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Local view: A respectful goodbye to a beloved elder

Ahmed A. Heikal

On a Friday in February, my wife and I drove to Meadville, Pa., to attend the funeral of her grandmother, Mrs. Bernita L. Ware. She was 88 years old.

At the age of 15, our grandmother attended a birthday party of a friend where she met Calvin Orrin Ware, her future husband of more than 68 years. He was 18 years old, and he, too, grew up on a farm, his family’s a few miles away from hers. After this brief and fateful encounter, they promised to stay in touch. Just after high school, Orrin was drafted to the war where he served as a radio navigator on a C-47 in the U.S. Army Air Forces over the Pacific. Bernita wrote to him weekly, which might have kept him alive. Against all odds, Calvin came home to find Bernita faithfully waiting for him.

For decades to come, Orrin rarely talked about his war experiences.

“I did my small part and I am no hero,” he said. “The true heroes are those who never came back or carried the war scars for the rest of their lives.”

Orrin and Bernita soon were married and started a family with two girls and a boy. Orrin started an insurance company to support his family, and Bernita helped him as secretary for 31 years.

In 2002, my wife (Orrin and Bernita’s granddaughter) and I were married. This tight-knit family accepted a foreigner with a different skin color, a strange name and a funny accent from a faraway land as a son-in-law. Whenever we’d meet, our grandmother would bless us with a beautiful smile, and our grandparents would show us old pictures of the family. I could easily see how beautiful my grandmother was in her youth.

A few years later, during our time at Penn State, my wife and I met with our parents for dinner. We were informed our grandmother was struggling with Alzheimer’s, and life was becoming too difficult for our grandfather to care for her. As a result, arrangements were made for her to live in a nursing home that specialized in Alzheimer’s care.

I always have had mixed feelings about putting our elders in nursing homes surrounded by absolute strangers. For a time I even felt it was cruel. How could we do that to a mother or a father who cared for us as powerless infants? Shouldn’t we return the favor and care for them in their old age? I am not sure if I know the answers, but at least I understand.

Bernita spent more than 10 years in the nursing home a few miles away from her family, who visited regularly. Our grandfather visited his beloved Bernita every single day. He talked to her as they used to in their prime and kept her updated about life outside the walls of her nursing home. As a poet and a storyteller, our grandfather would have no problem keeping his beloved wife entertained, even behind the glass-walled prison of a forgotten memory. Our grandmother reacted by simply smiling without a word. When she slept, our grandfather sat by her side, perhaps recalling a lifetime together and the love they had for each other.

At the end of every visit, he gave her a kiss and a promise to see her the next day. And she would smile in her sleep as if saying, “I know you will be back and I will be here waiting for you.” The next day, the story continued; our grandfather always had something to talk about with his Bernita.

From time to time, my wife and I visited our grandmother, too. She always greeted us with her trademark smile, sitting in a wheelchair, even if she didn’t recognize either of us. Erin (my wife) told her stories about our cats and recent events in our lives. And my grandmother simply smiled without a word.

My wife sometimes became overcome with emotion, realizing she was speaking into a vacuum with no one there to listen. In an attempt to escape, I looked around and saw many old, tired faces, as if they were trying to remember who they were and why they were there. Those folks were also the fathers and mothers of others like me, and they too too loved someone and befriended others.

On another Friday in February, Bernita L. Ware passed away at night surrounded by her beloved husband and her children while they told stories and laughed. During the funeral, she rested peacefully in the open casket, and Orrin sat there in his chair facing her in silence. As the service came to a conclusion, our grandfather wiped a tear discreetly as his 6-year-old great-grandson, Spencer, hugged him and gave him a gentle kiss.

On the long drive home, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience of funerals growing up in Egypt and how different they are from our recent experience in Pennsylvania. In Egypt, funerals are rather sad, sobering occasions with much crying and wailing. Laughing would be considered disrespectful instead of a celebration of remembrance. The children also have to be protected and isolated from those events. Viewing the person who just died also is unheard of in Egyptian culture. It is also the norm that the deceased person be buried quickly, most likely on the same day, after proper washing, wrapping in white cloths, and prayers. After the burial, the family, friends and others in the community attend the funeral procession to express condolences to the family and to show their respect for the dead. At the end, neighbors and friends provide food for the stricken family and their guests. On religious festivities, we always began our celebrations by visiting the tombs of our ancestors to pay respect before we enjoy the occasion with food, drinks and new clothes for the children.

I came to appreciate the American way, in which the life of the departed is celebrated. Stories are told and laughter is heard as if death is just a passage into another world that is free from the frailty of the human body. Having children around also is a form of passing a cultural norm while teaching them that death is a part of the life cycle.

Soon, life will go on as usual. Spring is around the corner, the trees will blossom once again as they always do, and the birds will sing. But, for now, we must pause to pay our respect for those who we loved before we continue marching toward our own end, someday.

Ahmed A. Heikal is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth.