I didn’t want to go to my friend Meri’s memorial. Meri was only 60 years old when she passed away and it didn’t seem fair. Until a short time ago, she had been full of life, enjoying her garden, spending time with her grandchildren and making yearly excursions to Hawaii with her husband. Then she got cancer—an inoperable type that affected her blood—and it spread quickly. The last time I had seen her she had lost a lot of weight and when I asked her what her prognosis was, she said she didn’t want to know. In fact, she only lived a year after her initial diagnosis.
For me memorial services are always sad but at least when the person who passes is older, they make sense. Last year I attended two memorials for people in their 80s and although it was still a shock to lose them, we could celebrate their lives, knowing they had lived a long time. In Meri’s case I felt she had been dealt an unfair hand—going so soon and so quickly. I imagined her memorial would be a depressing affair.
I first met Meri 25 years ago when I visited the church I would later join. At the time the church still had a choir, outfitted in swishy blue robes, and Meri was the enthusiastic arm-waving and always smiling director. Later, when the church adopted guitars and drums, Meri continued leading worship. She had a beautiful soprano voice and loved teaching us new songs. Meri also worked in the church’s front office, cheerfully greeting everyone who walked in and genuinely concerned with each person’s life, whether it be the pastor, little kids or those down and out of luck. On top of this, Meri also was a preschool teacher at the church’s preschool for many years and she cared for both of my kids at various times.
Twenty-five years is a long time to know someone and my husband and I watched Meri go through the ups and downs of life. She and her husband Rusty had three adopted children of different racial backgrounds and when we met they were almost teenagers, struggling with teenage things. Not long after that Meri and Rusty went through a difficult divorce. They had to sell their house and move. Rusty left the church. Meri met her second husband, Michael, at the church and they decided to start their new life at a different church. We missed them greatly.
Given all this history I knew I should attend Meri’s service, at least out of a sense of loyalty and support. The invitation said we should dress in “aloha” attire, given Meri’s love of Hawaii. So a few days beforehand I scoured Macy’s end-of-summer sale rack and bought a bright pink shirt with flowers. My husband checked his closet to make sure his faded Hawaiian shirt was still there.
Apropos to the Hawaiian theme, the day of the memorial was one of those rare hot days in the Bay Area. The church was packed with colorfully dressed people fanning themselves with the program. I looked around the room and saw many familiar faces, some of whom I had not seen in 20 years. Instead of feeling sad, I felt happy to see old friends and looked forward to talking to them afterwards. Then the music began. A simple band with a singer, guitar placer, piano and drums played some familiar and unfamiliar songs. They sounded great, more like a professional recording group than an amateur church band. After a few songs the pastor got up. He told us that Meri had planned all the details of the service, including who would sing which songs, what her biography would say and who would read it (her daughter), and who would share memories of her life. Meri had even thought to include a hula dancer midway through the service, a nice touch. I began to realize that this service was Meri’s final gift to us. She had done what she always did best, which was to bring people together and celebrate music and life.
After the service was over, we were invited to a reception. You might be able to tell how much someone is loved by the quantity and quality of food. There was tons of food, including lots of fresh sushi. As I made my way through the food line an old friend, who I hadn’t seen for years, invited me to sit down next to her. “I really want to hear what’s going on with you,” she said, in exactly the style Meri had always used. We had a great conversation about kids, writing and spiritual life. We agreed to get together again to chat more. I talked with several more old friends and was so engaged that I lost track of time. I had the strange sensation that Meri should be here to participate in all this, but then again, she was here in a way, creating this atmosphere.
In the end, I felt enriched by Meri’s service. I felt like I wanted to live a more joyful life and follow Meri’s example of care for others. I will miss Meri but I realize her impact has not ended.