This morning, I drove for over two hours with a woman I had never met. Last week, we both received an email sharing the sad news of a friend: her father had passed away and we were invited to come to a small ceremony on Tuesday. Seeing as I don't have my license just yet - I'm working on it, though, had my first driving lesson this past weekend - but really wanted to make it, I emailed all the other recipients and found someone who was driving there from Leuven and had an extra seat. We had a nice chat, about her British husband, the time she spent in the US, about Canada and living abroad and marriage and jobs...all the big themes. Once we'd come to our destination, we greeted the family and were led to a big room that was soon filled to the brim with people. The noise level slowly rose as I sat and watched. I don't know if this makes me a terrible person, but at funerals, my thoughts inevitably drift to what it would be like if it were someone in my family that we were saying goodbye to. And I imagine I would be furious with all those people. How dare they chat and smile and laugh and cough and yawn and chew gum and have nice clothes on like nothing special is going on? Do they not understand that life has come to a complete halt for me? That someone is gone? That I will never be able to hear them talk again or hold them or be annoyed by something they're saying or the music they're playing too loudly? I know you can't expect other people to feel your pain the same way you do - you don't want to wish unhappiness upon others. And yet...for some reason, i predict fury.
The ceremony itself, to which so many people showed up some had to watch from the doorway, was beautiful. Under an hour, mostly music and a few texts by the widow and her five children. No religious dimension to it, and I didn't even miss it. It's probably not like this for everyone but I am touched much more deeply by a melody and lyrics than by a prayer or a psalm. I don't cry very often, but today, as soon as the first song came on, I crumbled. I never met my friend's father, but a lot of what was said about him reminded me of mine, who's about the same age: a love for Paris (where my parents lived for a while), a love of French music (Brel, Yves Montant), the opera (especially La Traviata, which my dad took us to see live in Italy once), getting great joy out of the simple things in life, like working around the house, fixing things, cooking, dining with friends. One of the things I associate with my father the most is music. Walking into the living room on a Sunday afternoon, while he's taking his nap and hearing which cd he put on this time. Or when something I say remind him of a song and he goes "Oh, do you know that one song, I forget the title, it goes..." and then belt out some obscure lyrics right there at the dinner table. Like yesterday, Charles Aznavour, one of my mom's favorites: "Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre, Emmenez-moi au pays des merveilles, Il me semble que la misère, serait moins pénible au soleil". I can't handle the thought that maybe one day I will be the one sitting there, selecting songs and writing texts, thinking back. The trips I've made and the ones I would like to still go on, I go on confidently knowing what I can come back to. I am arrogant enough to think like that. To not recognize that at any moment in time, the people I rely on and lean on can be snatched away.
Instead of a card with a picture, everyone got to take home a small buxus or box wood plant. That's what my friend's father had asked for. And it's a great illustration of the entire theme of the ceremony: remember, keep things alive, go on, enjoy, grow and nurture, don't stop and wilt. Once I got back to Leuven, I ran a few errands, carrying the little plant in my hand like a Torontonian would a Second Cup cup. Strangely, several people commented on it - apparently it's a conversation piece. The Belgian version of a chihuahua in Los Angeles. First, at the bank a man standing behind me (looking fairly sleazy and generally unattractive) said something to the effect of "Taking your flowers to the bank, are ya?". In part because I was getting frustrated at the slow service (Yes, Alli, I agree, Belgian banks make me want to die a little bit too sometimes - the lady kept chatting with a client about traffic and the weather when there were at least 5 people waiting, ugh! When the client f.i.n.a.l.l.y turned around and saw the line, she looked a bit startled and apologized, to which the bank lady responded "Oh, it's fine, don't worry about it". WTF? I'm not saying I always got great customer service in Canada, but Belgium is ridiculous sometimes. We're not in Spain, okay? I like things to get done quickly and efficiently, I'm a bit of a tight ass when it comes to that, sue me. And you better worry about completely ignoring the presence of me and 4 other people - unless I'm mistaken in thinking that it is our money that helps keep the bank in business? Anywho. Sorry about that) So, in part cause that was pissing me off and in part because my plant is none of his business and his cheery tone was not what I needed at that point, I snapped "Actually, I got these at the funeral I just attended". Small talk over.
Afterwards, I went into a store and put the plant on a table so I could get my wallet out of my bag. While I dialed the code of my bank card, the lady who owns the store commented on how pretty it was. This time without a trace of venom, I told her I got it at a funeral instead of a card. She liked that idea a lot and told me to take good care of it - and I promised her I would. With the help of my mom, who has much greener fingers than I do. Then finally, as I was walking home I walked past two British men (tourist season has definitely begun) and one of them asked me what plant it was. I told him the Dutch name, and he asked me if I was a biology student. "Oh no, this was...a gift." For some reason, I didn't feel the need to drop the word "funeral" in the lap of this unsuspecting, talkative stranger. And for some reason, I didn't experience his question as intrusive, the way I did at the bank. I was beginning to like that people took notice. My friend's father's plan is working like a charm: within hours after the service, a girl he never met has already taken his goodbye present all over town and discussed it with three other people. When my parents come home tonight, they'll hear the story too and throw all sorts of gardener jargon at my head on how to take care of the little green one. And so he is present still, making a subtle, gentle impact on people's lives. May that never cease to be the case.