A life remembered


The night we left Canada to travel to Finland, my uncle passed away peacefully in his hospital bed. He had been suffering from lung cancer for about a year and a half, longer than the doctors expected. He was 63. Fortunately he wasn’t confined to a hospital bed until a week or so before he passed away. Only a few weeks ago, he was taking part in the large family BBQ weekend. And only a few weeks before that he walked his only daughter down the aisle.

We weren’t expecting to attend a funeral. We had only packed summery clothes with us, hoping to will Lapland to hang onto its summer just a touch longer with our bright cotton blends. So one of the first matters of business was to find appropriate clothing – I bought a nice black dress and wore it with a black blazer that I happened to throw in my suitcase at the last minute.

At the funeral I saw many relatives I hadn’t seen since we left Finland more than 18 years ago. Turns out people change shockingly little in 18 years. Well except for me – I actually used to be able to get out a sentence in Finnish without stumbling back then. I’m not sure when we’ve last had quite so many of my cousins gathered together in one place – 11 of the total 16 – and I’m sure it has never happened with me among them. We took a photo, our white faces floating in a sea of black. It’s strange to smile for a picture at a funeral.

I wasn’t close to my uncle but I held a damp tissue crumpled in my hand for the whole service. I cried for my mother who lost her older brother, for my cousin who lost her father, for her son who lost a beloved grandfather who has influenced him more than he will ever know.

I cried because I witnessed what ’till death do us part’ really looks like.

And I cried for myself too. In order to handle the complexity of life, I think we need our lives to tell a story that we can understand. In the neat little narrative I’ve tried to construct for myself, my family in Finland had nearly been written out all together. They simply didn’t have a clear role to play. But since my mother moved back to Finland, I have been forced to face the fact that it was never going to be as simple as that; they are in every step I take, in every groove of my face, in every value I hold dear. They are the very ink I’m writing with.

I lived long enough in Finland for it to be completely built into my bones, but not long enough to fill me up. I am both Finnish and Canadian and yet I am neither. I have a family in Finland to which I am connected by blood and history, and a family in Canada to which I am connected by a shared continent and present. I am part of both, but neither knows all of me.

I want to believe that one day I will find a way to put all the pieces of my past and my present into their rightful place to truly understand where I am from and where I belong. But the hard truth is that my life story will probably never be that simple. I will always struggle to find the balance between respecting where I am from while forging ahead to build the future I want here. That’s a task too monumental for me to truly grasp, and when I catch a glimpse of it – like I did on this trip – it brings me to my knees.

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Posted on August 30, 2011, in Life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. This is beautiful. “I lived long enough in Finland for it to be completely built into my bones, but not long enough to fill me up. I am both Finnish and Canadian and yet I am neither. I have a family in Finland to which I am connected by blood and history, and a family in Canada to which I am connected by a shared continent and present. I am part of both, but neither knows all of me.” I might have to use it sometime (I’ll give you all the royalties when I do :) )

  2. this was a powerful post

    hugs from america!

  3. I’m so sorry about your uncle.

    This post was so moving and thoughtfully written. I love this: “They are the very ink I’m writing with”. You are such an evocative writer.

  4. This is a beautiful and powerful piece of writing. A tribute to your uncle and your family and the pieces that bind you. I had to read a second time after I finished the first because it was so moving.

  5. This was such a sad, beautiful post. I am at a loss for what to say, leaving a comment only to tell you how much I appreciated your grief on behalf of your family, your beautiful words, and that feeling of only sort of belonging.

  6. Thank you for this beautiful post. I am sorry for your family’s loss.

    This part resonated with me:
    “We took a photo, our white faces floating in a sea of black. It’s strange to smile for a picture at a funeral.”

    At my grandfather’s funeral, I met part of the more distant family and since then, my immediate family has been quite connected to that part of the family. I have a photo of me and the other cousins from that day, and it is indeed strange. But I have always been so thankful to have had that much strengthened family connection, come from that day…

    Thanks also for talking about the two cultures and your journey with that. This subject is something that interests me deeply.

    • It is weddings and funerals that reliably bring families together isn’t it? The last time I saw any of my relatives was at my wedding. Obviously this time around was quite different, but both of these are so important.

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