the funeral speech I couldn't give
2001 (updated : 2008.07.02)
Among my four grandparents, one was especially dear to me – my father's mother (my "Oma")*. Yet I failed her, being unable to speak at her funeral.
My Oma was not only my only grandmother for many years (my mother's mother died when I was 3 1/2 years old) but was the plain-spoken, no-nonsense woman who could keep us in line even while pampering us. I went to visit my Oma on a fairly regular basis over the years, often going as often as every Sunday for years at a time. While my uncle Wolfgang actually took care of her and the property, I'd breeze in and out to say 'hi' and to enjoy some company. This carried on even in postcard and letter-writing right until the time she died.
Her death came shortly after I'd returned to Canada from a year and a half in Australia. I'd only just stopped in at Vancouver to visit with my brother and his wife when we got the news that she'd gone into the hospital and was hallucinating and seemed to be incoherent. We agreed with the family's conclusions that it might not be best to pester her with phone calls under such circumstances (what do you say to someone who is dying and probably isn't going to recognize you, anyway?) and simply got ready to travel back to Niagara for the inevitable funeral.
At the memorial service, my mother suggested that I speak as I had at my grandfather's funeral. But I simply couldn't.
One of the last times I'd seen my Oma was when I had taken my now-ex-fiancee and her five-year-old niece along for a visit. Zoë, the niece, had been in a crying mood all weekend, and my (now) ex and I had been at our wits' ends. But my Oma, eighty years older and speaking her second language, had been able to talk to her, get the girl to sit in her lap, and to get her in a happy mood in no time. This was the story that came to mind when I thought of speaking of my Oma's memory, but I didn't have the strength.
My return to Canada had been prompted by my first marriage engagement dissolving. As I was mulling relating that tale as the central item in a speech at the funeral, I realized that I would never again see my Oma, the ex, or the niece. I'd had to return to Canada because jobs had dried up while I was in Australia, and I was fretting about my financial state (lots of savings, no income). I was homeless, rootless, and had been out of the world for quite a while.
I've always regretted not speaking for my Oma, but I think it's also relevant to recognize that sometime our limitations are real, and that even when doing our best we're not always able to rise to every occasion.
That said, I have a feeling that my Oma might have found the strength. I suppose it comes from having handled five children during war time (and losing one of those!), but she had a knack for focusing on the important tasks. It had always endeared her to me. It looks like I'm still working on it.
*Oma is German for 'grandma' and Opa is of course 'grandpa'.