Once upon a springtime: thoughts on life, death, and grief in plague times

Quilt gifted to Dr. South by Nancy Glidwell in memory of Dr. South’s late husband, Robert Bitter.

Our entire spring of 2020 is a blur of shadowy heartsick memories. The clichéd phrase “we’re all in IT together” is an inescapably sad truth. That fear-driven prohibition to be physically present with our many loved ones and friends these past four months has become mind-numbing in its gravity. IT has touched us all in ways we never dreamed possible, and it is preached to us that we can no longer even safely touch each other. The unseen and seemingly never-ending IT is not to be trifled with.

IT has cast a pall over every facet of our existence … IT has invaded our sleeping, our eating, our work, and our leisure, our Sunday worship, the way we express love for the living, and grief for our dead.

I thought of all these things while sitting in our little country church when it reopened one recent Sunday. Our congregation like most others had not met together for some three months. There was a palpable admixture of happiness and apprehension to be all gathered in our small sanctuary. Social distancing was largely impossible. I found it absurd to try to sing wearing a mask and unable to concentrate on what the preacher said that morning. My thoughts raced … How can we all be here? … But, how can we NOT be here?

My knowledge that the majority of outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus in Tippah and Benton Counties had their origin in churches and at memorial gatherings was a troubling realization. This makes perfect sense. In our churches and at our funerals, outpourings of intense emotion within large interconnected groups are the norm. There we find energetic singing and even shouting at times. There we find handshakes, hugs, and even the ‘laying on of hands.’ There are the hallelujah tears of great joy but also the salty streams of sadness for those we’ve lost. However infectious they may be, those mercy drops round us are falling in showers of blessings. We simply cannot keep our mere mortalness contained for long.

I have lost several folks within my circle of family and friends, old school mates, neighbors, and patients during this time of Plague. Some of their deaths were due to IT, but more due to accidents, cancer, or simply the ravages of old age. Once upon a springtime, people could actually handle grief properly. Funerals and wakes (or what is now called a ‘visitation’) are the very oldest rites of humanity. Rituals surrounding a death have been practiced in one form or another by every culture on earth, reaching all the way back to our Neolithic ancestors and further still.

I am reminded that the ways we manage our deaths here in the South have changed a lot during my lifetime. When I was young, I remember going to the home of the deceased where the corpse would be fixed in a casket in their own ‘living room’ upon some sort of pedestal. Lights were low, the scent of flowers was pervasive, straight chairs were filled with the comings and goings of earnest friends. There were handkerchiefs and tears in one corner of the room, and hilarious stories and memories were being told in another. Men smoked and gossiped; women stayed in the kitchen, and cooked and gossiped. I seemed to always fall asleep on the couch and wake up in my own bed the next day. In those days, families observed the time-honored tradition of the vigil called “sitting up with the dead.”

The graves were then always properly dug by neighbors and friends with picks and shovels, as their last tribute to the departed. The funeral was usually held in the home church or perhaps simply at the graveside. The coffin was carried by six pallbearers chosen for their strength as well as their belovedness. The preacher spoke, read scripture, and prayed. The men rolled up their sleeves and shoveled the dirt back in. The flowers covered the loose mound of the grave. Amid our sorrow, or despite it, we then would all retire to a gathering place where we would find a fantastic groaning table of food, surrounded by the emotional release of more laughter than tears.

Funeral traditions here have certainly evolved over the years, but none have changed more strikingly than those enforced by the advent of the Plague. We hear of mass grave burials of large numbers of Plague victim’s bodies in third world countries, the living being so overwhelmed by the number of dead that there is no time for any other option. Here at home, because of the very real fear of contagion, our traditions have had to take a back seat, but fortunately (so far) not to that extreme extent.

I want to share two recent experiences during this springtime of sorrow. Neither of these deaths was due to Covid-19, but circumstances brought on by IT played a major role during their last days.

Ruthie Gal’s Homegoing Day

My mother’s first cousin and another matriarch of our Whittentown church and the Shady Grove community, Ruth Linebarger had lived a long and fruitful, hard-laboring life. When the infirmities of age crept up and robbed Ruth of her of independence she moved in with her daughter, Lisa Blaylock, down in Amory. Then when mobility further failed her at age 90, resulting from the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Ruthie Gal moved to the Riverplace Nursing Center there.

With the arrival of the Corona epidemic in March, the nursing home went into ‘lockdown.’ Lisa was no longer allowed to visit her mother’s room. As was mandated in every long-term care facility in the nation, elderly residents soon became virtual prisoners. Every day Lisa would come to look in on her mother outside through the window and talked to her via cell phone with the help of one of the health care aides. Lisa told me that her mother didn’t really grasp the quarantine situation and at every windowsill visit Ruth would grimace and say “Lisa, you get your tail in here and quit fooling around outside!”

