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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Mom didn’t want a mass, which is puzzling because she was only slightly less Catholic than the Pope. Her wishes stipulated what people call a “celebration of life” these days. We put her urn on a table surrounded by flowers and played a slideshow of photos culled from a container we had hauled out of storage. Friends and family drifted in over a couple of hours to pay their respects and nibble at the catering. True to Maritime tradition, everyone ended up in the kitchen. I said a few words and the afternoon ended.

Her passing was sudden but not unexpected. Her health had been in decline for years, which gave me time to prepare. I mostly held myself together when my sister phoned with the news. I had years to consider what my reaction might be when the call eventually came. I thought about other people I had seen face that kind of news. The ones who handled it with grace and composure made an impression on me, and I aspired to their quiet dignity.

On my last day in Halifax, before my flight back to Toronto, I found myself wandering the city, aimless and adrift under overcast skies. It was Remembrance Day. Eventually, I wandered into Royal Artillery Park downtown, an old army installation with an officers’ mess, a collection of antique cannons and room to gather. People were filtering in for a Remembrance Day service. I decided to stay.

Men and women in uniform milled about, chatting. I remember being the only one without a poppy, having forgotten it in my haste. As 11 a.m. approached, a military band trooped in. The crowd came to attention, military and civilian alike, and the band led them in singing O Canada. Then the bugler played the Last Post, probably the most mournful tune on Earth. During the final slow, solemn notes, I began feeling shaky, the kind of shuddering that starts deep in your chest when you’re losing a battle to shove unwelcome feelings back down your throat. With the grey sky pressing down, gathered in solemn silence with hundreds of others, I started to lose the composure I wanted so badly to keep. I remember feeling I shouldn’t cry about my mom at a Remembrance Day ceremony. It felt like an intrusion, almost a theft. People came to remember fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen, not ordinary people. Not someone’s mother.

Repeating that silently to myself didn’t help. With the singing of the lament, I started feeling less in control of my eyes, my throat and my heart. Then the crowd began to sing Abide with Me, an old Anglican Church standard. It’s the kind of song my parents would have been familiar with, a hymn from the trailing edges of a fading age they had been born into, one of God, king and country. As the memories ebb of the wars that gave Remembrance Day its weight, so go the memories of that world my mother knew, a different Canada in a different time.

At that moment, it seemed like all the sadness I should have felt at the funeral started welling up deep inside. Surrounded by people mourning the loss of loved ones or simply remembering the fallen, the hymns, music and homily began to overwhelm me. I thought of my parents’ time and how much our country and world have changed. I began quietly sniffling and sobbing, trying desperately not to distract people around me, blessing the head cold that made me remember to put a wad of Kleenex in my pocket.

I stood listening and shivering as the cannons on Citadel Hill thundered a steady 21-gun salute, sounding like the slow, heavy steps of a giant in the distance. By the time the ceremony finished with God Save the Queen, I had composed myself again.

Two years later, what has remained with me the most about the ceremony is what happened near the end. As improbable as it sounds, when Abide with Me came to a close the sun started poking through the clouds, warming the assembly up ever so slightly with a soft, filtered light. I’ve never been overly pious, but the older I get, the more hopeful I become that there’s something beyond this life. I like to think that moment of light wasn’t meaningless. I took that thought with me as I wandered back to the hotel to meet my wife and get back to our lives.

I thought nothing more of the ceremony until the first anniversary of mom’s death when I was shuffling through some papers and found the program for the service. It contained the lyrics for the hymns that day, including Abide with Me. Hearing the faint, mournful melody in my mind brought me right back: The grey skies, the band and the quiet shuddering in my chest on a cold Halifax afternoon. Even now when I think of that song, the feeling returns. Now I understand what it felt like for my dad when, as a kid, I would practice Amazing Grace on the guitar for music lessons. One day, out of the blue, he asked me to stop playing it, and I never understood why until someone told me it was a song at his father’s funeral.

I realize now that Nov. 3 might be the anniversary of my mother’s passing, but Nov. 11 will always be the day of her memorial for me.

Mark Farmer lives in Toronto.

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