November is not my favourite month. I don’t mind the darker evenings so much but the prospect of walking the dog on cold, dark mornings does little to cheer me. The new year will be well on its way before I find myself walking in the light again. That is not a great prospect but however cold and dark and wet it is these mornings I remind myself that eventually the seasons will change. We are people of the light and it is no wonder that we yearn for it.
November is also the month when we remember our loved ones who have died. It is a sombre month. For our family this year it has an added poignancy. At the end of October my uncle died. He was one of 13 children. Only one of the 13 is left and I am very conscious of the deep loneliness she must be feeling.
My father, his sister and now his youngest brother have all died within less than 18 months. It has been a tough time for our extended family. Too many of our gatherings now are prompted by sad events. Thankfully many of us gathered about six months ago for a family reunion, a celebration of simply being together.
My uncle was a character. He has delighted generations of children within the family with his ability to wiggle his ears in a most amazing way. He used to grin with delight at our mad, cross-eyed, concentrated efforts to wiggle our own. When my little nephew in England was told that his great uncle had died he asked, “Is that Uncle Enda with the wiggly ears?” Enda has made a lasting impression and it strikes me as being very important that we celebrate that.
A traditional wake, a funeral and time afterwards over tea and sandwiches gave time for story-telling.
Enda was a young teenager, far from home at boarding school, when his mother died. He was put on a train to Dublin and sent from the station to a hotel for some dinner before getting the bus to Strabane. A lovely lady in the hotel noticed him, asked him what was wrong and when she heard the reason for his journey she took him under her wing. She made sure he ate his lunch, sat and talked to him, arranged for him to be accompanied back to the station and gave him some money in case he needed anything. It was only some time later, upon seeing a poster, that Enda realised the ‘lovely lady’ had been the actress Maureen O’Hara.
In November we remember our dead, but we also need to celebrate life. Our lives are shaped by those who went before us. It matters that our children know about family and friends who have gone to God, not just as names on a November list but as real people who lived real lives. So, it is important that we talk about them, tell stories about them, celebrate the lives they had and the impact they made on our lives
We remember our dead, but I would suggest we need to guard against being overwhelmed by loss. In a sense we need to develop quite a sassy attitude to death, refusing to let it have the final word. As the priest at my uncle’s funeral said, “We are an Easter People”. That may seem like a strange statement to make at the tail end of October, but the priest was not talking about calendars. He was affirming that we are people whose understanding of life and death is shaped by belief in the resurrection. Ultimately life is stronger than death.
There was a lot of speculation at the funeral about what the family reunion would be like in heaven. My father’s family is a fascinating bunch of strong, funny, assertive men and women. I’d say there has been some craic in heaven!