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March 10, 2001: Passing

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Today we drove to Chico for a funeral.

The drive was long - longer than it should have been as we later learned on the way home after actually checking a map instead of believing in the almighty power of Mapquest. It was a pretty drive in places. We saw a few clumps of California poppies along the road. It took me by surprise to see them, actually. I remember when you could find those brilliant clusters of orange along every freeway in this area, and now they're nowhere to be found. Our state flower, practically nonexistent. Back in high school I had a biology teacher who'd come from out of state. He was very tall and thin, and painfully young. We had to do the California memorization thing - where we had to memorize tons of flowers (and birds) - their common and latin names. I recall hours spent with friends, working with flash cards, trying to come up with anything at all, no matter how silly, that would help us to remember those darn latin terms. I'm still not sure why they forced us to do this - most of us promptly forgot all we'd memorized shortly after the test.

But the test itself was a room lined with various plants - samples of them, mostly, since they were all Californian. And in one vase was a pair of flowers - brilliant orange petals (four each), hanging limply down at the sides of the stem. We were stumped - this did not look remotely familiar, although the color should, I suppose, have been a dead giveaway. "Poppies," the teacher exclaimed when we asked him later, and was mortified when told that it was illegal to pick them. He'd had no idea. But at least now we all know what they look like when they're picked. They don't hold their shape. They wilt and turn their pretty, delicate heads inside out.

There were orchards along the roads we drove. The sign for one town proclaimed it the kiwi capital of the United States. I'm not sure if that is necessarily true, but I can only assume that if it was, those squatty, leafless trees we saw were kiwi trees. Do kiwis even grow on trees? I'm a bit ashamed to say that I don't honestly know, although since they're a fruit, I'd have to assume they did.

In one section we passed the air was filled with the perfume of thousands of flowers - pale pink blossoms that liberally decorated the otherwise bare tree branches. Between the trees something grew that was dotted bright yellow. At first we thought perhaps it was a deliberate planting, but then, noting clumps of the stuff in random patches in fields and parks we passed, we wondered if it was simply a local weed. Whatever it was, the blanket of yellow pin pricks under a canopy of delicate rose was vibrantly beautiful.

There is not much else out there on the road up to Chico. The route is sprinkled with a handful of small towns, most of which looked to be the sort of place young couples dream wistfully of moving to to raise their children, and from which teenagers dream desperately of escaping.

We found the funeral home with no trouble at all, and went inside. The room was packed, and it was only after finding a place to sit that Richard's aunt flagged us down and pointed us toward one of his cousins.

I never met his aunt - the one who lay in the coffin at the front of the room (although I'd never met the other one who greeted us before either). I know that funerals are not the place where faults and flaws are often revealed, but still, even with that in mind, the way people spoke of her, she sounded as if she were the type of person I would have liked to know. Service over, they raised the coffin lid and as people milled past, Richard and I met the rest of his family.

This is a side of the family he knows barely, having seen most of them only 15 years prior. His cousin Richard looks just like him - so much that I pointed him out as we sat in the back corner (our first position before his aunt found us) and noted that he had to be related.

Richard (my Richard, not the cousin) commented, looking at his aunt's body, that she seemed still alive, that somehow one could almost believe that she was about to wake up. She died in her sleep - the best way to go, peaceful, quiet. She had called only a few weeks prior, completely out of the blue after so many years. Others said that she had called them as well, everyone in her family on both sides, trying to touch them all. She made the effort to get Richard's phone number for that call, and it was that effort which was the sole reason we even knew she died.

It was a bit odd, being at a funeral when I was not emotionally involved. I attended my grandfather's funeral several years ago and mourned because I would never have the chance to really get to know this man who shared my love of the scientific and practical - the only one in my family who could ever read my published works and comment on the actual topic because he understood what I wrote about. He was laid out in his coffin, and looked like a wax dummy. It did not look real - he was too artificial, lying there. This was not my grandfather as I remembered him, the summer before at the family reunion. He had been just as old and frail then, but he was alive. This body in the coffin did not look as if it had ever been inhabited. He was the only one of my grandparents I ever knew.

Handshakes and 'glad to meet you's' were murmured. What do you say to someone who has lost their sister / mother / best friend, when you have never met anyone in that room before - either living or dead, except "I'm sorry about your loss." We left with addresses exchanged, hugs and promises to remain in touch.

On the way home, sun setting so the flowers in the trees weren't nearly so brilliant in color, we saw the egret by the side of the road. He stood, poised, thin and white, sharp against the uneven grass of the shoulder, pretending that the cars whizzing by didn't exist.

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