Teri Orr: The gift or obligation
May 22, 2015
For the second time, in just three months, my friend and I found ourselves at a funeral. In yet another church that wasn’t one either of us had ever visited before. Both outside of Summit County. When the service was over and we were walking to our separate cars, another friend walked over to give us each a long, tight hug. As we walked away, my friend turned with wet eyes and said softly, "He is a good man. He is always… there." I agreed. "He shows up," I remember saying.
And as I drove home through the peaceful Heber Valley in the misty afternoon, time suspended. I thought about that man and how many places, over how many years, I have known him to do just that… show up. City meetings, schools events, sporting competitions, concerts, fundraisers, neighborhood barbecues, parades and concerts in many parks. With his children, with other vets, with longtime/newfound friends. He shows up.
This is the time of year when our mailboxes — real and virtual — are flooded with announcements — of school graduations and celebrations of weddings. Many bring smiles to our faces, some, if we’re honest, a grimace. The implied obligation of a gift and/or an appearance at one more rinse-and-repeat event. It is easy and often even defensible to pass. (You really don’t know the daughter of your boss’ daughter.) You’ll send a gift. A card.
I get it. I’m guilty of it. But the older I am blessed to become, the more I understand the need to just "show up." To bear witness at the christening. To cheer when the mortar boards are tossed in the air. To applaud when the newly joined "Mr. and Mrs." are announced, for the very first time, to the congregation. And… to be one more mourner, in a maybe sea of hundreds, or just dozens, who say, simply, by your physical presence, this one life mattered. I am here today, right now, to honor him/her.
But it goes beyond the obvious — those that come in creamy colored envelopes or from saddened "draped in crepe" voices over the phone. It matters too, you show up to the birthday party, the soccer game, the public hearing, the opening of the new building. It matters you are present in your community, however you define present and community.
What you don’t know, may never know, is how much your presence means to those involved. In the case of our hugging friend at the funeral services this week, he was not alone. There were maybe two dozen folks, who honestly had never met the deceased but knew her husband quite well, through an association we all belong to. They showed up, I suspect, to honor her passing but also for our friend to know, we stood with him in his moment of deep sorrow. There were quiet nods as one by one we found our way to our seats.
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Amid the songs and the testimony of her family and friends, there were tears and laughter, really much laughter. And I left having a snapshot of a woman I had never met, who was deeply loved and loved deeply and had a matching sense of humor and honor. I left, better for the pause in my life, to bear witness to another life, cut short but lived fully.
What does it mean to pause? To completely engage in being there, wherever the there is? It is a statement about the family of man. A recognition we are connected like the roots of some forest of aspen trees — intertwined underneath as one organism — even though we look strong and separate and independent above ground.
It means we value people over stuff. That an event is only as meaningful as the people who choose to show up. That we are the richer for participating in ritual and ceremony, laced with tradition that reminds us we are not the first or the last but somewhere on the continuum.
Showing up at a ceremony, showing up at a public hearing, showing up at a celebration of a life just starting or finished — is rarely convenient. But it is also a way to imprint others. Future generations. Impressionable new residents or congregants. Young people. This is the way we are, the way we worship, the way we honor one another, the way we value community. We speak with our actions. We run the race. We show up.
This weekend includes a holiday distanced from many day-to-day lives. Sure, there will flags on graves and waving in the ads for stuff to buy. Barbecue often gets confused with battlefield. Memorial Day, originally in this country, was created to honor those who had died on either side in the Civil War. The leadership during war left to women, who started decorating the graves of all soldiers in remembrance. Its meaning muted/expanded in recent decades to honor all loved ones who have passed.
For those of us here/now there are always whispers from those who have left us. In my case, those whispers seem to have an Irish lilt and a wee bit of a nudge. Lately, they whisper something that sounds like, if you really want to honor us, do this thing, and it always comes out sounding like a cross between prayer and commandment… show up.
In the days to come there are multiple opportunities for me to make good on this — a graduation party, a wedding, a city meeting it would be easy to skip, and a chance to take The Grands and plant flags, again, on the graves of people we never met. None of it is monumental by itself, all of it is a gift to give. And the sharing with others, in all the places one shows up, will say wordlessly, I stand with you this day, every day, including Sunday, in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.