Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Herd of Elephants

I have been fascinated by elephant society for a very long time.  I love that they are social animals, loyal to each other, ready to help each other in times of trouble--heartwarming the videos you find on You Tube of all the herd gathering around to pull a baby out of the mud when s/he ventured near water too deep for him/her.  They circle around other elephants in trouble, babies in danger.  They grieve their dead and have death rituals when one of their members dies.

It was many, many years ago when I first thought of us as a herd of elephants.  It was at the funeral of our friend Char's father.  I looked around in the vestibule of the church and there we all were--the five couples who met at Newman Hall at U.C. Berkeley, partied, dated, coupled, married, and bore 22 children among us.

We formed bonds stronger than we ever dreamed they would be.  And when "something" happened, we were always there for each other, whether it was an emergency babysitting need, or the funeral of a parent or sibling.  We have buried all of our parents, now, except my mother, the lone surviving progenitor of this group.

I thought about the elephant analogy again today on our drive to San Ramon.  It was a gorgeous day.  The skies were deep blue with fluffy white clouds.  The traffic was light and by God I even saw blossoms on a tree.  In December!

It was entirely too nice a day to be doing what we were doing.  Finally, after two months of red tape and conflicts with Christmas, we were giving Char's husband Mike his final send-off.

We got to the church early.  I didn't take any photos in church.  It didn't seem right somehow, but it was a gorgeous building. The guests began arriving, people from all parts of Mike's life, back to his college days, people we knew from when we lived in Oakland more than 40 years ago.  

And the "pinata people" (we 5 families, who adopted that name because whenever we got together we had a pinata for the kids) were there, the faithful herd of elephants going through our death ritual again.  

All three of my children and their kids came.  I was so happy they were all there.  I even wore a locket with Paul's and David's photos so all five of our kids could be there.

It wasn't a Mass, it was a Liturgical Service, with some hymns, some readings, a too long homily (aren't they all at these things?) and eulogies read by Mike's daughter Tavie (speaking for all of his kids), his grandson Hunter (speaking for all of his grandkids), and Walt, speaking for himself about what it was like to be a "victim of Mike's sense of adventure."

There were some tears, but just enough, as befit the moment.  The killer was the final song, "All Hail, Blue and Gold," which is the official campus alma mater for UC Berkeley, where we all met and our lives became entwined forever.
Mike is the sixth in our group to die.  Bill was first.  He was Pat and Rich's son, the age of our Paul.  Our youngest, David, was next, age 24, in a car accident.  Then Paul...three kids predeceasing their parents.  Bill Desmond was next, a bad reaction to dialysis.  Then came Concetta, who had been battling MS for decades.  Now it was Mike, dead of undiagnosed cancer while cruising in Germany. And the ever faithful herd was circling again, giving support to each other, along with a bit of clam dip.

There was a nice church organized reception right after. Our 22 kids were raised as cousins or siblings to one another and I love how they pick up right where they left off, sometimes a couple of years ago.  They will always be siblings to each other, a situation their children will never know in the way our kids do.

(I'm sure there is somewhere a similar picture of these three, in grammar school...without the wine...)

The day also offered an opportunity to take the photo I've been wanting to take ever since my friend Jeri (my daughter Jeri's godmother) married her Phil, after the death of husband Bill.  Daughter Jeri is also married to a Phil, so I finally have my Jeri and Phil with Jeri and Phil picture!)

At the end of the evening there was a special treat.  Char's grandsons, twins Cody and Casey, had been in film school in Germany when their grandfather got sick, so were the first to be at their grandmother's side.  They had been there to make films and tonight we got to see the fruits of their labors.

My favorite was Casey's (I think it was Casey), a 10 minute film about Spanish artist Augustin Ibarrola, whose exhibition of painting trees in a forest is only one of his famous works.  I had to come home and read more about him.

We were home by 8:30, but it had been a very long day, starting with leaving Davis at 9.  And it had been the kind of Day Mike would have enjoyed, filled with friends and family, music and Cal pride, good discussions, good food, good wine, lots of laughs.  And in the end watching the creations of his talented grandsons.  Not a bad way to leave this life.

I think the elephants would approve.

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