I watched most of the funeral for Nancy Reagan the other day – and was strangely moved, when I could subtract my feelings of revulsion for what happened during her husband’s presidency (his silence on AIDS, his support for the contras in Nicaragua, his race-baiting …).
Nancy protected her man. And that really is something, and it touches me deep down.
I recalled the funeral of Kostantin Chernenko, who was the leader of the Soviet Union for a brief time in the mid-1980s. His wife, Anna Dmitrevna Lyubimova, had to be dragged away from his open coffin. It was a flash of colour and human heat in a field of obedient grey souls. (After Chernenko’s death, Ronald Reagan said to Nancy: “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?” I digress.)
I remember another funeral, one held for USA statesman George Schultz’s first wife, Helena Schultz, at Stanford Memorial Church, in 1995. I was walking down the hill from the student union to the English department – which was adjacent to the church – and I saw a coffin, on a rolling stand, unattended, behind the church, and thought, “No need to worry – nobody is going to steal a coffin.” When I stepped onto the sidewalk of the Quad, I saw a small crowd in front of the church. I went into the English / Writing building and asked my friend Dolores what was going on. “It’s a funeral for George Schultz’s wife. That’s her, in the coffin” (which was just a few feet outside the window).
I was struck that all these people (including George and Barbara Bush, I later saw) were in front of the church to commemorate her life but no one was watching her coffin, where her body was. But of course.
Back out in the Quad I saw an Asian family – parents and two daughters – who were visiting the campus. The older daughter had a shiny bicycle. The Mom asked her husband and daughters to pose for a photograph and instructed the girls to hold hands. When they did so, the bike fell over, and the whole family started to laugh, and I felt the torrent of life, to tears, into my bones, which kept me standing as though aloft in my breath. What Mrs. Schultz, I thought, would have given to have seen this moment with me, to witness such careless and happy and shared life!
Thinking back, I remember something my friend Cindy told me, that in dying the dead give you their greatest gift. I have puzzled over these words a lot in the years since she said them, an understanding of them arriving only in glimpses before leaving again and again. But the vividness of that scene, the girls, the bike, the parents, the unattended coffin out of view, the mourners, has never left me. It reminds me, with great force every time, of evanescent magic, miraculous living life.
That reminder has indeed been a great gift – from someone whom I never met, who was alone in her coffin.