The flyer reads “Celebration of life”. The young caseworker who knew Werner’s father briefly at the end of his life is in charge of this event. On the phone beforehand, she tells me she has only worked here for a short time, and before this, she says, she worked with teenagers, so this is new for her.
Werner’s father is apparently the first of her charges who has died. She seems smart, compassionate and friendly, like someone you would want visiting you in your final days if you were all alone in the world. She says “It’s my job to make sure people here have the things they need and he didn’t even want ME to come around. He wanted to be left alone.” Those words don’t make sense to me and they land with a painful thud in my psyche. No one would want to be that profoundly alone, especially when they are dying..
Werner is ready for all of this to be over, but wisely, he chooses to go to this “celebration”. Grief is a funny thing. It is completely unpredictable, and it throws everything you think you know about yourself emotionally out the window. People who are stoic and steady will spontaneously cry like babies, and those of us who cry at the drop of a hat can inexplicably find no tears when we need them most. It’s puzzling. I haven’t seen Werner cry this much…ever. He doesn’t like it, but it is appropriate. I do not know what he is crying for exactly, but I can imagine he is crying for a lot of reasons.
So we pull ourselves together and head downtown, first to stop at the medical examiner’s office where we retrieve more clues to his father’s existence, a wallet, a pendant, some cash, and about $60 in quarters which weighs a ton, and must have been in his coat pocket when he went to the hospital.
Then it’s on to his apartment building for the small memorial. An assortment of people show up. A few residents. Only one of them, a friendly, bearded man wearing a “Cease Fire” t-shirt, seems to indicate that he knew him at all. The others came for different reasons, perhaps for the community, the refreshments, out of curiosity, or as it seems in the case of one woman, out of confusion. A small, quiet man with a thick accent who stares at us with soulful eyes approaches us and shakes our hands firmly. He says we are all “right behind” Werner’s father, we all will leave this place like he did. He says that he tried to exchange names with Werner’s father. He tried to have contact, but clearly it didn’t happen. He is kind and intense, and he shakes our hands again and walks away in his oversized coat and stocking cap.
There is also a small group of some of the kindest people you’d ever want to be stuck with in a strange room at a time like this: the manager of the building, some other caseworkers, and the nurse who cared for him at the end. Since no one really knew him, we’re all just guessing at how to carry out this small memorial. Someone, probably his caseworker, has very thoughtfully put together a program, and it includes some surfing photos, and the lyrics to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles. “I don’t know why nobody told you how to unfold your love” jumps off the page at me.
I figure it is our job as human beings to try to bring everything dark and scary into the light and then make the best decisions that we can about how to deal with these painful things. This one is hard. There is not a lot of light to begin with so we have to work hard to make some. How can a person repeatedly turn away from love and goodness with no final redemption? How can a person seemingly give in to the darkness and die alone without really knowing or caring for anyone? I am waiting for someone to say something to give the end of his life a knowable shape, some last gasp of meaning. I’m hoping someone might say even just a few words that make sense: “Werner your father loved you.” or “Werner your father’s last words were….”, but there is only a discomforting silence. What is it that kept him from this? Pathology? Personality? Life circumstance? There may be no answers other than the ones we make up for ourselves.
What we do know is that we are different than this, that love is what matters to us. While we will leave this world alone just like he did, we will leave it knowing that we loved deeply.
I have created a story about the end of his life to help me make sense of it all. It goes like this. When he was younger, he made mistakes and hurt people repeatedly with his selfish, abusive, careless behavior. He didn’t know how to change that. Instead of being a person who continued to hurt others, he decided, or perhaps just accepted, that he would be completely alone in this world, and thus he would not hurt anyone again. And this was his atonement, this was his act of contrition.