Childless at the funeral

If you want to feel alone, attend a funeral with your widowed father. The husband is in a care home and he has virtually no family, except his children. They didn’t know the deceased, my 100-year-old Great-Aunt Edna, anyway. Cousins your age are accompanied by their grown children, talking about an upcoming wedding, to which you have not been invited.

You look up at the front row and see Virginia, 92-year-old sister of the deceased. She is wearing a neck brace and hiding feeding tubes under her clothes, reminders of a near-fatal fall a few months ago. As everyone visits after the formal rites, there are times when she sits there alone. I hasten to keep her company. Virginia never married nor had children. Her sister Edna was widowed for 44 years, and she never had children either. They were each other’s partners in life.

The priest, Father “Jo-Jo”, says Edna, though childless, adopted her husband’s family, became the matriarch, etc. That’s true, but still the church is troublingly empty. You know that this 100-year-old woman, who outlived most of her friends, could have had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and maybe even great-great grandchildren who would have filled the sanctuary with their own spouses and children. But no. So many seats are empty.

In contrast, the priest at my mother’s memorial service kept referring to her as Mother Elaine. At least with Aunt Edna, he spoke at length about the things she had done, her volunteer work and her travels, her full life. But Mom had more people.

I can see the generations slicing off. We’re coming closer to mine all the time. I have one niece and nephew to whom I feel close and a bunch of cousins I’m starting to talk to on Facebook. I do have good friends, but sometimes I feel awfully alone. When I commented that I would be alone when I was old and dying, my remaining aunt-by-marriage grabbed my arm and fiercely insisted that that was not true, that people care. Yes, but they die and they get busy. If I’m still living in Oregon, we’d better reserve the little chapel.

If my husband was around, it would be different, wouldn’t it? And didn’t I trade it all for him? It’s a gamble we women who are childless by marriage take.

The most comfortable moment of the trip: the day after the funeral, sitting on the ground in the sun next to the grave where the workmen had tossed the pink bouquets over a layer of gravel in the not-quite-filled opening. I could finally breathe. And I didn’t feel so damned alone.

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