Though much of the time it’s touted as a good excuse for sales and an extended ski weekend, traditionally, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is meant to be a day of service. Ever since the current administration took the reins, I’ve seen more and more groups actually acting. It’s as if people remembered, “Oh, oops. We’re suppoed to be other-centered today.” Tree-planting, beach-patrolling – doing those little things for community which are the grease in the gears, and make things more pleasant for everyone.
I admit right up front that I’m never one of those who does things the same day everyone else does, so a service day for me this year was new – but whilst I’ve been navigating deliberately through these Thirty-one Deeds, one simply dropped into my lap: a funeral service for the manager of our local Starbuck’s.
No one sensible and good-hearted jumps at the chance to attend a funeral; obviously, a funeral service doesn’t have the same benefits as, say, a wedding or baby shower (no goodie bags to take home, to begin with). So, why did I leap to say I’d help host a funeral meal for hundreds of strangers on behalf of the family of a man I never even met? Well… because. Because, to honor the spirit of MLK’s message, we’re supposed to be other-centered. We’re supposed to do the little things for the community which are the grease in the gears, and make things more pleasant for everyone.
At least, that’s what I’ve heard.
Mounds of cake, cookies, pastries. Trays of sandwiches. Miles of cut fruit and coleslaw. Gallons of potato salad. Setting up was a chore, but it was light duty compared to what I dreaded: the presence of grief. It’s not that I’m not good at passing out tissues and patting backs, but the comfort of friends is not something you can pass on to complete strangers. The only thing I could give them was sandwiches and coffee, patience, and silence.
The silence is not easy. People, in grief, do not become less who they are; sometimes they become more. They are not suddenly ennobled by death, given a gilding and becoming abruptly lovely and thoughtful and good – no. They are all the things that they usually are, with an extra dose of reality: memento mori: remember, you are dust. Humanity, when fearful and aware, can be a frightening thing… with some people, rude does not even begin to cover it.
So saying, it’s not easy to merely offer silent service to this side of humanity; to be a pair of hands disconnected from a mouth and a brain. It is human nature, especially after books like THE HELP and that sort of thing, for people to feel like they’re supposed to be noticed, and insert themselves into the lives of those they are serving. We believe perhaps that someone might think less of us if they think we serve for a living, if we “do this kind of thing” all the time. We perhaps want to be sure that they know that we’re volunteers, we’re only here in this situation wearing food-prep gloves and a plain apron for a little while. In our real lives, we are something bigger, and something more. “We have desires and needs and deserve consideration, and to be catered to as well as you,” that mindset seems to say.
It’s sometimes impossible to quiet that self and just be. And yet, this is what was needed.
They trailed in, some of them shivering from the body heat that is lost in tears, some clinging to each other, others watchful and withdrawn, with the defensive camouflage of deflective smiles. Some had a distant, gracious look that the family of the deceased get after hosting a service – nodding vaguely to the room at large, accepting embraces and condolences, the jumbles of words which make up the white noise of grief.
Did they see those of us serving? Will they remember the hands that shouldered the trays, served the cake, that took their plates, found their purses, and directed them? Will the moment we met be remembered? Of course not.
We were pavement on the road they must walk to get through this.
And this was right.