My brother, the Middles, Stark, and I kicked off the start of the Sundance Film Festival the night before my Aunt’s funeral. At first, I thought to myself that I needed to somehow be respectful of her recent passing and in my mind I envisioned that as some sort of over dramatized mourning that consisted of my insisting on doing nothing at all for who knows how long. But that is exactly why I didn’t put off spending all the time I could with her since her birthday in June when I met up with her at the Arts Festival. That night, she danced to festival bands until the festival was long closed. When I first met her there, she could barely walk and I used my volunteer pass to let her skip the lines and slowly walk from one side of the festival to the other. And yet… she danced. So then I thought to myself, no one will quite understand why I went to a concert the until 3am the night before her funeral. Just like when my own mother died, people will stand back and say, “She’s not dealing with it correctly…” and make their assumptions. Thankfully I understand myself better now. I am an adult now. I know exactly why, instead, I thought there would be no better way to begin celebrating her life than to live my own – close to the people I love and dancing the night away.
I knew making that choice would mean that Saturday morning would be harder than ever to wake up… especially for something that, when our alarms went off, I felt a complete sense of unwillingness come over me. “I don’t even want to go…” I said out loud to Stark as the conversation continued in my head… I don’t have to do this. I don’t want to. Someone else can read her obituary at the funeral and it would make no difference at all. Then I remembered how I had danced. And for all the nights that Ilse had made the choices she needed to in living her life, she never skipped out on plans with me whether it was getting me to work on time during the months she drove me while my car was in the shop or going to work with me when I had a deadline for a report coming up and she knew the only way we would ever get a chance to grab a bite to eat together was if we bought lunch in the middle of a busy day and ate most of it in the car. So for my loyalty to honoring her and the fact that Nikki (her daughter/my cousin) had specifically asked me to read it, I woke. I got ready. I overcame the guilt trip need to be sullen in nature and I showed up at the door of the church with a smile.
I spent an hour with just family members and was deeply grateful to know that I still held a place in the family as someone who had shared incredible pain and fond memories with each of Ilse’s family members. They weren’t just cousin. They weren’t just acquaintances made for no other reason than being related. They were my brothers and sisters; my friends. Mark and I hugged the longest. When I thought he’d be done with me, he held on even tighter and together, we cried. Jack squeezed me as I told him I was so happy to see him and briefly introduced him to Stark. I was sad that they had never met before and even more sad that this would likely be the only time they ever meet. That’s just the way life goes.
I cried more than I expected to and even more than I remember crying at my own mother’s wedding. I sat for a moment and wondered why. I was just 16. I was in a deep sense of denial. I was happy to see family. I was happy to see friends. It didn’t seem like a time for crying. In many ways I knew my Mom was there. She was there in spirit. She was there, lying in a casket. For me, simply knowing she was still there was all I really needed at the moment. It was interaction as much as almost any 16 year old girl needed from a parent. It took me a long time to realize she was no longer just back at home like everyone’s mom and dad. This time, there were tears. The tears were real but they were anything but sad about her passing. I was sad at the idea that I may never get to see her kids again. It was sad in realizing that her youngest is only about 18 months older than I had been when I stood, just like him, alone at the side of my mother’s casket with a stinging desperation for this all to just be a bad dream.
For a moment, I stood in the hallway with Stark and reviewed how I would read her obituary. It was the easiest task there could possibly be and yet, very difficult all the same. I would be the first person to speak. I would break the silence and need to look at the audience, who would be settling into one last good cry because of what I was saying. I needed to practice getting through. I needed to practice being mindful enough to pronounce each name in either German or English… back and forth, one and then the other. I wasn’t nervous. I simply needed to know I could do it through my own tears.
