Monday, December 22, 2003 – O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, IL
Despite a threat level of Orange, a rush-hour commute, and a vacation travel crunch, I have sailed past the checkpoints and arrived at the closest Starbucks to gate E9 two hours and 30 minutes ahead of takeoff. I would like to have stayed longer with my family at Uncle Eric’s house rather than leaving early to anticipate the delays, but until they invent crystal balls that actually work worth a damn, you pays your money and you takes your chances.
The plane touched down in Chicago just after 11 pm on Saturday. Carry-on only luggage and a swift crew at Avis allowed me to make it from the gate to the house in under an hour. I found Dad, Trish Stefan, Johanna, Claire, Busy, Heather, and Shannon assembling a Mary photo mural. Mary at her wedding, Mary with friends and family, Mary bravely kayaking in 6 inches of water, Mary in her famous pink bathrobe, Mary emaciated and bald from chemotherapy. Mary laughing, smiling, or smirking in all of them; an indomitable spirit.
There was lots of laughter and smiling among all of us as well, as there always seems to be when our families get together. We have always taken joy and comfort in each others’ presence, and it was no different here. I don’t know why I seem to forget this so often, how much I enjoy my family.
On Sunday morning, we cleaned, straightened, and prepared the house for guests. We lingered a bit past our departure time, not really wanting to go to the service. The threat of what we didn’t know loomed, the haunting question of what emotions we would face at acknowledging her passing all together at the same time and place, and how we might respond. We talked on the way, mostly about Johanna’s new job and house. As we approached the chapel, the bare tree limbs and steel gray sky seemed appropriately grim, and the gothic architecture of the University of Chicago added significance to the moment. The chapel was modest, yet elegant. Twenty or so rows of wooden pews supplicated themselves to impressive stained glass windows, and carved wooden angels hovered in the rafters. A harpist played softly as over a hundred mourners filed into the building.
The service was conducted by a Presbyterian pastor who managed to say all the right things and everything well. He read a letter from Carol Topping, one of the Lombards’ longtime friends. He spoke of Mary’s devotion to her family and her commitment to caring for others. (Her last words were to Eric: “Did you eat dinner?”) Sounding almost Buddhist at times, the pastor urged us to recognize that life and death are two sides of the same coin and that the important parts of Mary live on in and around us. He managed a perfect tone of respect and celebration for Mary’s life.
Johanna got up to tell us about a trip she took with her mother to New Orleans. Claire said a few words. I watched the sign language interpreter as the pastor read the closing Navajo prayer, one of Mary’s favorites. It was comforting to be seated there with Trish and my father, in the presence of so many who came to honor my aunt. I’m so grateful to have attended.
Lots of people showed up at the house later for food and drinks. There was laughter and joy as we reminisced and got to know each other better. It was a full expression of love for the family. It was how I would want my wake to be.
It’s Tuesday evening as I finish this. A stubborn bolt on a cargo door delayed our departure from O’Hare. I got home to Seattle three hours later than scheduled, but home safe and sound. I rejoiced in the presence of my roommate, my cat, and my girlfriend. On Thursday morning Louise and I will leave to see our East Coast families for a few days. I’m really looking forward to it.