It has been a tough week around here. My husband's 46 year old sister died, unexpectedly, on Friday, from complications after a mastectomy.
I was out of town at a conference and didn't have my cell phone charged. On Saturday evening I came back and heard the bad news. We are pretty shattered.
This week has been a kind of slow motion process of getting ready for a wake and funeral, and then actually going through it. On Monday night we went to the funeral home and saw her laid out.
I grew up in a culture where death was never faced head on. We didn't do wakes or funerals in my family. At best, we would do some sort of an informal memorial gathering, using weeks or even months after the actual death. Everyone was quietly cremated. We never saw the body. We never went to church. We never did any of that.
I have come to feel that it is better to just come face to face with it. There was something beautiful and extraordinary about touching my sister in law's body. Holding her hand. Runny my hands over her hair. Kissing her forehead. Smoothing her dress. Her flesh was cold. There was no life there. But those were the exact things we would have done in life and it was comforting, even as we knew that she was already in the arms of God.
Chau was loved deeply. At 9 months old, she had slipped from death's fingers when she survived a terrible illness. She didn't escape unscathed, however. Her brain was permanently and profoundly damaged from the fever. She had epilepsy. She was paralyzed on one side of her body. She was mute. She probably understood at about a 3 year old's level. In a family that is uncomfortable with physical affection, she was always doted on and adored. She loved kids and they loved her. My niece, from the time she was an infant, was incredibly attached to her. Chau would even share her dolls with Emma. It was a sweet relationship.
At Swan Point Cemetery, in Providence, they let you go to the cremation. So after the wake and the mass yesterday, this morning found us on a rainy, cold day, saying a last goodbye. We arrived at the chapel early and sat waiting. She arrived in a big cardboard box, which made me smile a little. The funeral home guys wheeled the box in on a cart and stood back to let us have some time with her. We took off the lid to have a last moment. Then we followed her into the room, watched as they loaded her into the furnace and my brother in law pressed the button to start the process.
Later, as I sat with my boys, I asked if they were scared about it. No, they said. I reminded them about what we heard on Ash Wednesday, that God makes us from dust and to dust we return.
Chau is not dust. She is in Heaven with God.
Thank you, Jesus, for the 46 years. We know they were a gift.