unfinished business – editor’s letter aug 2010

Editor’s Note: Following is a page from my spiritual journal.

 I slid my credit card through the gas pump’s “reader,” and glanced at other patrons. Behind me, a stick-thin figure draped in a straight ankle-length dress stood by her Jeep. She wore a surgeon’s mask, and seemed familiar. That’s Caroline from church!

As if hearing my thought, the woman turned her large almond-shaped eyes on me.  She lifted her hand in greeting. I released the gas hose from its notch and returned her “hello.” The hose nozzle disappeared into my Vibe’s tank and I pulled the metal trigger and held it. Gasoline whooshed in.

Looking up again, I saw Caroline walking over.

       “Hi Francine!” she said.

“Hello Caroline.” I nodded at her mask. “Do you have the flu?”

“I have pneumonia.”

I took a breath to speak, but she rushed ahead. “Pneumonia complicates the cancer nodules … in both lungs.  It’s everywhere now. I’m dying. I’ve arranged for Hospice to come in.” Dying? She’s younger than me!… What’s she doing pumping gas? Yes, she’s a marathon bike rider and probably has lots of stamina, but…

As she told more of her preparations, I hung up the fuel hose and replaced the gas cap. She’s amazing. The machine spit out my receipt and I tore it off. What can I say to her?

When Caroline paused a moment, I opened my arms, stepped toward her, and gave her a hug.  I murmured into her ear, “God bless you!”

Releasing me, she said, “He does! … I’ve met with Father Gillespie about my funeral. I’ve bought a grave site…

A breeze rippled Caroline’s long dress and the white receipt fluttered in my hand like a tiny flag of truce to her openness. 

As if anticipating my “What-can-I-do?” she said, “I’m doing all right so far. I don’t need any help. Like I said, Hospice will come soon.”

 Stunned by her honesty, I repeated, “God bless you, Caroline.”

She stepped toward her vehicle. “Gotta’go. Maybe see you at church, Francine! Bye!”

Three weeks later, I entered the silent sanctuary where candles were lit for Caroline’s funeral. I had never attended a Catholic funeral rite.  But, from masses I had sat in, I knew it would be a special event when I saw a white-robed man swinging an incense infuser. The slotted brass container left a holy trail of fragrant blue smoke that curled, rose and disappeared.

More than fifty people sat quietly until the cantor raised his arms, signaling the congregation to stand. Everyone turned to the rear of the church  

as if waiting for a bride to walk down the aisle. Instead, in the threshold to the sanctuary, four people reverently unfolded a long white cloth and draped it over Caroline’s casket atop a gurney. When they finished, Father Gillespie reached for his silver scepter, dunked it in a crystal pail of holy water, and baptized Caroline one last time.

        The priest turned and entered the church as we sang, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” Attendants pushed the casket as far as the altar step. Father continued up, turned to us and raised his arm, drawing a large cross in the air. “In the name of The Father, and of The Son, and of The Holy Ghost. Amen.”

        Suddenly, a small sob rose and caught in my throat. What’s this?  Caroline and I were not close. I just worked with her at church sometimes.   Paying no attention to my  thoughts, tears overflowed. As I fumbled for a Kleenex, I realized my sadness was not for the-here-and-now.  I was grieving Grandma Elizabeth.          

I had missed her Catholic funeral when I was thirteen.

 That summer of 1957 I’d been in Anaheim, California with my other grandmother.  Grandma Bernice wanted to fly from Indiana and visit her daughter and grandchildren who’d moved west. But Grandpa wouldn’t go. The family worried she could not manage Chicago’s O’Hare and LA International airports by herself.  Thirteen and going into seventh grade, I was as tall as my mother and nearly as strong. I had been chosen as “Grandma’s escort.” 

After a two-week visit, we flew home from California and I fell into bed and slept. The next day, Mother told me Grandma Elizabeth had died.

“Why didn’t you call me?”  I would have come home.  I should have been at her funeral!

        Calmly Mother explained, “We didn’t want to worry you. Grandma Elizabeth would have wanted you to stay in California and have a good time. There’s nothing you could have done here.” Mother’s words seemed logical, but I still felt left out and angry. Something’s not right. I huffed to myself, “I should have been there.”     

        Now half a century later, I dabbed my eyes again as we sang the recessional song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” God bless your soul, Caroline. And after all these years, God bless yours, too, Grandma Elizabeth!  I love you.


       Frances Fritzie

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