Church Window, Troutville, Virginia, 2012
My mother-in-law died two weeks ago, the victim—like my recently deceased brother-in-law—of a rapidly moving disease diagnosed so late in its advance that nothing could be done to slow it. The good thing, as people are wont to observe at such occasions, is that although death came far sooner than expected, her suffering was thankfully brief.
Family and friends gathered this past Saturday at a small country church in the hills of southwest Virginia to celebrate my mother-in-law’s life. The sanctuary was packed. Tears and laughter punctuated the service. Like us all, my mother-in-law had her vanities and faults. But her life was defined more by her liveliness, her love of family, her dedication to her faith, her enjoyment of singing and her constant concern for the needs of others.
My mother-in-law was still a young woman when her first husband, the father of her four children and a Methodist minister, died young. Late in life she was reunited with a high school beau, himself a widower, who for thirteen years brought her much happiness and love and who is today lost without her.
It was bright and sunny as Saturday’s service began. From my position in the front pew I noticed over the shoulder of the minister the silhouette of a tree against one of the painted windows. As the tree swayed in the breeze outside, its shadow danced back and forth across the window, a reminder of a vital life and a reminder, too, of my mother-in-law’s love of dancing.
Trinity Church of the Brethren, Troutville, Virginia, 2012
Despite the seriousness of the proceedings, the photographer in me wanted to capture a photograph of the shadow’s play on the window. I even toyed for a moment with using the cell phone camera in my pocket to quietly capture the moment. But of course that wouldn’t have been right (though I’m sure my mother-in-law would have told me, “Go ahead, Sugar, it is beautiful, isn’t it?”). But I didn’t, and merely said my own silent prayer that the sun would stay out long enough for me to take a picture after the service was over.
That didn’t happen. So many people came forward to share memories of my mother-in-law that by the time the minister and the congregation said their final prayers the sunny sky had turned cloudy and the dancing shadows gradually faded as the family was escorted from the sanctuary. By the time I got back in the sky was gray and the window was wiped clean of shadows.
It would be easy to see the fading of those dancing shadows as a metaphor for the end of my mother-in-law’s life. But as several of the speakers noted, there’s a bit of her dance in all of us who knew her.