Friday, October 31, 2008

Dust to dust

Here in North America, Halloween is a big deal. Children and adults come out in fancy costumes and go house to house for trick or treat.

In the Philippines, the big day is November 1st, not October 31st. We remember our dearly departed on All Saints' Day, a stat holiday. Cemeteries and memorial parks are packed with people bringing flowers and lighting candles on their loved ones' tombs.

When I was a child, we regularly visited the grave of my fourth sibling Tessie who died of polio before she turned two, maybe 3 years prior to my birth. Her little tomb was on a hillside of a public cemetery in Marikina. My father painted it white every first of November and we spent the day there chatting with other visitors of surrounding tombs. I went around and collected candle drippings that I turned into a smooth ball of wax.

I remember the story of two young siblings buried near Tessie. We saw their parents every year on All Saint's Day. The brothers, around 10 years old, drowned together in a creek and were found clinging to each other. What a sad story. I'm sure I heard other how-he/she-died stories, but that's all I could remember.

Over the years, this Marikina cemetery became more and more crowded. The traffic leading to it became increasingly horrible. People inched their way in and out of the cemetery supervised by young Boy Scouts. Because tombs were above ground unlike those in memorial parks, it became harder to find a path to walk on. Tombs which had no fresh paint or visitors often became stepping stones for those who had little respect for the dead.

I remember that on November 1, when it was not searing hot and sunny, it was terribly muddy in the cemetery. But people came in droves, thousands upon thousands of them. Some would come on October 31st to clean the grave and paint the tombs or have an overnight vigil.

Our annual visits to my sister's grave became less frequent when my maternal grandparents and other relatives died and were buried in the province. We started going to my mother's hometown of Laguna on November 1. This day became some sort of a mini-reunion in the cemetery with our extended family.

Public transportation on this holiday was a nightmare. We always took the car to Laguna. One time I took the bus with my cousin. The terminal was full and very chaotic. When an empty bus arrived to pick up passengers, people rushed to it before it fully stopped, and squeezed themselves through the door. No line-ups! Wanting to secure a seat faster, my male cousin climbed through the window like other men were doing. Then he pulled me up. I was maybe 16 or 17 then, but, hey, forget modesty. Get me on the bus!! This was not a time to be slow and persnickety.

Eventually, my November 1sts became just another free day when the traffic and crowds--both the living and the dead--became way too much of a hassle. I stayed home or went out with friends.

There was a time in my young life that the mere sight of a cemetery gave me chills. I feared it. I didn't want to imagine myself among the lifeless people trapped inside those cold, dark tombs. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But that was a long time ago before I had Christ in my life. Now I have come to terms with the reality that my life on earth is but a vapour. A tiny speck in time. I am not staying here forever. I don't want to. I want to be with my Maker after my earthly mission is accomplished. And that's where I know I'm going, no shred of doubt about it. Jesus promised to give eternal life to all who believe in Him. He doesn't make promises He can't deliver.

I've been to several funerals of people I know who had Jesus in their lives. It was a somber occasion and yet a joyful one. Yes, there were tears, but more so, there was a celebration of the person's life on earth and the hereafter. You can sense it. On the other hand, I've been to funerals where there was nothing but grief and despair...

The day before my father was scheduled to have an angioplasty, I asked him if he was ready, come what may. He said yes, and that he had faith. Led by my husband, we prayed together at the ICU. The next day, before his angioplasty happened, my father suffered organ failure leading to his death. It was a painful event for all of us, but the last that I talked to my father, he was at peace. I take comfort in that fact and in the memory that I once overheard him telling my mother months before that salvation is truly in Jesus alone, just like the guy on the radio, or TV, was saying. I believe that if he were standing here right now, he would say it again. God's Word says it. Christ's resurrection affirms it. My father is witnessing it.

One day, I too will go. The Bible says I cannot add one day to the number I've been given. What matters is where I go next and how I live my life and who I live for in the meantime.

In my family we talk about death casually. Not with dread or the superstition that if you talk about it, it will come. This is not to say they can go ahead and do stupid things we are all going to die anyway. To be brave is one thing, to be foolish, another. Occasionally, I talk about the virtue of donating organs and the practicality of cremation. I am not concerned about this shell I will leave behind. The real me will be having the time--or eternity--of my life.

I know someone who has very specific funeral instructions in her will. It sounds like a party, balloons, happy songs, no eulogies. Talk about Jesus and his goodness instead, and what He meant to her life. That's one going away party. A home-going celebration.

"Mom, what will you leave with me?" I've been asked this question one or twice before. "My debts," I jokingly reply.

Really now, here's what I want to leave with my family, more than the little savings and investments I will manage to put aside in this uncertain economy. I want to leave them a faith legacy, one which they will enjoy forever. There's nothing like an everlasting return on investment after your body returns to dust where it came from.

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