As soon as I was done reading it aloud, a group of people passed through the doors we were standing next to without saying much of anything. One of them was my brother who wandered off alone in the opposite direction of anyone else. I was torn. I didn’t know what to do and this was one area in which my place has become a little fuzzy. It was all I could do to remind myself, it is all a conscious choice. Whatever I do will be right so long as I make that choice for myself. So I handed Stark my things and went after him. I didn’t really need to say anything to know what it was he was going through. My brother and I have always had an unspoken, emotional connection. I won’t say exactly what he was going through. That is his own story to write. But he wanted to hand his funeral duties off to another family member so he could leave. He wanted to speak to my sister, Julie and no one else. So I did what I do and I reported what was needed before sitting down again with Stark and breathing a deep sigh.
It was time. Closing the casket before the public “viewing” was hard. The ritual is so obtuse, so mixed, and so… final. Ilse’s son Mark, daughter Nikki, and ex husband gathered at her side as they closed everything and I stood, just behind them. I felt lost in between their family and my own. Although for many recent years she treated me like one of her own, I wasn’t. But I wasn’t in a place where it even occurred to me that I would gather together with my siblings and say final goodbyes all together. They did. But I didn’t. I stood with Stark. In many ways I was more with Stark than I ever had been before. Even when family was here visiting for their “final” goodbyes to Ilse this last August, I spent most of my time hugging them, relating to them, taking pictures, visiting, and making plans to spend more time together. That was a turning point for me and I would never for one second regret that I spent that time then just like I will never regret that I was glued to Stark on the afternoon of her funeral. He was my family. He truly was all that I needed and I knew… that was ok.
Ilse’s son, Anthony came. I was happy to see him. Everyone wanted to give him hugs and I could tell, he just wanted to be there without really being there at all. He didn’t know most of these people, really. He didn’t care. I remembered feeling that way – like each hug was just a ghost of someone who was far more annoying in their sympathy then they were empathetic. I remember flopping back in forth between total hatred for someone’s gesture to hoping someone would just notice me for one moment and realize I wasn’t ok. I watched from far away and waited until less people were harassing him for more and more hugs before I approached him. I made sure to ask, “Can I hug you?” We hugged for a while; longer than I would expect Anthony to ever hug me in recent years. I told him I was glad to see him and he looked at me, for a moment, like he didn’t even recognize who I was. I understood that look. It was ok. I knew he’d never remember that moment just because of that look in his eyes. He won’t remember most of this. He’ll move on in his own way. He’ll insist on doing it all on his own and still feel a bit abandoned by anyone who might help him figure things out. I get that. It’s his truth. It doesn’t have to be anyone else’s to make it any more true or real than it is for him.
I felt as though everyone had just barely gotten comfortable with the fact that the casket was closed and in many ways that made it obvious now that Ilse was gone from our lives together. We were just settling down to a low level of talking and less crying. Yet, it was time to go through the next difficult motions of the family procession behind the casket into the funeral as others gathered and stood, watching us all move along in honor of the dead. It was another confusing moment in which so many said I looked very sad and yet I was feeling inside that I didn’t have to be sad about this. I had no regrets whatsoever. I had been preparing for this for a while.
As we moved along, Stark and I saw my friend and sister, Alissa. She came to the funeral for no other reason than to support me in this day. She insisted and for that, I was most grateful. She is the kindest, most understanding person I have ever known. I am so happy and so lucky to have her on my side. Together, we broke free of the line and sat in our own corner, near the front. I went up to the stand and was happy that Stark sat with someone that would be more comforting than sitting in the middle of a large group of family members – many of which he had never met before that day.
I did what I came to do. I honored Ilse with a smile and said goodbye, in my heart and in my own way. The Bishop had directed the meeting and we had all gone through the motions of singing an opening him – Lead Kindly Light. And now it was my turn.
He called my Cassie. That is what the program said. I knew it was because my Uncle must’ve submitted the schedule for the program to be created. To him, I was still just little Cassie. For me, I haven’t been called Cassie now for most of my life. I’ve spent more years in some rendition of Caz than I have by any other nickname. It felt odd and yet, it made me laugh a little as I went through the motions of standing and walking the short distance to the pulpit.
“Thank you Nikki… for giving me the easy part…” I was breaking the ice and yet, I truly meant it.
