Rockford Illinois sunset
While I was in Rockford, IL, as summer minister and student hospital chaplain, I “did” three memorial services. All three had something to do with babies, but only one was for a baby.
A couple who had a teenaged daughter discovered that the mother was pregnant. Since all three people had plans, schedules, spaces, that had no room or time in them for an infant, they sat down together to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy. They decided that a new life would be such a delight that they would simply rework their lives and they did, converting an office to a nursery, cancelling coveted work, and rethinking their life goals.
But the baby girl died before the pregnancy was complete in spite of a C-section that hoped to save her. The three were devastated. Then they went to work to understand it. The decided that this event in its demands and self-examination was a sort of message about their lives and that they ought to be grateful for new awareness. The memorial was in their home with the fireplace for an altar. They designed the service but asked me to deliver a homily, which I used to imagine a life for the baby -- her skinned knees, her graduation ceremony, her bridal gown. It was the first time I ever heard Barbour’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” With wry humour, friends provided a devil’s food cake and an angel food cake. Who knows how that little beginning life would have turned out?
The second service was for a woman who was elderly and had been in a nursing home with a stroke for some time. My practice was to go talk to the family about the person before composing the service, but no one seemed to know much about this woman except that she loved to play bridge. A single mother, she had a son but he didn’t know much about his mother. I inquired around the congregation to find who her friends were and finally made contact with them.
The story came pouring out. The women in their eighties said “we were brides together”. They told about a woman who had cared for her bedridden sister and mother for decades, remaining cheerful, giving, uncomplaining. She had been born back East, sent to the best finishing schools and generally indulged. The Depression wiped out the money and WWII wiped out her marriage. From then on her life was largely drudgery in a nothing job. But everyone insisted she had never had an unkind thing to say about anyone and she never got down in the dumps. As St. Francis said, “Faithfulness in little things is a big thing.” But it won’t make you rich or famous.
The third memorial service was for a man who had been told as a pre-schooler that his heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever so he should expect to die young. But he didn’t. When I went interviewing, I heard about a flower-grower who grew where he was planted. He stayed on in the family home, caring for both parents until their deaths — because he unexpectedly went on living. He was far from gloomy, a fine ballroom dancer as well as a good Swedish singer.
The most intriguing story I heard was that he had a policy of avoiding marriage because he wouldn’t live long enough to raise any children. He would go a certain distance, even fall in love, but then withdraw. There was only one time that it was very hard to break off from a woman he truly would have liked to marry. I put this in the homily.
The service was in a funeral home. At the end I got a little confused and went through a curtain that I thought was the entrance to a kind of waiting room. Gratefully, I kicked off my heels, and stood catching my breath. Then the funeral director directed the entire audience through that door and on to a room where refreshments were to be served, all of them filing past me and shaking hands, many of them older Swedish folks with rosy cheeks and sweet accents.
Even in my stocking feet I was taller than some of the ladies. One pulled my head down so she could whisper in my ear, “I was the one he truly loved and wanted to marry!” I hugged her and said how lucky she was. Then down the line another woman did the same thing. In the end there were half-a-dozen women who had secretly and confidently believed that they were this man’s true love. He was a gardener of hearts, growing each with love even after breaking off.
I want to mention that one of the most memorable parishioners, a woman who had been a close confidant of Alan Deale, was Mabel Johnson, ninety years old and far from dead. She was in the hospital for damage from a fall. She had been a nurse in this very hospital since 1913.
During WWI she was an army nurse in France, working desperately with very little equipment in a tent hospital. Deadly influenza was burning through the land and the doctor caught it. The nurse working with Mabel said to her, “Mabel, there’s just this doctor and the two of us left. There’s only one thing to do. I’ll take care of all the men as best I can. You stay right here and devote everything you have in you to saving our doctor. We’ve GOT to pull him through.” And Mabel did.
This next paragraph is quoted from my “Seminary Saga” journal. “Mabel can identify the first moment she began to question theism. A young soldier was brought in with his face covered in bandages. Mabel unwound the bandage to see what kind of wound was underneath and the whole face came off in her hands, leaving a live, grinning skull. Flooded with nausea, she stumbled out of the tent and threw up. ‘There can’t be a God if He has the power to stop something like that and won’t do it.’
“Then she went back inside to stand beside the doctor and hand him the instruments while he tried to save the faceless soldier. ‘You okay?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Good,’ said the doctor. ‘It’ll never be that bad again.’”
When I was worn out and discouraged, I went to sit by Mabel and even if she were sleeping, I was renewed.
About this time Daisy Bingham, who worked in the office of First Unitarian of Portland, OR, sent me a big packet of sermons and clippings. In the “Order of Celebration” on April 27 that year this was the unison reading. I have no idea who wrote it. Possibly Alan Deale.
To be deeply religious is
To have a passionate interest in the wholeness of existence,
To seek for the connecting tissue in the apparent
To turn from disorder to seek the unity which lies hidden in
To pull hatred inside out and expose it as the dark side of
To find no absolute end to the significance of life, not even in
the event of death,
To seek to live less deformed and more gracious lives,
To have faith that at the center of it all is goodness and
strength to enable us beyond our expectations,
And to turn our foolishness and evil into wisdom and beauty.