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Reflections on a fall funeral, family and even Valencia Road

There's a lot to know about living well, but most of it's right there in Montaigne's Essays, which I cannot recommend too highly. One of the great Frenchman's themes is how to think about death and, specifically, how not to fear it so much that you lose the joy of living. Montaigne, in turn, got much inspiration on this topic from the Roman poet Lucretius, who formulated a famous cure for the fear of death: Where we are, death is not; and where death is, we are not.

I had plenty of leisure for morbid thoughts recently when my husband and I flew back East for my mother-in-law's funeral. She was 99 and had been slipping deathward for some months after a good, active, fully alert run. (She had desperately wanted to make it to 100, but even her fantastic determination could not quite carry her over the line.) So it was not, as they say, unexpected. But, as death will do, it turned everything sideways for a bit and, even as we rushed across the country to make the funeral, life seemed to slow down. Through the endless hours in airports, on planes and in cars, the usual full-on daily sprint stopped and the seeming importance of its tasks and distractions fell blessedly away.

The deep pleasures of family, of simply being with my sister-in-law and her husband, and feeling their satisfaction in having us there, filled the sudden open space. My husband and his sister have always been close, although as adults they've lived far apart, and all through Mom-Mom's decline Ruth would call Ed, knowing he would listen to her, support her decisions and laugh with her about the inevitable absurdities.

She often needed cheering up—as she put it not too long before the end, she'd start the day OK but then go down to the nursing home and come home feeling like a horse had walked over her. (Ruth has a vivid turn of speech.)

There were many other things to enjoy about the trip, beginning with the dizzying liberation of being laptop-less and almost entirely out of touch with the office for the first time in nearly a year and a half, wireless reception being spotty in Snow Hill, Md.

The hardwoods had all begun to change color, and the first real frost arrived while we were there, so the reds and corals and oranges deepened and leaves began to drop in earnest during our stay, making great, fragrant pools of color on the lawns and blowing artfully across the roads. On a walk I saw bluebirds, and a northern harrier being hassled by a ticked-off crow, and riding along a wooded road, I glimpsed a heron in a shadowy pool. (I truly love herons.) Another back-seat pleasure was listening to my three companions argue amiably about the names of long-ago honky-tonks that once sat along the roads through the woods and fields, roads that run between one 300-year-old hamlet and another. (The mall up in Salisbury has killed nearly all business in the old farm towns, to the point that they are not really towns anymore but clusters of gradually emptying white-clapboard houses.) It was even amusing to listen to my brother-in-law's unending critique of everything the state of Maryland has ever done as we skimmed along the perfectly maintained, clearly marked state asphalt. My thoughts of course, were of Tucson and Arizona. (Driven east on Valencia from TIA lately? It's jaw-rattling washboard for at least a mile. Way to make a first impression on our valued out-of-town visitors.)

The funeral itself was first-rate, having been pared by my sister-in-law from the hourslong extravaganza planned by the event's star. There were only two verses of two hymns: "How Great Thou Art," beautifully sung by a baritone and, for contrast, an excruciating performance of "Amazing Grace" by the funeral director, a woman who, as Ruth remarked, might have had a good voice 40 years ago. The eulogy was given by a justly popular Baptist minister who had known my churchgoing mother-in-law for many years and liked her, in spite of her telling him he was getting fat every other time he saw her. (He didn't put that in his talk, which was warm and just the right length.) He only tried to scare us about hell a little, which was nice of him, I thought. It is, after all, his stock in trade.

Not scared, sorry. I'm with Lucretius.

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