By Brenda Thomas
It takes about three steps to get from the door to the mailbox perched on a post next to the front porch. Regardless of the Minnesota weather, I take that short walk sans coat. If the porch isn’t wet from rain or covered with snow, I also forgo shoes. When I opened the mailbox on December 29, the below freezing temperature gave me a quick chill on the outside, but the return address on one of the envelopes brought a chill on the inside as well that day. In the stack of mail was a Christmas card from a dead cousin.
The envelope was postmarked on December 22. My cousin died December 27 while the card was en route from Wisconsin to Minnesota. I didn’t open it right away. I was in the middle of preparing supper and didn’t want to rush through reading it. Even though I didn’t know what it would say, there was a gravitas about it since I knew it was the last Christmas card I would ever receive from her. Any other year I likely would have opened it, done a quick read, and added it to the stack of other Christmas cards and letters on the ledge at the top of the stairs. But that card was different from the others and 2020 was not like any other year.
2020 has been different in a lot of ways, one of which is funerals. Even with COVID-19 raging in Wisconsin, that was not the cause of my cousin’s death. Yet, she would have a COVID funeral with limits on how many people could attend, required social distancing and/or masking, maybe livestreaming, etc. By now, we all know the drill. That was my fourth relative to pass away during 2020, whose funeral was like that even though none of them died of or with COVID-19.
When my father-in-law passed away in March in Minnesota, only immediate family were allowed at the funeral home for the viewing and that was limited to ten. The only funeral we were allowed to have was a brief graveside service outside on folding chairs spaced six feet apart under a wall-less pavilion on a concrete slab at the top of the highest hill in a veteran’s cemetery. In May, my aunt in Ohio passed away. I watched a livestream of her funeral with its limited in-person attendance. In November, my husband’s uncle passed away suddenly in Idaho. Only his immediate family were allowed at the viewing and he has not yet had a funeral. Then, in December, my cousin passed away in Wisconsin. I watched the livestream of her funeral with its mandated limited attendance and social distancing.
Behind and to the left of my laptop, from which I watched her funeral, was the Christmas card I had received from her leaning against a mug. Inside the card was a typed Christmas letter that began with a quote: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
That saying has been attributed to a variety of people. Regardless of its origin, the point seems to be that we can’t go back in time and change what we’ve done or what’s happened to us. Some of our problems are of our own doing, but some are not. However, we can control our responses to things that are beyond our control and can change our behaviors. Knowing what I know about my cousin’s life, I can understand why she would have liked that saying. During her funeral, friends and family alluded to the problems and challenges that she experienced, but they spoke of her inner strength and outward sweetness in the midst of and in response to those problems. My cousin would not have taken credit for that. How do I know? Because in her Christmas letter she also wrote, “As we close out this wild ride of 2020, I can’t help but reflect on how God has blessed me.” Less than a month after my cousin died, her 100-year-old mother (my aunt) passed away in Wisconsin. She had recovered from COVID-19 in October, but there is no recovery from old age. Her funeral is tentatively scheduled for the spring. It’s a new year, but many of the same old challenges persist as does that pesky virus.
2020 was a challenging year for the entire world. Some of those same challenges continue and different ones are yet to come. Many have experienced the loss of jobs, friends, or family and also will in this new year. All of us, to one degree or another, have experienced some sort of loss or inconvenience, even if it is just in not being able to go where we used to or gather with friends and family in ways we did before COVID-19.
Though many have died, we are still alive. We can’t go back, but we can start where we are. What attitudes or actions do we need to change?
© 2021 Brenda Thomas
Brenda Thomas is a freelance writer and online educator.
Thank you for honoring your cousin’s lifelong learning by carrying it on.