Coping With Cancer: The Wake

By Margaret Nyman

November 7, 2009

Walking into a funeral home is never easy. Walking into one with your husband in the casket is excruciating. Although Nate always said I would one day bury him rather than him burying me, the picture of that never formed in my mind’s eye. Today I saw what that looked like and felt the pain of it.

After driving the 90 minutes from Michigan, several of us entered the room together. Not wanting to arrive at the front too soon, we lingered to read the cards attached to beautiful floral arrangements. Waiting for us at the end of that line was the casket with Nate lying in it, cold as ice and still as stone. As we approached, I could feel myself getting nervous, shaking as if a shaft of cold air had whooshed into the room.

I remember seeing my dad in his casket, looking as if he was taking a nap. Mom looked natural, too, outfitted in a silk dress like she was on her way to a party. Today Nate didn’t look good. Although I’ve always thought he was handsome, today he looked worn, like a warrior who’d fought a battle and lost. And of course he had. The angle of his chin and set of his mouth made him look like somebody else. Only by standing to the side and looking from the top of his head did he resemble my Nate.

But what did I expect? The cancer had eaten him up, and he hadn’t looked good for several weeks. How would dying of a ravenous disease and being placed in a casket ever improve his appearance? Even so, something in me wanted him to look handsome for his public.

Once we’d done the hard work of “the viewing,” we turned from the dead to the living. Streams of people began entering the room to greet us, each one sharing comments and stories about Nate. I learned things I never knew about him, even after 40 years of marriage. I met some of his clients, all of whom expressed gratitude for Nate’s patience with them and the legal tutoring he’d provided along the way. Apparently he sometimes did more than that, too. One lawyer said, “When I started my practice, Nate gave me a check to help me get going.” I hadn’t known.

Others described his contribution to our former community as a police commissioner, and the police chief himself gifted us with a uniform patch “to put in the casket with him, if you want.” Nate had been a commissioner for 20 years and had been one of three who had hired the chief. He expressed his gratitude for the job and appreciation for the friendship that had developed with Nate.

I talked with some of his former Sunday School students and a few of his small group members. Many of our children’s pals were in line too, along with their parents, some of whom I’d never met. Friends of ours from 25 years ago were there, reminding me of the fun of those days long ago when we were raising young children together. The security guard from Nate’s office building told me how much she’d loved him and learned from him.

Both sets of parents of our children-in-law came to town for the weekend, one couple from Florida, the other from England. Suffering from jet lag after a long travel day today, they smiled and told me, “We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

A pattern emerged. Nate had made friends all along life’s way, even with lawyers who’d opposed him. When personal opinions differed, he somehow managed to set those aside and connect with people on a different level. In doing so, he’d been an example of biblical love, just as each one attending the wake had been to our family. The New Testament reads, “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.” And this was the hope we all shared.

We were still chatting with people 90 minutes after our allotted time at the funeral home had ended, but the staff graciously let us use their facility until each person had been through the line. Although my feet hurt and my stomach growled, it was nourishing to hear accolades and stories about my husband. Many of those in the receiving line had tears in their eyes when talking of how much they appreciated and missed Nate. Somehow hearing how he was loved made me feel loved, too.

Tomorrow will be another full day as we attend Nate’s funeral and then caravan to the cemetery. Although I dread the finality of burying his body, I eagerly look forward to talking with additional friends who will be there. Any friend of Nate’s is a friend of mine.

<!–[if !mso]> <! st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } –> Walking into a funeral home is never easy. Walking into one with your husband in the casket is excruciating. Although Nate always said I would one day bury him rather than him burying me, the picture of that never formed in my mind’s eye. Today I saw what that looked like and felt the pain of it.

After driving the 90 minutes from Michigan, several of us entered the room together. Not wanting to arrive at the front too soon, we lingered to read the cards attached to beautiful floral arrangements. Waiting for us at the end of that line was the casket with Nate lying in it, cold as ice and still as stone. As we approached, I could feel myself getting nervous, shaking as if a shaft of cold air had whooshed into the room.

I remember seeing my dad in his casket, looking as if he was taking a nap. Mom looked natural, too, outfitted in a silk dress like she was on her way to a party. Today Nate didn’t look good. Although I’ve always thought he was handsome, today he looked worn, like a warrior who’d fought a battle and lost. And of course he had. The angle of his chin and set of his mouth made him look like somebody else. Only by standing to the side and looking from the top of his head did he resemble my Nate.

But what did I expect? The cancer had eaten him up, and he hadn’t looked good for several weeks. How would dying of a ravenous disease and being placed in a casket ever improve his appearance? Even so, something in me wanted him to look handsome for his public.

Once we’d done the hard work of “the viewing,” we turned from the dead to the living. Streams of people began entering the room to greet us, each one sharing comments and stories about Nate. I learned things I never knew about him, even after 40 years of marriage. I met some of his clients, all of whom expressed gratitude for Nate’s patience with them and the legal tutoring he’d provided along the way. Apparently he sometimes did more than that, too. One lawyer said, “When I started my practice, Nate gave me a check to help me get going.” I hadn’t known.

Others described his contribution to our former community as a police commissioner, and the police chief himself gifted us with a uniform patch “to put in the casket with him, if you want.” Nate had been a commissioner for 20 years and had been one of three who had hired the chief. He expressed his gratitude for the job and appreciation for the friendship that had developed with Nate.

I talked with some of his former Sunday School students and a few of his small group members. Many of our children’s pals were in line too, along with their parents, some of whom I’d never met. Friends of ours from 25 years ago were there, reminding me of the fun of those days long ago when we were raising young children together. The security guard from Nate’s office building told me how much she’d loved him and learned from him.

Both sets of parents of our children-in-law came to town for the weekend, one couple from Florida, the other from England. Suffering from jet lag after a long travel day today, they smiled and told me, “We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

A pattern emerged. Nate had made friends all along life’s way, even with lawyers who’d opposed him. When personal opinions differed, he somehow managed to set those aside and connect with people on a different level. In doing so, he’d been an example of biblical love, just as each one attending the wake had been to our family. The New Testament reads, “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.” And this was the hope we all shared.

We were still chatting with people 90 minutes after our allotted time at the funeral home had ended, but the staff graciously let us use their facility until each person had been through the line. Although my feet hurt and my stomach growled, it was nourishing to hear accolades and stories about my husband. Many of those in the receiving line had tears in their eyes when talking of how much they appreciated and missed Nate. Somehow hearing how he was loved made me feel loved, too.

Tomorrow will be another full day as we attend Nate’s funeral and then caravan to the cemetery. Although I dread the finality of burying his body, I eagerly look forward to talking with additional friends who will be there. Any friend of Nate’s is a friend of mine.

Guest contributor Margaret Nyman chronicles the 42 days after her husband Nate, a patient at Rush University Medical Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Read more posts by visiting the Coping With Cancer section or subscribing to the RSS feed. Her personal blog is at www.GettingThroughThis.com.

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