Ruth had fractured one hip a few months before, but after reparative surgery she was still attempting to get up and go. Then in early April, our Ruthie Gal had another fall and tragically and terribly broke her other hip. She was transported to the hospital emergency room where orthopedists determined that her overall condition was such that the needed joint replacement surgery was too dangerous to undertake. Lisa was able to hold her mother’s hand for only a brief period of time in the hospital ER. Ruth was sent back to the nursing home in a very unstable and guarded condition. She slipped away from us just a few days later on April 14 with only her sweet roommate there to hold her hand.

I was honored to be ‘invited’ to Ruth’s visitation in McBride’s Funeral Home where (by the edict of the time) only ten people were allowed in attendance. Her immediate family and a former pastor, Brother Todd Bowen, were the only others there as we saw our beloved lady for the final time. I couldn’t keep from patting her hands just once more.

But what a visitation! We were all still learning the social distancing modus operandi so everyone sat well apart, skipping pews and fighting the overpowering urge to hug each other. Mourners sat tearfully in awkward silence for a just bit, and then the storytelling and the catharsis of belly laughs about Ruthie Gal’s escapades began. If I only had a tape recording of this riotous session, each tale funnier than the last, it would be worth a mint.

We went from the funeral home to the cemetery in the normal motor cavalcade and although there were only a few cars in our procession, local folks paid their usual respects by pulling over to the side of the road and humbly stopping as we passed by. At the cemetery, Brother Todd tried mightily to straighten us all up, but then lost it himself. Laughter could not be contained as our outpouring of stories continued. Despite the limitations caused by IT, Ruth Linebarger would have loved her ‘homegoing’ service. I decided then and there that this is what a funeral should truly be like. We were able to laugh through our tears as we reminisced about Ruth Linebarger’s well-lived life.

Nancy’s Quilt

Nancy Glidewell was Ruth’s niece by marriage. Nancy came to see me at the clinic this past December for routine lab work. We were both the same age and we joked about being able to qualify for that “good government insurance” (Medicare) in a few months. Although she was free of physical complaints, her liver enzymes had gone up for no obvious reason. When we rechecked the blood work a couple of months later, the abnormal values had bumped even higher. By then she was experiencing a vague pain in her side, but Nancy never missed a day working at Ripley’s Wal-Mart, a job she had enjoyed for 16 years. Further investigation with a CT scan revealed an ominous finding, a large and spreading malignancy of the liver. The prognosis was rather grim from the get-go but as with any cancer we don’t yield in submission to the bad news. She saw the cancer specialist and steeled her nerves to fight it. Waiting for insurance approval for her treatments to begin was one obstacle. Delays due to the Plague were also a complication. So, Nancy kept on working the customer service desk and kept on piecing quilts in her free time.

I have a little backstory about Nancy’s quilts … when my husband Robert Bitter passed away in October 2009, Nancy came to see me and said she wanted to make me a family quilt in his memory. She had me collecting leaves from around our yard and handprints of all the family to stencil and sew on the patchwork blocks. For several years I collected handprints from family members and saved large autumn leaves for her to trace and sew their outlines. She saved block spaces so that as my family expanded, she could add those paw prints as well. Little by little she worked on our family quilt episodically and added new handprints as my family grew. The quilt was complete exactly ten years later in the fall of 2019. It is a treasured masterpiece of craftsmanship.

Nancy fought her deadly cancer valiantly, but her battle was a losing one. Because of IT, her husband Glenn was the only one who was allowed to visit her in the hospital during those final days. He took the last photo of the usually widely grinning Nancy while she continued to stitch on a quilt top at North Mississippi Medical Center. In it, she was scowling and begging him not to take her picture!

Nancy died on May 5. Her funeral was by necessity just a simple graveside service on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon at Marlow Cemetery in Walnut. In her eulogy, Minister Jerry Owen appropriately remarked that the thing he most remembered about Nancy was her constant beaming smile.

Most of us held it together until the CD player ended her service with the song “Angel Eyes.” I was watching her husband Glenn’s eyes and realized immediately that must have been ‘their song’….

“Well, I’m the guy who never learned to dance, never even got one second glance. Across a crowded room was close enough. I could look but I could never touch. So tonight, I’ll ask the stars above ‘How did I ever win your love?’ What did I do? What did I say to turn your angel eyes my way?”

And then I lost it.

Music has that power to touch us when nothing or no one else is allowed to.

Once upon a springtime, a funeral was a place where we gathered in like the convocation of a large mourning tribe. Once upon a springtime, we hugged those who needed a little help to stop shaking. Once upon a springtime, people grieved without a mask hiding the trembling lips of loss and bared helplessness.

As I gazed on Nancy Glidewell for the last time in her casket that day, I looked at her talented, hard-working hands and could only wish that she had stitched their outline on my quilt, too. And, I couldn’t keep from patting those hands just once more.

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