by Marla Lukofsky
Today I attended the funeral of my friend and neighbor of 35 years, Ms. Enid.
No one knew her exact age except for her best friend Ruby, another neighbor here at The Burnside, our six-storey art deco apartment building that we all lived in.
Enid was distinguished and healthy, but dementia grabbed her sensibilities in her last year. Because she was single and had no family, she was sent to a nursing home far away from The Burnside and her friends, a good forty-minutes drive on the highway.
Her death has had a huge impact on me. I miss her tremendously, of course, and her passing has made me reflect upon my own situation. You see, I’m single too. Even though I have my will in place and am relatively healthy (despite the Canadian health system), financially stable, and of sound mind and soul, I’m not sure that my end-of-life wishes will be carried out. Who will be my advocate?
I’ve selected two executors, but in reality, in the absence of caring family or friends, I worry that no one monitors the executor. What happens if there’s no one left alive to watch over you and your belongings? Can the executor do anything he/she pleases with their client’s estate, body, burial, and belongings? It seems the courts only step in if someone blows the whistle.
Enid’s funeral service seemed designed more to please the needs of her estate lawyer than to please her. When I asked him where Enid wanted to be buried, he admitted that he had never asked her. Her ashes were to be shipped two hours away to a cemetery where he believed her parents are buried. I asked him if Enid wanted to be buried with her parents. He said he hadn’t asked her. How could that happen, I thought?
Interestingly, Enid did have the wherewithal to state that her obituary NOT print her age. Good for you, Enid. Age should be irrelevant, and besides, it’s no one’s business.
These days when we hear a person’s age, assumptions form. An older person is rarely thought of as being or having ever been vital, skilled or talented, and yet, many were and are. While other cultures honor and respect their elderly population, North America seems to dismiss the thought that a senior can be captivating, attractive and interesting. Adding insult to injury, seniors are often referred to as ‘cute’. A puppy is cute. A baby is cute (sometimes).
Unfortunately, after a certain age, people become a member of the invisible race. (I should keep that in mind the next time I want to steal something.)
Enid’s memorial service was different than those I’ve been to, particularly because she had no living relatives, no one to eulogize her life from personal experience, and no one to shed tears the way primary mourners do. I cried plenty when I received the news of her death, but somehow that’s not the same thing. Or is it? Enid’s friends didn’t want to speak at her service, so I was asked to say something.
I spoke about being Enid’s neighbor for over three decades and what she meant to me. I spoke about the night we spent together one New Year’s Eve, sharing stories while she polished her late mother’s silverware, an annual ritual. I spoke about the answer she gave me when asked how she maintained such a close friendship with Ruby for over 60 years.
“Two things, Marla…boundaries and privacy.”
And I spoke about the best advice she ever gave me: “Take a walk every day, and have a goal for your destination. It could be to buy an apple, or the newspaper. Most importantly Marla, get out and move.”
As I looked out into the faces of Enid’s few mourners–just eleven neighbors from The Burnside, her cleaning lady, and our superintendent–I thought about the sense of community we had created, complete with love, hate, and disparity.
When Enid’s memorial concluded and we crowded around her boxed ashes, and fragile-framed portrait, her lawyer asked a painful question:
“Does anyone want Enid’s photographs?”Enid’s photographs were respectfully scattered about the memorial room as if it was a staged set. We didn’t know who the people in the photos were or their importance to Enid. But there they sat, and what to do with them now was our dilemma. These photos may have been of her parents, or treasured aunts and cousins. We shall never know, now. What we did know was that no one wanted them, not even Ruby (who is also single with no family and 95 years young). Perhaps for Ruby it is just too painful a reminder of what she will miss. I wonder how long she will last without Enid, her best friend, to walk with and talk with and share meals with, especially on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
An 8×10” portrait of a younger Enid now sits in our lobby, with a battery-operated votive candle beside it. Soon it will be removed, tossed into the trash and driven to the city dump where it too, will become ashes. Questions swirl around in my mind.
Is this how the single population in our society end up? Our once cherished photographs recording our life, loves and lineage all to be tossed into the garbage?
What becomes of their worth, their knowledge, and their very existence?
Deep in my heart, I know that my photos, articles, and recordings of my careers will also end up in the city dump along with the other single people’s tangible memories. They are nobody’s keepsakes but mine.
For now, I’m going to dust off my framed articles of me as standup comic, inspirational speaker, and jazz singer, as well as my photo collection of family members and dogs. I’ll try not to think about what will become of them when I am gone.
A common epitaph is: “You Will Live in Our Hearts Forever.” Another popular one is “Gone, but not forgotten.” I’m starting a new one: “Ashes to Ash, Tossed in the Trash.”
I’ve learned a lot from Enid’s death. We must all legally prepare for our inevitable passing, and get our specific needs, desires and end-of-life arrangements down on paper, while we are mentally able to do so. And we should have someone outside of the executor’s circle making sure our wishes are respected. Some find it morbid to discuss such matters. The truth is, it’s imperative. I’m feeling a bit low today and I know what Enid would tell me. She’d say “Marla, go for a walk. Pick a goal for your destination. Buy an apple, a newspaper, it really doesn’t matter what. Just get moving. It will make you feel better.”
I think she’s right.