I looked down at the obituary I had printed in a way that anticipated how it would be hard to read. I spaced everything out, just as my mother had taught me so I didn’t back track, skip ahead, or lose my place. In one respect, it was just like any talk I had ever given. Nearly three dozen times in my life (if not more), I had preceded my dad in speaking in front of a congregation. It was our gig. It was what we did. This… was nothing. The crowd was intimate. It certainly wasn’t a tri-stake conference or youth conference. I had done those before with no problem. I stood there as I read through the first sentence and I felt nothing at all. I wasn’t nervous. I was simply there.
“… after a valiant battle with cancer.” It was the end of my first section – the first sentence. My public speaking side took over and without even recognizing the thought, I realized I was looking up at the audience during this brief pause. That’s what you’re supposed to do. I was already cheating by reading from a page, it was the least I could do to genuinely scan through the faces of those sitting closest to me as they looked up at me, waiting for my next words. My eyes locked on Nikki and then on Ingo. Ingo had started to cry and then I noticed, I was crying. I looked back down at the page, forcing the fat tears to brim at my bottom eyelids and now… I couldn’t see. I couldn’t read the next line until I calmed myself. So I stood in what seemed like a long, drawn-out silence. I was holding my breath. I could hear echoes of people’s sniffles and sudden, unexpected spurts of dramatic tears. I knew, I wasn’t alone. That last sentence had hit many people as a truth that now we were facing together all for one final time.
I continued. The rest of it seemed easy until I was going through the names – survived by and preceded by. This was always the hard part for me. I couldn’t even practice it without getting choked up. I tried to glaze over the name as if it were just like any other, but let’s face it, my Mom’s name was the longest on the list and there was no quickly getting over it. And it wasn’t just her. It was my Mom… and then Michael… and then Trae. The three names hit me in a way that no other name on the list had. I made it through and I sat down somewhat empty. In so many ways I was burying these names again. I was burying them for the last time. Ilse was my final connection. She was the Mom that kept me close to my own. She was Michael’s most valiant defense. She kept me close to Nikki who had lost Trae… who had lost everything sixty years before most people can say they’ve lost their parent, their brother, and a child.
I couldn’t walk off the stage. Those last three names had hit me in a way that made me feel a little lucky I could make it to the seats just behind the pulpit. So I sat for a moment. I listened to Andrea’s talk and felt glad that I could be up there, next to her. To me, she had the hardest part. She read through each memory beautifully and her message honored Ilse completely – from beginning to end as a person of great strength and charisma.
Then Jack and Nikki sang. I didn’t know how they could do it. I could have never sang at my own Mother’s funeral. I could have spoken, maybe. But sing? No. I can barely sing now without finding a reason to cry about it. I’m getting old. Everything has an odd sense of intrinsic meaning as I age. Their words hit me – not because of the meaning behind the song (I Heard Him Come) but because of the memories behind it. I had never really thought about how Somewhere Out There and I Heard Him Come were Ilse’s favorite songs. But the memory was suddenly there. I listened to both songs constantly as a child. I know they were among the favorites in my own family and my siblings, but that wasn’t what got me hooked. I loved Feifel. I watched An American Tale often. I even won a contest as a child that put me on TV to win a Feifel backpack and stuffed animal. It suddenly struck me as, “I am Ilse’s Hannah.” It made sense to me. My niece, Hannah and I have a special connection. Every moment I spent with her as a little girl is deeply engrained for both of us as the sweetest memories of the time without entirely being remembered. Those memories only come out when many years later, I watch her putting together paper with a stapler to call it her journal and know… I taught her that. Or I hear her playing a distinct song on the piano that she has learned all on her own rather than in a piano lesson or requested to perform. Then I remember, I played that for her over and over when she was just four years old.
The idea of how everything comes full circle and we are all, without a doubt, touched by those we let into our lives completed the day for me. I said my goodbyes and after much thought, decided to go home to rest. I had done what I needed to do. I had been moving through that need for years.
It was time…
She would have wanted it that way.