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Mary McGrath column: The new 'F' word

This was the same church where we, as second graders, on up, waited in our class-assigned pews for our turn in the confessional. This was the same church where many of our parents' funerals were held. This time, it was one of our own.

Mary McGrath
Mary McGrath. Contributed / Lynnette’s Portrait Design
Contributed / Lynnette’s Portrait Design
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The church was as cold as I remembered, even on warm summer Sundays. Maybe it was the blonde wooden pews and the pastel-tinted windows where I expected to see stained glass.

Maybe it was the wooden chairs on the light-colored marble altar or maybe the terracotta-tiled flooring. There were lots of hard surfaces.

The obituary read: “John Otto Becker, 69, of Vaux Road died Thursday, November 16th."

This was the first classmate's funeral I attended.

Entering the church where we, as first graders started each morning with Mass, brought me back several decades.

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The bank of flickering red votive candles, lit mostly by women congregants seeking answers to their prayers, were still flickering. The lingering ashy smell of incense from a previous service faintly filled the air. The cold water, which tingled the tips of our fingers as we dipped them in the holy water fountain before making the sign of the cross, was waiting.

As I walked into the nave of the church, I could almost hear the clanking of our metal lunch boxes as we set them on the tiles beneath our pews.

The boys sat on one side of the middle aisle, the girls on the other. I remember one girl in particular always looking sad. Her eyes seemed heavy, her mouth downturned, her shoulders rounded. I remembered wondering what it was that made her look so sad.

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In my mind's eye, I saw John's soft face and sweet smile. Out of seemingly nowhere came a vague memory of a blue plaid shirt he'd worn and an accompanying memory of thinking his eyes matched the blue in his shirt.
Now, John's embalmed body lay in an open casket at the foot of the altar. I hesitated, wondering if I really wanted to see him this way.

This was the same church where we, as children, saw each other's families on Sundays.

This was the same church where we, as second graders, on up, waited in our class-assigned pews for our turn in the confessional. This was the same church where many of our parents' funerals were held.

This time, it was one of our own. Even though I'd attended many funerals, a little corner of my mind thought death was always for others. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't going to happen for me.

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Kneeling on the short kneeler in front of John's casket brought me face-to-face with the fallacy of that thinking.

There was no sweet smile. His face looked hard instead of soft. I couldn't see his eye color to test the accuracy of my memory.

As I knelt there, a video of our grade-school days played in my head. Each morning after Mass, the nuns lined us up, single file, our lunch pails clutched in our hands. We would take turns being the line leader. They directed us across the street to our school and, eventually, to our classrooms.

In those rooms, we learned to read and write. We learned addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division at varying paces. We recognized one another's abilities, idiosyncrasies and forming personalities. We witnessed each other's transition from first graders to preteens. And, as children often do, we cared about one another.

Our school went from K-8th grade. I went on to a girl's high school, John to a co-ed one. I'd heard he'd gone away to college, eventually moving to California. Occasionally, I'd hear something about his life and his whereabouts.

And, there I was, kneeling in front of his dead body. Our school days seemed vivid and not that long ago. I wanted to nudge his shoulder and say: "The joke’s over, John. Just stop pretending to be dead." I knew not to act on that impulse.

Now, I didn't want to leave the kneeler that I didn't want to come to in the first place.

My mind wandered back to when I'd heard he'd moved back to our Mid-western town. Newly divorced, he began connecting with old friends.

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At a gathering, I saw John for the first time in nearly 50 years. I could still see the little boy in him, the soft eyes and sweet smile. We had a long chat. He asked me about my life and the lives of my grade school girlfriends. He remembered their parents, siblings and where they lived. He recalled many of the nuns' names, remembering the ones he liked and the ones that frightened him.

About three years before John's death, he received an ALS diagnosis. I saw him soon after, noticing his gait had slowed. The next, and last, time I saw him alive, he was using a walker. Through these changes, his countenance seemed to stay the same, eager to talk and happy to be with friends.

Within a few weeks of using a walker, John died in his sleep.

As I stood up and wondered how to say good-bye, the thought of how we used to take turns being the line leader from the church to school came to mind. Instead of saying good-bye,

I said: "Well, John, I guess this time it's your turn to lead."

Mary McGrath is a lifelong Duluthian and retired therapist.

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