A Death Not in the Family

I went to a wake this morning.

Ironic. A-wake this morning. In fact, it was the complete opposite of waking, unless you believe in heaven, which Wayne did.

My co-worker’s father died on Monday, and although she didn’t expect any of her team to be there, our appearance seemed to bring her to tears. I wondered why she didn’t tell us about the arrangements. We found out through a church notice because another co-worker attends the same church she does.

Did she not want us to come? We weren’t sure. I figured it was more that she didn’t want us to feel like we had to come. But how could we not, and is it so bad to feel obligated to do something? I had asked each week how he was feeling, was he adjusting to the nursing home, did he miss his wife?

That wasn’t out of obligation. I cared, because I care about my co-worker. And I connected with her as I shared the struggle in my family with my grandfather’s long illness, his forgetting who we were, and then dying in a “home” that was no home. Ironic.

Yet a wake is a strange intrusion. None of us had ever met Wayne. I didn’t even know his name until I saw the e-mail circulating about his death. But there we were. Our little huddle, dressed a bit nicer than we usually are for work,

hugging our co-worker who doesn’t hug,

commenting on what a great looking couple her parents were in the portrait from the 1950s, and what a cute little girl our co-worker was,

then looking at a man who was no longer himself but was simply dead.

But something changed as our co-worker introduced us to a few family members gathered, and I started to put faces with names she had mentioned before…and they with us. I shook her mother’s hand as my co-worker said, “Mom, this is Amanda” in a way that told me this woman and I had just gone from knowing “about” to “knowing.”

“I always ask about you,” the widow said.

And then the neighbors of 38 years told us how they had no water in their new home the first day of their marriage and how Wayne ran a hose from inside his house to theirs so they would have hot water. “That’s good people,” said the wife. And how he and Clive were in the same union. And how Clive would pass Wayne’s kitchen window every morning while he was eating his cereal and they would give each other a teasing thumbs down before work.

38 years of friendship boiled down into 3.8 minutes for strangers. Snapshots brought to life through the emotion of a grieving friend. And in my mind I added those images to the other family photos tucked with loving deliberation behind the satin ribbons of the photo boards flanking the casket. Next to the one of the little blonde girl, I imagined another photo of my co-worker–my friend–holding her father’s hand, like she has so many times over the years, as she tells him goodnight.

4 thoughts on “A Death Not in the Family

    1. Keeping in mind my Chicago accent…NA-MUH-STAY awhile. “Namaste” as in the common greeting spoken in places like India or local yoga classes and meaning something like “I honor the spirit in you which is also in me.” Plus “awhile” as in (STAY) awhile.


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