Recently Sheena had the opportunity to attend a memorial service for a person she hadn't seen in many many years. Cruel twists of fate, a tragic accident years ago, an ongoing struggle with inner demons and regrets; he had been estranged from family for a long time.
Did he die feeling abandoned and lonely? Was anyone around to help him? How did he live? Did he suffer? We all had the same worries and painful questions wondering how the time had gone by so fast, and might things have been different. We tortured ourselves with the woulda, shoulda, couldas.
At the end of the service, the crowd shuffled by the immediate family to pay respects and offer condolences. After the old neighbours and extended family had passed by, a line of strangers appeared. No one knew who they were.
As the strangers approached the row of family, we looked closely at them. Emotion was etched deep into weather beaten faces. Some were scabby. Some were shaky. A perfectly pressed and pristine brown polyester suit from the 1970s put on out of respect for the deceased and the solemnity of the situation. Large women with spectacular mullets comforted the skinny and bony and tired. This motley crew were his people. His friends, his colleagues, his drinking buddies.
The family had not made arrangements for a wake or post-service lunch. But his people had other plans. They wanted, no - needed, to honour his memory. Their lives had been immediately and directly impacted by his premature death. His family had gone through that loss two decades ago. But for his people it was fresh and raw and painful.
So they invited the family to come and celebrate his memory in the place where he lived, where he socialized, and where he died. So the suits and sports jackets and high heels piled into the cars and pulled up in front of one of Winnipeg's most notorious flophouse welfare hotels.
The family slowly and carefully opened the door, unsure of what they would find. Not knowing where to go. A metal barred cage surrounded the front desk clerk and beer vendor. Opened the door to the cocktail lounge. There sat his people. Already starting in on the first round, which was on the house thanks to the owner. It was almost 11:30am. In the middle of the room, on the pool table, was setup a lovely spread of homemade sandwiches - ham, tuna and egg salad, sliced ham and bologna, cakes, cookies. And kielbasa.
The family joined in. Had a beer. Round of sambucas were passed around the room. It was his drink. We toasted his memory.
The family began to gradually leave after lunch. But some stayed a little longer. Meeting the friends and neighbours and colleagues for the first time. Some of them had known him for 2 decades. These were the family's missing years. The opportunity to learn about his life, his health, the impact he had on people, the trust people put into him. An unexpected door was opened. Some chose to take it.
When the last of the family left, they knew in their hearts that he didn't die alone. He had stopped contact with his family for reasons known only to him, but had found and built a strong community around him. And a new sense of regret struck us. That we all make mistakes and poor choices along the way, but that perhaps next time we walk past a bum on the street, or turn our back on someone who disappoints us, we close the door on ourselves as well.
You can't pick your family. You can't pick your nose. But you CAN pick your friends. He was lucky.