One recent week embraced an elderly friend’s memorial service and a middle-aged friend’s wedding. These events not only marked ends and beginnings for them but also rippled through other lives, including that of my wife and me. Sad or happy, such rituals reminded us of the value of making the most of the unknown time allotted us with friends and neighbors as well as our loved ones. For me, they also spoke to the human need for hope.
Though they did not know each other, both friends were neighbors we had known for years. The 92-year-old neighbor, whom I will call Frank, was a retired engineer with a generous nature, a ready laugh, and a creative way with wood, stone, plant fibers, and other natural materials.
Before my wife left for a master’s program in Seattle a few years ago, Frank gave her a bracelet of handmade, gaily painted beads as a going-away present. He and his wife were devout Catholics and raised 10 children together. She succumbed to cancer only a few months before Frank’s death.
When death came, Frank was literally waiting at home in Goleta. After a fall caused his hospitalization, his sons and daughters moved him as quickly as they could from a convalescent facility to his home. Coincidentally, my wife and I had visited Frank during his brief stay at the facility and had silently bid him godspeed.
His children and grandchildren arranged for home hospice care, held his hand, talked to him, kept him comfortable, and played his favorite music. They made their good-byes and, as we all must try, came to terms with the passage of their last parent. During the memorial the priest related how Frank’s wisdom, humor, and love of pranks was a theme running through many of the stories the family told.
Long-lived memories naturally attach to weddings, too. This one, the second for our friend Sarah (another pseudonym) as well as for her new husband, was designed to create a bouquet of memories, beautiful and significant. Both had adult children from earlier marriages, so their union did not fully fall into what is called a blended family. However, it was important that two “mature” people, as the minister described them, decided to take another chance on love.
Risk attended this decision, but it also carried a huge potential for joy, growth, and happiness. Some might call it blissfulness. Such action demanded intestinal fortitude, I thought, as I not so quietly cheered them on
Standing at the alter declaring the vows they had crafted themselves, the couple looked very much in love—and understandably nervous. As might be expected from a professional writer like Sarah, careful attention to detail was evident in the decorations, the program, and the reception. For example, each attendee was handed a program that not only presented the order of the ceremony but also credited the musicians, attendants, ushers, and groomsmen by name. And it gave directions to the reception in an adjacent building.
More unusual, and distinctive, was the quiz on the back page that educated the audience about the backgrounds the bride and groom brought to the new partnership. Consisting of nine short questions—“Which of us is the Musician and which is the Artist?” was one—it posed a basic question: “How well do you know us?”
Since most people at such events gravitate to the ones they know and ignore strangers, I thought that the quiz was an excellent icebreaker as well as an introduction to the newlywed you did not know. My wife found the exercise engaging and I learned I did not know Sarah as well as I thought I did.
Later, watching Sarah chat with guests, a mutual friend turned to me and marveled, “I’ve never seen her look so happy.” I agreed with a nod and a smile. May their happiness continue, I thought, though their time together will doubtless have its share of lows as well as highs.
Personally, I intend to continue learning from the people around me, drawing sustenance and inspiration from their struggles and achievements. Frank taught me something about meeting death with dignity; Sarah’s act illuminated the courage behind sticking your neck out for love.
Maybe awareness can spread that, as writer Ruth E. Renkl has noted, “You live longer once you realize that any time spent being unhappy is wasted.” That seems a step toward leaving the small corners of the world we inhabit a little better off than how we found them.