In March of my senior year in high school, we were granted what felt like the Holy Grail– an unexpected “day off” from classes because one of the five nuns who lived in the house behind our campus had passed away. Sister Emmanuel hadn’t taught classes in years, but she was Beloved, and we all knew her as an animal lover and gentle presence in the back of the gym at all of our assemblies.
Our teachers passed out all of the funeral information, but I didn’t think it applied to me. I didn’t know her; I’d never said two words to her.
The next morning, I slept in, because it’s hard to “get up and go” when you stay up until 11:00 PM
doing helping your boyfriend do his homework. As I lolled in bed, I thought about what I wanted to do that day. With Spring Break looming and the temperatures creeping into the 60s, I decided it was imperative that I shop for a bathing suit. A bikini that year, thanks to the wonders of following Weight Watchers for the preceding six months.
Some friends and I met up at Northpark Mall and tried on suits. A quick lunch followed so we’d have the energy to slather our bodies with Hawaiian Tropics sun tan oil and lay out in someone’s back yard.
What a day! We’d accomplished so much. I was proud that the pasty whiteness of my skin had disappeared behind the faintest golden tan.
“How was the funeral?” My dad asked at dinner.
Without even looking up, I mumbled through a bite of Weight Watchers baked chicken that I didn’t go. “I skipped it to go to Dillard’s for a bathing suit.”
“What?” He said slowly, putting down his fork. “What do you mean you ‘skipped the funeral to buy a bathing suit?'”
When I met his eyes, I understood for the first time that I’d done something really wrong. Disrespectful. I made a day of mourning in my community all about me. Me in a bikini no less. How vain; how teenagerish; how selfish.
My dad was (and is) the king of funerals– where most people attend them only for close friends or family members, his circle of people for whom he would attend the final goodbye extends out for layers and layers. He would have never missed Sister Emmanuel’s funeral– his calculus would have nothing to do with his personal relationship with her; he would consider his presence a requisite show of respect for his community.
“Sorry, Dad, I didn’t realize–” I stopped because I wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m sorry.”
I honestly didn’t know, even though I should have. Moments before it had seemed victorious to find an Ocean Pacific two-piece on sale. Now it felt like a scourge.
I’m not proud that it took me a few more years to learn that lesson– that funeral are sacred. That we are privileged to celebrate a life at the end of its mortal existence. That honoring life through a funeral is a vital part of what it means to be human. That missing opportunities to engage with this rite is missing a chance to be more human and connected to others through grief.
As I wait for the information about a former co-worker’s memorial service, I prepare to teach my kids the same lesson. I forgive myself for the funerals I’ve missed for trivial reasons that still make me churn with shame. I move forward. I plan to attend the funeral.