Sunday, February 03, 2008

The First Funeral

It took thirty-one years to get me to my first funeral. Geography, poverty, and old-fashioned good luck kept me out of funeral homes for a long time, but this weekend the streak came to an end. At the same time thousands of people were tuned in watching President Hinckley’s funeral on TV yesterday, a much smaller group was gathered in a chapel in Farmington to say goodbye to my grandmother.

The following is an adaptation of the address I gave yesterday afternoon:

If a guest ever attended one of our family meals on Christmas or Thanksgiving, they would probably assume that one member of our family was serving in the military, or had died a premature death, because there was always one place setting at the table that never got used. That is because in over sixty years of marriage, my grandmother never sat at a family dinner table for more than thirty seconds at a time. She was always far too busy managing the operation like a field general in the heat of battle, a sharp-eyed hawk that dealt in casseroles instead of claws.

I always tried to keep busy with my food, because I knew that if I ever paused for more than 3.5 seconds, Grandma would zero in on me like a cruise missile.

“Do you need something, Josh?”

“No, I’m fine, Grandma.”

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

“No, really, I’m fine…”

“Do you want me to make you a baked potato?”

“It’s ok…”

“I’ve got fourteen different kinds of pies in the kitchen…”

“No, no, I’m fine, really…”

Grandpa always did his best to get her involved in the actual meal, but even though his efforts were always genuine at first, they eventually morphed into a kind of obligatory mantra for a cause he knew was lost.

“Mother, sit down.”

“Mother, sit down.”

“Mother, sit down...”

This was the Grandma that I knew as a child. The one that prepared gourmet meals for family gatherings. The one that went out of her way to get generous gifts for all her grandchildren on their birthdays and on Christmas, and the one that would apologize if the cards were a day late. The one that worked so hard to serve the young women in her ward, the students at the Davis County School District, or the guests at the Tracy Club up in Island Park. It was never about her. It was always about someone else. She was more of a force of nature than a relative.

Then something special happened. Sometime several years ago, I got to step behind the curtain and see what happened behind the scenes to create the elaborate production I had seen as a child. My grandmother became more than a great cook, more than a relative, more than just my Grandma. She became my friend.

Maybe it was because after reading two years worth of the letters she wrote to me in Chicago, I was finally mature enough to understand her, or maybe it was just because I was old enough to actually pay attention to all her stories instead of rushing off to coerce my cousins into playing football with me in the backyard. But sometime in the last few years I really began to appreciate who my grandmother is. Our conversations became more frequent and personal, and as I began to open up more about what was happening in my life, she began to open up as well. I began to recognize her strength and her testimony of the Gospel. I began to sense her frustrations and hopes, and she became a confidant instead of just a great cook.

About three years ago she asked me to help her with a family history project. Her mother was a prolific writer and historian, and had typed up extensive personal histories for many of her family members. Grandma wanted me to type up all these histories onto the computer so we could preserve them in a comprehensive record. As I did, and as I read through the stories, I began to understand how Grandma became the kind of person she was. I began to see how she learned important Christ-like principles of faith and sacrifice and hard work, and above all, selflessness. Ironically, she never managed to put together a history for herself. We’d ask her to work on it, and sometimes she’d share little anecdotes from her past, but most of the time the stories were about someone else. Her attention was always on other people.

One story she did tell that always stuck out in my mind was the story of how she and my Grandpa decided to get married. They were only casual friends at first, but when he returned from serving in the Pacific during World War II, he talked her into driving him to Salt Lake so he could make his report to Elder Harold B. Lee, who was an apostle at the time. Somehow she wound up in the actual meeting with Elder Lee, and even though they vehemently denied any serious interest in each other, he suggested they go think things over.

Outside in the car, my grandparents-to-be had the 1940’s equivalent of a DTR, which I can only assume didn’t involve text messaging.

It didn’t involve a lot of romance, either. As the enormity of what they were considering washed over them, my Grandpa couldn’t do anything but tell the simple truth:

“I don’t know that I love you, but I know you’re the kind of woman I want to raise my children.”

You want to know why I’m not married? Genetics.

Luckily my grandmother knew better than to be dissuaded by that gem, probably because she didn’t know if she loved him either. But after some more discussion and a few days to think things over, the two of them decided to take a leap of faith that I’ll always be grateful for.

Over sixty years later, my grandparents were very much in love, and had grown so close that you’d swear they were sharing the same soul. If one of them broke a hip, the other would run the ship. If one of them suffered a stroke, the other would step up again, no matter their previous condition.

I saw this over and over again for years, and saw it again this summer after my grandfather was diagnosed with dementia. My grandmother had been on dialysis for nearly three years, and I started going over on Mondays to hang out with Grandpa while she was gone. But in spite of his own struggle, he was still determined to make sure she got to her bus in the morning. One Monday while they were waiting for her ride, I took a quiet photograph of him as he peeked out the front door, keeping watch while my grandmother waited patiently on the stairs.

As the summer drew on, my grandmother’s condition worsened, and by the time I had to end my Monday visits and start a new full-time job at KJZZ, she was more or less gone. So while the experience of seeing her pass on has been sad, I am happy to see her released from the pain she was suffering, and I have never doubted that I will get to see her again. When my dad and I gave her a priesthood blessing a week before she died, it wasn’t with a sense of mourning or grief, but a sense of gratitude for all she had given. She had fulfilled every task she was sent to do in mortality, and then some. When I looked at her resting at the viewing Friday night, I couldn’t help but feel admiration for the life she completed, and feel that if I can give a fraction of the service she rendered in her time in mortality, I will be in good company. Her life is truly something to be celebrated, and I look forward to talking to her about that again, even if she’s more interested in hearing about what’s going on in my life.