I’ll tell you about my first real funeral.
I was little, seven or eight. My great grandma Essie passed away.
Essie lived the last decade or so of her life in a corner of Colorado where the flat plains were sown with wheat fields stretching as far as the eye could see. The Rocky Mountains didn’t even smudge the western horizon.
Julesburg is so small you could ride a bike across town in the time it takes to sing three verses of the Star Spangled Banner.
I don’t remember the service itself except that it happened in a little church within a block of my grandmother’s house on a gorgeous spring day.
Afterwards, I walked down the sidewalk with my sisters and parents, and I started to cry. The sun was a warm kiss against my skin. A cool, silky breeze soothed away its heat. Birds sang. The scent of lilacs wafted on the air.
It broke my heart.
Great Grandma Essie would never experience any of this again.
I started a list in my head of all the other wonderful things she’d miss: Christmas morning, Humming Birds, me…. I cried harder.
I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my grandmother’s pink guest room, still crying, Mom sitting beside me.
Despite weekly Sunday school classes, I had no concept of a place Grandma Essie could go that could possibly be better than this. Wouldn’t she miss us? Wouldn’t she be all alone? I don’t envy my mom that day. Though I don’t remember her words, I recall a sense of mild desperation in the arm she wrapped around me.
Part of my distress was the idea that not everyone got to go to that wonderful place called heaven that Mom and Sunday school tried to describe. My teachers didn’t preach hell and brimstone, not to kids my age, but you hang around at church long enough and even seven-year-olds hear rumors.
At 92, Great Grandma Essie was a grumpy, old woman. She’d had a hard life, been abandoned by two husbands, raised two children alone on a farm in the Midwest in the days before electricity and cars and Zoloft. She’d sent both of her kids, daughter and son, to college. She was a tough, old broad. To me, she’d always been a slightly scary, very fragile, old lady who wore sagging stockings and slept in her rocking chair when we visited. She died in her sleep, alone, in a gloomy, cramped apartment that smelled funny. Would she make it to heaven?
“Of course,” my mother said, gently squeezing my shoulder as I sobbed.
“But, how do you know?”
That’s the question, isn’t it?