also stayed very attentive was starting to moan again, her usual behavior when nothing interesting happens.
Before leaving Lena told me: ”This meant a lot for me. I thank you for having done it. I cannot even tell you. –It is good for us too.” I replied.