Weeds: Pondering the patterns of life, death

There was a stretch in November when I went to five wakes in ten days. The bend toward winter always has more than its share of funerals, but that many was notable. When you hang around the town where you grew up, wakes are part of your social calendar.

I am the age where the services I attend are mostly parents of friends. The deceased were prominent men and women when I was young, active citizens, leaders in businesses and organizations around here. My own parents died 20 years ago this year, so that’s been on my mind. There is no way to prepare for losing parents. It affects one at many levels. It cuts to the deepest emotions, some you didn’t even know were there.

Friends Bart and Katherine Kretschmer farm south of us. Around the same years that I was losing my parents and Pam was losing her dad, Katherine lost her mom. She told us this story back then.

This was when we were younger, and Katherine was still a small-town and farm novice. She and Bart met in college, married, and ended up on the Kretschmer home place when Bart came home to farm. That’s never an easy transition for a city-girl. But Katherine made her way, circumnavigating all the roles that came with that. Then children came, with those attendant responsibilities. There were days it seemed overwhelming, but that was life.

Katherine grew up in Richfield in a small family. She was close to her mom. They stayed in touch as best they could 100 miles apart with visits, phone calls, even letters. Then life threw a curveball. Actually it was more a rock through a windshield. Katherine’s mom found out she had breast cancer. That began a battle that lasted two grueling years.

It was just after Christmas that Katherine lost her mom. Holidays might run together in our memory. But that one is seared into Katherine’s. She spent as much time as possible in the Cities that fall, as difficult as that was with two young kids and Bart in the fields. During the final weeks, Bart was able to take over parenting duties, and Katherine was with her dying mom most days.

The pileup of Christmas, death, and funeral in a short time meant Katherine’s mind raced to keep things tied together. It wasn’t so much a blur as a stop-action film, lurching from frame to frame. There was a collision of emotions. Her old family and her new family and her old friends and her new friends all required different shades of feeling.

After big events in our life, there comes a time to reflect on what just happened. One of those came for Katherine a few days after the funeral. The Kretschmer’s oldest, Mary, was a first grader at St. Mary’s then. Her parents picked her up sometimes after school. This day, Bart could watch the baby, and Katherine had errands to run. She told Mary she would get her when school was done.

Katherine finished her town tasks and parked on the side street west of the church where Mary knew to go. Katherine was early, and it occurred to her to spend a few minutes in the church.

Katherine had been in St. Mary’s Church quite a few times, but never alone. The stillness in a large space like that is palpable. Katherine liked the quiet when her footsteps stopped as she sat down in a pew. She held her breath a second to magnify the quietude.

Katherine wasn’t Catholic, but she came along to Mass with Bart when it fit. Her own family churched around some when she was growing up. She talked about becoming Catholic someday. For the time being, it seemed like she’d given up a lot of parts of herself. Being a farm wife named Kretschmer outside of Sleepy Eye was enough for now.

Sunlight shone through the stained-glass windows. Color fell on the walls and floors. It was like a kaleidoscope, Katherine thought. Even though the surfaces were hard, wood and marble and cement, things looked soft in that light. She felt small between the giant pillars under the great vaulted ceiling, but that was okay.

Katherine thought of her mom. She had never not had a mother. This was going to take a while. There were phases to their relationship in the past. “This is the next phase, I guess.” But all those other phases involved two living people.

Memories moved through Katherine’s head. There hadn’t been much time for memories the last weeks. Now they came: random, good ones, not-so-good ones.

She was holding her mother’s hand as they walked through a greenhouse one long ago spring. Then, feeling angry at her mom when she wouldn’t let her stay overnight at a sleepover, telling her mom she wasn’t going to talk to her again. Then, home from college, feeling embarrassed because she was crying, telling her mom about a boyfriend who broke up with her.

The stillness was broken by a door pushing slowly open. It was little Mary. Katherine realized she’d forgot the time. Mary had been instructed that if ever someone wasn’t there, she should wait in the church. Mother and daughter were briefly surprised to see the other. Smiles came quickly.

“Oh Mom, there you are.” Katherine began to stand, but then sat back down when Mary came her way. Mary sat next to her, and Katherine’s arm went around her daughter’s shoulders. “Mom, are you okay?”

“Yes, sweetie.”

“You’re thinking about Grandma, right Mom?” Mary said as she leaned into her mother.

“Yeah. I’m thinking about Grandma.”

Mary looked up, “We’ll see Grandma in heaven, right?”

Katherine’s response began “I don’t know” which morphed into “I think so” and finally came out “Yes. Yes, I hope so.” Katherine wasn’t on the best terms with God right then. Watching her mother die had caused doubts about things. But she didn’t want to put those on a six-year old.

“Mom, you’re going to die too one day, aren’t you?” Here was a question where there wasn’t room for doubt.

“Yes, Mary. But you’re going to be grown up and smart and brave. It’ll be okay.” Right then, something came into Katherine’s head. She saw herself standing between her mom and her daughter in sort of a queue. She’d never really thought of it that way, that she was a middle between her mom and daughter.

Then Katherine’s mental daydream grew. On the other side of her mom was her grandma who died when Katherine was in college. But there were other women. Dozens, and they filled that side of the church in Katherine’s imagination. It occurred to her that her mind was visioning generations of women that led to her. And to Mary. Mother and daughter and mother and daughter and on and on and on. There was comfort in feeling a place in that.

Mary was quiet now, tucked next to her mom. Katherine guessed that Mary was trying to understand what it meant that her mom would die. Katherine kept hold of her. Katherine was trying to understand that, too.