[This is the fifth in a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent remembering and lamenting is what’s supposed to be happening here. But there seems to be less lamenting and more healing in my heart with each installment.]
On the day of Mark’s funeral, the sun is shining and the air is warm. We get to be outside at the cemetery for the service, and this is much better than a stale-aired in-door experience. It feels casual, like Mark would have preferred, and Mother Earth is coming through with a beautiful day.
Our eldest brother Ted shows up in shorts. I mock him for this, but he has the right answer: they’re nice shorts, and it’s really hot today, and Mark would prefer everyone to be comfortable. Mark was the consummate slob and, as far as I could discern, did not care in the slightest about decorum and formality.
Mark dropped a million balls in his human life, but he rarely let down the little creatures of earth he decided to care for. The hummingbirds who resided in the trees in Mom’s yard made his list. He kept hummingbird feeders on the patio, and they were always properly stocked. He would sit outside in the mornings, contemplative, often stoned, and make observations. The hummingbirds were very important to him.
He observed the neighborhood hummingbird patterns with curiosity and childhood wonder. He knew where they lived, which trees they descended from to visit the feeders. There were several different breeds that frequented the feeders, Mark explained. They took turns, in a particular order and at different times of day, like a timeshare. He liked that they shared instead of arguing and battling all the time.
Occasionally, I would be outside at the right times to observe some of the action. Watching the wee blurred figures — flitting around too fast to see clearly for more than a split-second at a time — I could understand Mark’s love for them. They lived ephemerally, grateful for what was given, not greedy in their behaviors, too flighty to stick around for any attachment, little puffs of whimsy.
More than a bit like Mark.
The funeral service is what it is. There are Korean pastors (did they speak any Korean? I can’t remember). There are prayers and readings, there is some form of sermon. There is eulogizing by brother Eric. There is an unscheduled, pretty bizarre, and overly-long share by Mark’s friend and fellow pot-grower J-. Is there singing? I don’t remember, but probably.
I’m sitting in the front row of seats next to Mom, holding hands, sniffling, trying to remember that my dress is short so I need to keep my knees together and sideways on this uncomfortable folding chair. She hasn’t been able to shed eye tears since her stroke, but her bitter sorrow is weeping from every cell of her body. I remember that at some point I’m sitting next to Eric too, and he’s also suffering badly, but was he between me and Mom or on my other side? I simply can’t place the order of things, it’s all muddled in my head. My memory is a mosaic, not a line.
But I think that doesn’t matter, as I sit here more than two years later. I’m beginning to understand that what matters is the mythology we build as we rescue ourselves and each other from the moments of deepest grief, a combination of actual facts and wishful thinking. Technical accuracy isn’t important.
And so this one true thing happens as I sit uncomfortably in the front row of chairs on the cemetery lawn, trying not to get bored or distracted or irritated by ritual banalities, keeping my knees together so folks won’t see my underpants:
A perfect red-headed hummingbird flies up to the floral wreath sitting on the easel next to the speaker dais. It stays for much longer than a hummingbird should.
It is a moment of pure, breathtaking magic.
I gasp. Eric startles. We look at each other in wonder and actually smile.
Maybe it’s just coincidence. Or maybe hummingbirds are everywhere all the time and I just never notice, except today I’m under duress and everything is pouring into my perception because lots of crazy chemical things are happening in my body. Maybe the whole of life on earth is an empty, chaotic anarchy with no meaning at all.
But that won’t do.
The mythology begins to spin up in an instant. Mark’s spirit send the bird. Mother Earth sent it to say goodbye to him. It’s Mark himself, come to tell us he’s okay – a parting gift from my fay, sweet, gone brother.
I can shape the myth any way I like. Whatever myth I choose, I see that there is a piece of what made Mark beautiful in it, and there’s as much joy as there is grief in that.