Bicycling in Kilkenny

Bicycling in Kilkenny

Flying for Free: Part VII

One of the philosophies of the space-a traveler is to make the most of every time and place they are in. There is no need to waste the mone...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Adios, Mi Amiga

  The following is not the whole story.There were other friends of hers who helped her enormously. I wanted absent friends and family to feel as if they were right here with us, and the only way I could do that was to write the way I always write: from my point of view.

John and I arrived at the Rota cemetery chapel  glad to see the base chapel’s priest preparing for the Mass.
“Does this mean it will be in English?” I teased him.
“Well, I don’t speak Spanish,” he replied with a grin.
The gentleman assisting Father directed us to where my friend’s remains were held. In the Spanish tradition, her body lay in her casket where family and friends normally stay overnight talking and praying and just be there with the deceased.
In her case, however, it was only friends and it was just one hour instead of overnight.
She had moved to Rota with her parents when her father was first stationed at Rota 40 years before. He retired and they stayed. She buried each of them at the Rota cemetery. She never married and never had any children. Her life in Spain was the Navy Exchange where she had worked until she retired and the base chapel where she attended Mass nearly every day until recently when she had become too ill to walk to the base.
We found the room in a building right next to the chapel. There were four separate rooms and they were all filled with people. Joanna’s room, Sala 4, had four stiff couches and a couple coffee tables, one of which was topped with a clean ashtray. Most of the people were standing around talking. Many said how they were surprised by her death because they didn’t even know Joanna had been sick.
In another room on the other side of a large picture window, her olive wood casket sat surrounded by flowers. There was a crucifix carved on the top of the shiny box. I was disappointed that I couldn’t actually go in the room. I had hoped to say goodbye privately.
After a bit of small talk, John and I walked back to the chapel. I wanted to go somewhere quiet where I could just ---‘be.’ Father came over and asked if I would like to read the second reading. At first I balked, but just as quickly I realized how that might be a nice way to honor the memory of my dear friend.
Almost immediately after we had found our seats and got settled, the Mass began. Two of the funeral workers carried her handle-less casket into the chapel and placed it on top of a rustic metal cart. Father said a prayer while he sprinkled Holy Water on it. As the choir sang the first song, “You are Mine,” the two workers wheeled her casket up front, in the center of the aisle. I wanted to go touch the casket and tell Joanna that I missed her and that I was sorry I had left her side before she left this life, but I stayed where I was.
The choir singing at Joanna’s funeral was extra special because it was her choir. The same choir she had sung with so many Sundays before stood and sang without the sound of her voice. They sang for her memory as she lay in a casket right there with them. They sang to God for the repose of her soul, and they sang to the congregation and themselves for comfort and strength.
Still, they sang without her voice and the lead singer broke down. Unable to raise her song above her tears, she mourned the loss of her long-time friend as her fellow choir members sang on. I walked across the chapel in front of everyone to offer her an embrace. I was nervous, but I couldn’t let her stand there in front of everyone crying all alone. Besides, for that hour, all of us there were family.
I returned to my seat next to my husband and alternated holding his hand and holding on to his arm as I paid close attention for my cue. The choir sang the Responsorial Psalm. Each time we sang the response, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want,” I prepared myself to approach the altar.
Finally, it was time for me to read. I walked up and looked at the page. Suddenly, I felt as though I had never lectored before. I stared at the page for a moment before I finally began reading. I do not remember for certain, but I think I messed it up. I probably forgot to say, “A reading from the book of Revelation.” I just jumped into it instead. I don’t even think I said at the end, “The word of the Lord.”
I probably should have refuesed when he had asked me to read. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to do it.
Thankfully, the reading was short, and I found myself back in my seat very quickly. Father said a few nice words about Joanna followed by some things about the Kingdom of Heaven followed by the Eucharistic Prayer. I felt odd standing through the whole thing, but there were no kneelers in the chapel.
After everyone had an opportunity to receive the Body of Christ, we were all invited to follow Joanna’s casket outside. Father sprinkled more Holy Water on the casket before the two men placed it back in the hearse. We all slowly processed behind. We couldn’t see the beautifully blooming flowers or feel the warm sun. Even the sound of birds chirping was diminished by the solemn chapel bells. The only sound accompanying them was the sound of quiet tears.
Just a few moments later, we all stood in front of a tall mausoleum.  Her parents’ cremated remains were already removed from the now open tomb. Their two boxes sat on the sidewalk as if they had been waiting there for her all along.
More Holy Water was sprinkled and more words were said by the priest as they placed her body in the tomb followed by those of her parents. A worker placed the cover on the tomb and sealed it using handfuls of fresh cement.
That was the moment I broke down. I buried my head in John’s chest and cried. There inside that tomb lay my friend, Joanna. Over the past few years, she had listened to my troubles, joined me for shopping and lunch trips, and showed me around Spain. She even attended my graduation when I earned my Master’s Degree. She shared her wisdom, her friendship, and her sense of humor. She made me laugh until finally, she made me cry.
Two days later, we all gathered to remember Joanna once more. We met in the base chapel, for that was her church. She walked to that church where she had worshiped and fellowshiped nearly every day for years. She could recite the name of every priest that had served there for the last forty years, and she could tell you about many of the families who had come through there, too. That church was her home.
