“It’s hard,” he said, as his eyes lifted from the floor and gazed into mine. He had followed me into the office to get his copy of the contract and a final hug; it was when he turned to leave that the observation was uttered. “It’s just hard. And now my sweet wife’s gone, too.” His face was etched with grief and I could see the tears beginning to gather in the corners of his eyes, but never once did he look away. Instead he began to name his friends that are no longer here, the friends he has outlived . . . and my parents were among the first he mentioned. For as long as I can remember, he and his sweet wife have been a part of our lives, but my parents had been some of the first in their group to die; my father outlived my mother by 18 months and, unbelievably, he’s been gone almost 12 years now. A lot has happened since then, and a lot of his friends have followed my parents.
He turned toward the door once more, slowly shaking his head as he left the building. As I watched him drive away, his parting words echoed in my head, and I wondered what it would be like to wake up one morning and realize you were the only one left . . . the last one of your friends to still be alive . . . the one to bury your spouse . . . the last of your siblings . . . Granted, he still has friends who are very much alive, but that number has decreased drastically in the past few years, and I’m sure each passing serves as a stark reminder that someday . . .
I was waiting in the church foyer for him the day of the visitation and service. When he came through the door, we shared yet another hug and then moved toward the entrance to the sanctuary. And there he stopped. The aisle must have seemed as long as eternity . . . and at its end was the casket that held the earthly remains of the woman who had been his partner in life for almost 68 years. He took a deep breath, slipped his hand in mine, and with a quick nod of his head said, “Let’s do this . . .” and didn’t budge. I gave him a moment before asking, “Are you ready?” and he nodded yes. Taking a step forward he said “I want to see her . . . but I don’t. You know?” And I did. I knew exactly. As undeniable as her death had been, seeing her here, as she was now, would leave no room for doubt or hope. It was the ultimate reminder that she would no longer be there for him to touch and to hold, to talk to and to care for as he had done for so many years. Although he was and will continue to be surrounded by people who love him, I have no doubt that in that moment he felt very much alone.
It was a beautiful service, but it’s easy to have beautiful services for people whose beauty is far more than skin deep. And when the last prayer had been offered and the trip to the cemetery completed, we shared one more hug and smiling I said, “Well, you got through it”. His reply came back quick and strong, a mixture of relief and reflection. “I got through it,“ and with a pat on my back he turned to speak with some who had attended the committal service, then moved on to the ride that would eventually deliver him home. It had been a hard day, but a good one spent celebrating the woman he loved. But it had also been a day filled with memories of happier times . . . and reminders of what the future holds.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.