Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Key (02/14/13)
TITLE: Energy from an Em-Dash Existence
By Noel Mitaxa
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Even before I put the phone down, I began to wonder why I’d told the funeral director that my diary was clear…
I’d never met her, she was ninety-six, and thirty years a widow. Her son Mark was flying in from the west coast—four hours away, and her daughter Dianne was flying over from Europe—twenty-four hours away. Both staying for the shortest possible time, for they had not seen Beryl in years and they weren’t on speaking terms…
Normally, taking funerals for people I’ve never met is not a problem, for I can focus on how their families or friends want to honour them, so the service offers them more personal comfort. If they have no church contact, it’s a privilege to escort them along the edge of eternity and invite them to explore God’s grace within their grief, pointing to Jesus as the doorway into his grace.
But here I seemed to be locked out of what I needed to know. Sure, at ninety six Beryl had outlasted most peer pressure, but I was unlikely to get any input from her friends.
All I unearthed was that she was born at Derrinallum, a small town that sits below Mt Elephant, an extinct volcano named after its irregularly-shaped profile. This detail may seem ‘irrelephant,’ but in her whole life she had travelled less than a hundred miles from there to Bannockburn, where she died. Her railwayman husband had worked on track maintenance along the flat, otherwise featureless grasslands that stretch way beyond each of these towns; grasslands that southern Australia’s steam locomotive drivers had dubbed Pleurisy Plains after their bone-chilling winds.
Her funeral seemed destined to be as featureless as her whole life and its topography; ironically like an em dash on a headstone: a definable beginning, a definable end with so little between them—such as me trying to fill a sullen silence between the only two people I could expect to attend.
A memorable throwaway line from our college lecturer seemed a hollow echo—“We don’t conduct services: we minister God’s grace to people at their points of openness or need”—for neither Mark nor Dianne was indicating any openness at all.
While preparing her service, my prayers kept picking unsuccessfully at the invisible lock that barred access to any clue that might give life to her memory.
Arriving at the funeral chapel, I was surprised to see a group of twenty- and thirty-year olds in the foyer, well before we were due to start. Introducing myself as the celebrant, I asked with barely-concealed curiosity, “How did you know Beryl?”
From their response, I quickly gained Mark’s approval for a change.
After welcoming a crowd which was now standing-room only, I invited an open mike moment for anyone to share a tribute. To be met with a stream of people coming forward, with comments that drew laughs and tears which suddenly emerged as the key to that elusive openness which my college lecturer had urged us to address.
Energy arose from Beryl’s em-dash existence, once she decided to redirect her grief into generosity. She began daily visits to the Bannockburn kindergarten, which quickly adopted her as its volunteer granny; a new career of almost twenty years in which she had left her mark on all those who were now sharing their appreciation.
They recalled how she had read stories to them, brought their birthday cakes, dispensed hugs, wiped their noses and dried their tears. Any children from stressed or fractured homes felt secure and accepted, which overcame their sense of not belonging. In making them feel special, she helped them to appreciate how special their friends were. Now, in recalling their roots this day, they were finally saying thank-you, many tearfully realising they could not thank her personally.
In wrapping up, I invited them to borrow from Beryl’s book, to accept that not even grief can stop us from accepting life as a “do it now, do it with God and do it for others” opportunity. For the recognition will come—firstly from that inner confirmation that in doing it for the least of these, we do it for him*—and even decades later, as it had now come for Beryl.
*Matthew 25: 40
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