Holidays remind us of mortality

For most Christians, Christmas is a season of anticipation, joy and hopefulness. For many others, Christmas can be a time of sadness as people recall loved ones who have died, because Christmas is a time when families often come together.

I recall my November interview with Laura Skelly, whose 16-year-old son, Michael, died in a December wreck 13 years ago.

“For me, holidays are never the same,” Laura had said. “I look forward to when they’re gone because I watch everyone’s families, and I just still to this day don’t feel it’s complete.”

I was especially saddened in this Christmas season because five people I knew — four of whom were age 55 or younger — died in the days leading up to Christmas. As I grow older (I’ll be 55 in March), I become more aware of my own mortality. I also know more people who are sick and more people who die.

Three of those people who died in December lived in Garner.

Rebecca Vasquez, 51, the homeless woman I wrote about last week who was hit by a train, died Dec. 13. The other two were Kay Mitchell, 69, a Garner mother of four adult children who died of cancer Dec. 18; and Beverly Hill, a 29-year-old mother of a 5-year-old, who died of cancer Dec. 22.

Both Kay’s and Beverly’s funerals were held at St. Mary Mother of the Church, Garner’s Catholic congregation.

One of the great things about living in Garner is that, despite what seems like endless growth, there remains a small-town ambiance to our community.

I often meet people I know when I’m out and about, and when someone is sick or dies, there tends to be an outpouring of empathy from our citizens. I recall the communal empathy when former Garner Mayor Don Rohrbaugh died in November 2009.

I doubt there are many towns where a church is full for the funeral of a homeless woman, but that was the case at Bryan-Lee Funeral Home in Garner for Rebecca’s funeral. Many people spoke admiringly of Rebecca despite her “lowly status” in this life. I knew Rebecca for more than 15 years, and I always was touched by her loving spirit.

Once when my wife, Mary, and I visited Rebecca in one of her many Garner woods encampments, rather than accept our charity, it was Rebecca who handed Mary a bag of clothes that Rebecca did not need. Mary wore those clothes with gratitude.

At Kay’s funeral, all of her children were there to honor their mother’s life and to thank their father, Bill, for the loving care he provided Kay as she endured a long and often painful battle with cancer.

Speaking at her wake, Kay’s son, Billy, said his mother put a premium on family intimacy. There were always lots of loving hugs and other signs of affection in the Mitchell household, Billy said, and it showed as Billy interacted with his three sisters and father, enduring what was probably their hardest trial as a family.

It was a joy to see the depth of their love, and it made me admire Kay for bringing to fruition the Biblical injunction: “Love one another.”

Beverly, a friend who died too young, was someone I watched grow up in Garner. When Beverly (who leaves behind a son, Gabriel Thomas Hill) was diagnosed with cancer last July, her mother, Cathy, brought her daughter home to die. Like Kay, Cathy is someone I admire for her depth of love. Cathy cared for her dying daughter with gentleness and kindness, the same qualities I saw in Beverly.

In her obituary, it said Beverly “possessed a special gentleness, beauty and grace that touched the lives of all who knew her. Beverly is now our saint intercessor in Heaven.”

In her comments about her daughter at the funeral, Cathy said, “What a good heart she had.” Beverly got that good heart from her mother.

As the Christmas season winds down, the grief will linger for the families and friends of Rebecca, Kay and Beverly, three women who were loved and will be missed by many. As Fr. Roger Malonda said at Beverly’s funeral, “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.”

That remains the hope for those who believe in eternal life with a loving God, and it is our faith in a loving God — a savior born Christmas Day — that helps us all get through the hard times, especially when we encounter the deep emotional pain that comes from the loss of someone we love.

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