How I found laughter and love in my darkest of days
My friend was running a bit late, and my mother was agitated. “Where is Katie* (named changed to protect the terrified) with that cold cut platter?”
It was the day before my husband’s funeral. We were expecting another influx of people stopping by to pay their respects and were running low on food. Katie had graciously offered to bring up the traditional wake tray of deli meats and cheese.
She was always on time, so I realized it could only be one thing. “Knowing Katie,” I said, “she is taking the time to make it look perfect.”
An interior decorator by trade and fabulous cook, everything Katie created was impressive. She could make even the most mundane chips and dip look Insta-worthy — even before Instagram existed. “It’s all about the presentation,” she explained.
Suddenly Katie and another friend, Christine, frantically burst through the front door. “There are three sheriff cars and five officers with their guns drawn right in front of your house!” they breathlessly exclaimed.
Christine and I bolted upstairs to my son’s room to get a good view of the action, figuring we could duck behind the bed if bullets started flying. (Our lame safety plan made perfect sense at the time.) Too freaked out to join us, my mother and Katie huddled in the kitchen.
We peeked through the blinds like seasoned nosy neighbors. Sure enough, the three cars were stopped in front of the house directly across the street. The sheriffs were slowing converging on a pickup parked in the driveway, firearms at the ready.
Our hearts beating faster than any gunfire that might have erupted, we were captivated by this C.S.I. moment playing out on my suburban cul de sac.
The officers steadily approached the vehicle in question, but found no one inside. After a thorough check of the perimeter (yes, I watch a lot of crime dramas), they determined that there was no immediate threat. The squad soon dispersed, deflating our adrenaline rush as they drove away.
Turns out the house was in foreclosure. The neighbors, incensed at being evicted, had trashed the interior before they left. The word was out to call the sheriffs should one of them return. Apparently, I didn’t get the notification. Neither did my next-door neighbor’s gardener, who had innocently parked in the perpetrator’s driveway.
Condolences and Casseroles
The gardener had been forced to use said driveway because there was no space available on the street. Every inch of curb was occupied by someone visiting my house — the home of a grieving family.
Since my husband’s sudden death a little over a week before, it had been a steady procession of people stopping by to offer condolences, deliver food or flowers, or both. Casseroles and coffee cakes overran my kitchen. Bouquets of flowers took up every square inch of table space.
I walked around in a frenzied fog trying in vain to comprehend my current circumstances.
One insightful friend brought over copious amounts of paper goods, plastic utensils, and toilet paper. When you have a constant flood of guests, they are the things you need most, but the last things you think about. It’s now my go-to offering when I visit a family in mourning.
It Takes a Village, a Family, and a Community
My husband and are were raised in large and social families. Both of us — especially my husband — were active in our community. He died while he was coaching my younger son’s youth football game, calling plays as he went down. It had made the local paper. To say his funeral was going to be well-attended was an understatement.
It was like planning a wedding for 1,000 guests with only a week’s notice.
My sons — ages 13 and 15 — and I were dumbfounded by grief. We could barely get ourselves dressed, let alone plan such an event.
Fortunately, it was this extended family and community that picked up the slack and then some. Some kindnesses were elaborate, and others were simple, but all made a difference.
No gift of compassion is ever too small for a family that is grieving.
My parents’ main mission was to tend to my boys and me, as we were rolling on empty. One person created the funeral program, another had it printed. Matt’s closest coworker took charge of the video presentation and gave a soul-stirring eulogy. I can’t remember who oversaw the floral arrangements, but the altar was in glorious bloom.
The church bereavement committee handled the after-service reception. While I hazily muddled through the greetings and thank yous, they made sure every guest had enough appetizers to ward off grumbling stomachs.
A pair of Matt’s friends transformed our backyard into a splendid venue complete with lights in the trees for the at-home gathering. Still another generous couple picked up the tab for dinner and bartended the evening. When the sunset and the lights began to twinkle, it was truly heavenly.
My husband had always envisioned hosting just such a magical party. I only hope he was able to see his dream come true.
Absurdity at the Mortuary
A few days before the funeral, Katie had accompanied me to the mortuary to finalize the details of my husband’s cremation. She was a bit squeamish with the situation but determined I not do this alone.
Uneasiness radiated off of Katie as I filled out the forms. She was trying valiantly to hide it, which only made me appreciate her presence even more. Soon, the mortician came in to finalize the details:
Would you like an urn? No, we will be scattering his ashes.
Ok, that will be $50 dollars for the cardboard box. I could hear my cost-conscious husband bellowing from his yet-to-be-determined grave.
Would you like him sifted or unsifted? Wait? What?! We aren’t baking a cake with him! Katie turned ashen.
The mortician explained that if the deceased had false teeth or any pins and rods from surgeries, they wouldn’t turn to ash in the cremation process. Lumpy gobs of metal would be left in the cinders. Matt was a very good — but accident-prone — athlete. His body was practically cyborg.
I didn’t need any Cracker Jack surprises tumbling out when we spread his remains. I paid extra for the sifting.
Finding Laughter and Love Amidst Chaos
In the eight days between my husband’s death and his funeral, I was bewildered and broken. My entire world had been shattered and I had yet to learn how to pick up the pieces.
Without the benevolent support of family and friends, my sons and I wouldn’t have survived those first days and beyond. We were in a grief-laden stupor and many details remain hazy, but our hearts will always remember the outpouring of love we received.
As it is with everything, there were periods of laughter and even joy woven into the hours of sorrow. My spirit was delighted to see far-away loved ones who arrived to console us. Katie and I giggled over the “sifting inquiry” for days and years after.
Even the alarm of a police raid provided a much-needed diversion. In your darkest of days, life will provide moments of relief if you’re willing to recognize them.
Back at the Scene of the Crime
After the commotion from the impending shoot-out had died down, I was finally able to view Katie’s platter. It was a magnificent display. The cold cuts and cheeses were impeccably spiraled around what I knew to be one of her favorite dishes. She spent time considering the color palette when she transitioned from one deli item to another.
My dear friend needed perfection for an imperfect occasion. I knew each item was carefully placed with heartbreak as she worked to ease my burden. It was her sympathy card to me.
“So, this is why you were late,” I said to Katie as I admired the tray. She smiled through her tears and nodded.
“It’s all about the presentation,” we chimed together.
This piece was originally published on Medium.com