I have been thinking a lot about geese.
This past weekend, after COVID restrictions lifted a little bit, my mom and I were finally able to hold a memorial service for my brother, Anthony.
The cemetery, just east of Toronto, is pretty much a nature preserve that houses those we have lost. There is a tall water fountain that sprays into a large pond filled with frogs and dragonflies, overlooked by tall gazebos with benches where the grieving can sit and find distraction. The pond is home to two trumpeter swans and countless Canadian geese who freely roam the grounds, sometimes stopping to chew on freshly mowed grass, or a new bouquet of flowers laid beside a gravestone.
As the pastor read from a bible, his black robe sweeping along the ground as he paced, my nine-year-old nephew — my brother’s son — had stopped sobbing to watch the V-shaped formation of geese flying overhead, the tears in his eyes sparkling in a ray of sun. I was watching them too. Their monotone honking was a reprieve from the sombre tone of the pastor as he tried to make death sound like a good thing.
There were maybe fifty of them. The two at the front dropped back, as two others came up from the rear to take their place. They do this to share the flight fatigue, I remember a teacher in elementary school saying. And if one is injured or sick, two fall out of formation and stay with the hurt goose until it can fly again, or it dies. Scientists think that the honking is the geese encouraging those in front to keep up speed.
Support, caring and encouragement seemed like the theme of the day. In the crowd that gathered to say goodbye to Anthony, there were lots of family friends, but also many people who knew him from the past, who had come out on a blistering hot day to support our family. For some, it had been more than 20 years since they had seen him. When I commented to one couple on how nice it was for them to come to his funeral after so much time had passed, they talked about how important it was for others with a connection to the dead to meet with those who are left and share stories about their loved one. “It’s one of the only things we can do for you in this moment,” they said. “A connection.”
At the end of the ceremony, my mom placed a long, vibrant red rose in a tiny vase that was attached to the front of the niche where my brother’s urn of ashes were locked away, just below my dad’s ashes. His children let two white balloons go, watching until they disappeared in the blue sky. Just then, two cyclists rode in wearing gear from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre’s Ride to Conquer Cancer.
Just weeks earlier, one of them, Will, had bought my brother’s fancy racing bike — not knowing about his cancer — for the race that happened to be on the day of the funeral. Later, after my mom shared the details about how he died, Will not only dedicated his ride to Anthony, putting a sign on the back of the bike that said, “In honour of Anthony Paul Machado,” and brought team jerseys for our family, but on the race/funeral day, he and his team rode through the finish line and kept going to the cemetery to show their support and caring for our family. But most importantly, to encourage my brother’s heartbroken children.
“I didn’t know your dad,” Will told my nephew. “But every time the race got hard and I was feeling tired, I felt like he was there cheering me on and helping me to go faster.”
In a world that seems upside down — desperate people falling from planes, hateful anti-vaccine protests outside of hospitals where exhausted healthcare workers are trying to save the lives of the unvaccinated, and so much loss — it’s hard to see a bright side to anything. Most of us are struggling in one way or another — a friend, fatigued from months of sleeplessness, mentioned yesterday that she was pretty sure humans weren’t made to live with such indefinite negativity for so long. She asked if I thought there was a “breaking point.”
Still, seeing signs of hope and humanity in the sea of black clothes, sad eyes and muffled weeping — from the persistence of geese, to longtime friends passing on funny stories to ease grief and a stranger who honours a life he never knew — helped to take some of the edge off of this crazy life we have been living, if only for awhile.
My brother’s kids left the cemetery that day with small smiles on their faces, talking about school and all that comes next — a reminder that, even when you think that it can’t possibly, life really does go on.
This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.