The chapel was already donned in purple, the solemn color of Lent. Her Boston Red Sox cap, sunglasses, and a photo collage of her image stood atop a small table surrounded by abundant and aromatic flowers. Her signature backpack that she had always carried with her sat in front of the table next to the flowers sent by her cousins back home.
We all knelt and prayed the Rosary for the happy repose of her soul. As we prayed, I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering to times spent with her and how I wished I had done more. ‘I should have had her over for Christmas,’ I thought, remembering when she had strongly hinted at the possibility and I turned her down claiming my large family’s constant ruckus would probably be a bit aggravating for someone not accustomed to chaos.  I wished I hadn’t been so selfish about my family’s time. No one should ever have to spend Christmas alone, especially someone with so many friends.
I also considered once more that I didn’t stay with her the night she died. I got the text at 5:36 that morning from a stranger. “Joanna stopped breathing,” the caretaker’s words spelled on my phone. “Oh God,” I said as I called her back, unable to hit the numbers fast enough.
“She’s gone?” I asked hoping it wasn’t true.
“Yes, yes, Joanna’s gone,” she said, “I stayed up with her all night just holding her hand so that she would know I was here. The only time she woke up was at midnight. She asked, ‘What time is it?’ and I answered twelve o’clock. She went right back to sleep. Her breathing became slow and labored for hours and when I finally got up to use the restroom, she breathed her last.”
Joanna waited until she was alone to die. As we continued to pray the Rosary, I wondered if that is how she had wanted it, or if she just didn’t want to die while a stranger was in the room. I hoped and prayed it was the former.
The day and night leading up to her death were actually quite beautiful. She received the Sacrament of Anointing just 12 hours before her final moment. After the anointing, she was surrounded by friends for quite a while. At one point I told her, “See how blessed you are Joanna? You have so many friends here with you.” We even joked a little bit, because after so many years of our guessing the age that Joanna so carefully protected, I spilled the beans.
“I knew she was ten years older than me!” one of her friends belted out as we all stood there over her bed and giggled.
Some friends prayed over her, some offered her a loving touch, and others even sang for her. They all shared their love with her in their own way that night and many tears were shed. Finally, after they all had gone, I was there with her alone. I sat by her bed and watched her sleep while the caretaker settled in. I was happy she was finally resting calmly and prayed it would continue. My thoughts of staying with her were continually interrupted by the knowledge of my family waiting for me at home. They needed me and she needed me; I was horrendously torn. I finally left her alone in the kind hands of Ulrika with the promise and intention of returning in the morning, just seven hours later.
As we finished praying the Rosary, I imagined her happy in Heaven with her parents and any others who had gone before her and felt sure her happiness there overshadows any mistakes I had made while she was here on Earth.
We transported Joanna’s flowers, pictures, and other things to the chapel hall where the 30 of us would share the food each of us had prepared for the event. While we ate, each of us stood one at a time telling our story of how we knew Joanna. It was then that we learned we all knew her in a somewhat different way.
One person talked about the trips and adventures he had experienced with her, like the Rota Feria several years ago when a hugely famous Spanish rock band came to sing and they ‘snuck’ in the stadium along with a huge crowd of others who had been denied tickets.
Another  remarked how twenty years ago Joanna used to accompany her and her other young friends to ‘discotecques.’ Even though Joanna wasn't a dancer, she still got into the groove and had fun right along with them.
The woman ten years her junior remarked, “Joanna even attended my husband’s Baptism.” We all laughed because we knew he had to have come into the church as an adult.  Joanna certainly wasn’t that old!
When I finally stood and told about my friend, I explained that due to the military lifestyle of moving from place to place, it had been my normal practice to avoid close friendships. But for Joanna, I had made an exception. There were just so many things about her that made it hard not to. I didn’t realize it until after she had passed, but Joanna was one of the best friends I had ever had.
The evening concluded with a toast. The toast was not just special because we were toasting our laid to rest friend, but also because we were drinking her father’s special Irish Whiskey. It was something she allowed herself one sip of per year and there was a little more than enough left for all to share. With that toast, we laid our friend to rest.
I can’t speak for everyone else there, but that evening brought me closure. After a few days of weeping for the loss of my friend, I came away with a renewed sense of hope. My friend was gone, but it was clear she had lived a full life: a life of travel, excitement, love, laughter, knowledge, kindness, and joy. All of which she never kept to herself. She spread those attributes to everyone around her while touching each and every person she encountered in a unique and very special way.


  1. What a lovely, heartfelt piece. As I read, your words became images - the response of the choir at the funeral, my uncle and aunt's remains on the sidewalk, the backpack and cap at the memorial. You have not only given me a clear picture of Joanna's farewell, you have provided details about my cousin that I did not know, ones that help piece me together an image of a woman I knew only through the internet. The Irish Whiskey toast made me smile and was a fitting way for those of you closest to her to begin to move on. I am so grateful you, as well as Joanna's other friends, were there for her when her cousins could not be. Clearly, you all were her true family.

  2. beautiful tribute Melissa I echo Chris's sentiments.. you were her family.