ordinary gifts

Two weeks ago the husband of my friend Cindy, Andy Wierzba, died of a heart attack. Andy is my third married friend to die young and suddenly, and I haven't had words to write about this for two weeks. I've been tiptoeing around the computer, wanting to say something but at a loss for words.

Cindy and I began seminary together in 1999, and she married Andy in 2001. Seminary was difficult for Cindy--she was a business woman who didn't have a lot of patience with the esoteric elements of theology. She would startle us all during a lecture in dogmatics or Church history when she would raise he hand and say something like, "But what does this have to do with Jesus, anyway?"

As a business woman, she was able to hire out all her writing. She used to tell me that in the business world, "writers are a dime a dozen."(Thanks Cindy!) Anyway, since she didn't have to write in her professional life it was a foreign experience for her to sit down at the computer and build an essay brick by brick, and many of her papers went unfinished for many years.

The last time I spoke to Cindy she told me that Andy was pushing her to get her degree and that when she lost courage he would gently nudge her until finally, one month ago, Cindy graduated. But when she finally got the diploma she fought so hard for, she didn't really want it. She knew it belonged to Andy as much as it belonged to her, so she tucked it into his casket.

When Cindy and Andy were newly married they attended our parish. They were a lovely couple--different but complementary. Cindy was bold and impulsive, articulate and unpredictable. Andy was gentle, consistent, self-educated and steady. He was also handsome and poised. Cindy told me that at their parish in Rye, New York there was a woman who always used to stare at him during the services, and Cindy took pleasure in the fact that she had the best looking guy at the church. But after Andy died the woman came to her with tears and said, "Now I'm going to have to pray during church!"

On Monday Amber called to tell me about the New York funeral. She said she had been crying all day, but it was a good kind of cry. And then she said something beautiful. She said, "We go to funerals not just to mourn the dead but to recommit ourselves to the project of living."

So I continued that project of living for a few days, all that living infused with the knowledge that Andy was gone and no amount of thinking would untangle this. A week ago Thursday I woke to attend the Chicago funeral. As I stumbled out of bed I thought, "I am just going to cry and cry today."

At the Greek funeral, it was sobering to see Andy, laid out in the casket, looking so unlike himself, as he was fit and athletic in this life. And it was sweet to see Cindy, who was her gracious loving self, despite her grief.

There was one moment that expressed so much of who Cindy and Andy are to the world and what they were to each other. At the burial, after the prayers had been said but everyone was still around, Cindy started pulling roses and daisies from the bouquet atop the casket, calling people by name to receive one last gift from Andy.

This photo is from that moment. I was a little nervous snapping photos at a cemetery, so I unfortunately cut off Julia and Esme's heads. But still, the moment is there, Cindy handing Esme a beautiful red flower, and Esme studying it with that academic look of hers. The arm reaching into the bouquet is Andy's mom.

After Cindy's gesture, everyone seemed a little confused because we didn't actually lower the casket into the ground. On the phone today, Cindy told me that she was troubled by this and a few days after the funeral she inquired about it. She was told that they no longer do that because it is "too upsetting."

She said, "But how will I know that you actually buried Andy right here?" She asked if they might dig up the casket for her so she could double check, but was told that she'd already spent $2,500 for the casket to be buried and she was forbidden to disturb the grave.

She eyed the sod covering Andy's freshly-dug grave and was troubled at the careless covering and yellowing grass. "Andy was visual and he liked everything neat," she said. So she got down on her knees and pulled the sod off the grave. She grabbed some fresh, healthy sod and rolled it carefully over the dirt.

"I felt like I was combing his hair," She said.

After the grave was settled to her satisfaction, she took a moment to lay down on that fresh grass, to rest with her husband in that quiet, wordless place.

P.S. To learn more about Andy and Cindy visit Julia's blog-- http://flakedoves.blogspot.com/2007/06/andy-through-cindy-shaped-glasses.html.


Dove Knits said...

This is a really beautiful goodbye, and an equally beautiful portrain of graceful grief. I cried at Cindy's actions. Thank you for writing this.

Julia said...

Jenny, I am glad that you were finally able to write this, and it is so well-done. Your tribute to Andy reflects the time you've spent thinking about it carefully and silently, unlike my haphazard words written so soon after the funeral. I am glad we could both contribute a piece of the story of Cindy and Andy, because it's the kind of story that is so worth writing about, even if writers are a dime a dozen.

Jenny said...

Tanya and Julia,

Thanks for your kind words. Did the title seem strange to you? This post began as I reflection on the ordinary moments of summer--chasing fireflies, lighting sparklers, being with my girls--hence, "ordinary gifts." But as I was writing the original post, I realized that I really wanted to write about Andy and Cindy, so I totally changed gears, but Blogger wouldn't let me change the title. So I was stuck with "ordinary gifts." Which of course, those flowers and the sod were--ordinary gifts made extraordinary by the circumstance.


Anonymous said...

There's comfort in the words of those who are able to write well from the heart - (thanks Jenny and Julia)

From Mary Oliver's WHEN DEATH COMES ...When it's all over, I want to say: all my life I was the Bride married to amazement...I was the Bridegroom, taking the world into my arms... (thanks to Cindy and Andy for not having 'simply visited' us)

Jenny said...

Hey--who are you "anonymous"? That is a wonderful, wonderful quote.


magdallia said...

This kind of loss -- widowhood, especially relatively early widowhood -- is one of my worst nightmares. Probably only second to going to Hell. It's kind of debilitating too because it helps keep a wall up to protect me from eventual loss, and can suck the joy out of living each day to the fullest. As my crowing ceremony approaches, any ideas as to how I can beat this?

Thx and God bless!

Jenny said...


All I can say is that the best way to beat this kind of fear is to continue to move forward even as it assaults you, to be kind of "whatever" about it.

On the other hand, the idea that those we love can be taken from us in an instant can be helpful in the way that most true things are.

Sometimes this very real risk helps me to wake up and be present to those I love.


magdallia said...

Thank you for this insight, Jenny...I'd never thought of it that way.