It’s 4 o’clock on a cold winter’s morning. I’m zipping up my carry on and having a last minute scan of the house before we head for the airport.
We’ve been in Poland for a whirlwind of four days following the news of my partner’s grandma passing away earlier in the week. After a frantic Monday of wrapping up loose ends at work, booking plane tickets, sorting airport parking, clearing the fridge, finishing laundry and packing bags, my partner and I were on a plane in the early hours of Tuesday morning. There is hardly time for tears.
We comfort each other with weakened smiles through face masks while we are ushered through airport security with “socially distancing” queues that are shoulder to shoulder.
It was with great relief when we arrived in Poland and could finally begin the emotional journey of saying goodbye.
Being in Poland always feels as though I am transported back in time. It’s a slower pace of life where large family meals, vodka toasts and Catholic traditions are commonplace. Everyone is together and the word pandemic is put aside for a few days.
The fact that I can only say “thank you” in Polish does not help me. I want to express grief, support and empathy with all of the family but I am left hopeless. But I am here to support my partner so I focus on that and observe the beautiful customs. I do not worry about awkward language barriers or not knowing everyone that I embrace. I want to share this time with the family. I absorb all that I can.
Our first night in Poland, we go to the chapel to see Babcia and say our goodbyes before mass in the church. Over the years, I’ve attended many different funerals, all with their own styles and traditions. There was my grandfather’s military funeral in San Antonio, Texas; complete with Christian and military traditions including a gun salute and folding of the American flag. There was my grandmother’s funeral as wife of a military man. It had similar grandeur and American pride.
There was my friend’s cremation ceremony in London with no religious context but a spiritual touch.
There was my friend’s burial in Wiltshire, which included a traditional English church ceremony followed by Turkish traditions of prayer in the churchyard. All of these have had their own beautiful traditions and a Catholic ceremony in Poland would be no different.
I am prepared for sadness. I am prepared for open-mindedness. I am prepared for traditions and language I don’t understand. I am prepared to be patient.
We sit on the hard wooden pews in the Catholic church. The seats are uncomfortably shallow, forcing me to sit up straighter than is natural. I can only imagine they were designed for good posture and keeping people’s attention. My mask is tucked under my glasses, covering my nose and mouth, helping to keep the cold out. Each exhale brings a warm fog across my glasses that glows with the candlelight of the church. Each inhale, there is a sharp clarity as the fog disappears and the intensity of the room is focused.
I listen as the Priest delivers his sermon. It is in Polish and I don’t understand anything that he is saying. But I hear the intensity. I feel the passion and warmth. I breath in and out. I hear the voice reading traditional passages. It is booming and moves in a rhythm that goes through the room and lifts into the rafters, echoing around us. Over time, the words become a beat. A drum. A trance. I breath in and out and I feel the vibration of everything around me. The priest’s message is moving through me and there is no longer a language barrier.
There are points in the service when we transition into song. I cannot sing along but I sway lightly with the rhythm. The woman behind me is singing with all her heart. It is not pretty. It is out of tune and louder than most people would consider reasonable in social settings, and yet suddenly it is the most perfect thing in the world. I feel genuine love for her and everyone else in the room. My love extends beyond the church and into the cold night air, capturing a little bit of everyone as it moves around the world. There is enough for everyone. I have not felt this connection for a long time and I embrace it whole-heartedly.
Next to me, I hear Babcia. I know that she is not really sitting next to me singing and yet I hear that beautiful voice which I had heard last summer, singing along to the church service on the T.V. Singing was Babcia’s thing. She was a small woman and yet her voice was huge. It was strong, beautiful and full of happiness. The only thing I can aliken it to is when you hear a bird singing to the world on a sunny morning following days of rain and storms. Pure joy to be alive.
I feel the warmth of tears as they roll down my cheek and steam my glasses even more.
Tradition, religion and spirituality all mean something different to everyone. There is no right and wrong. For me, I practice spirituality every day in my own way. I meditate. I try to connect with myself fully. I try to express love for the world. Sometimes it feels wonderful and sometimes it feels empty. But here, in this place, I have found connection.
Here, in this tradition I don’t know, in this language I don’t understand, in this place I’ve never been, I feel at home. My soul is awake. It is listening. It is breathing. It is loving.
I pray to myself. Babcia, we love you. We miss you. Thank you for bringing us together during a pandemic. Thank you for bringing us love and connection even now. Thank you for allowing me love even in grief. Thank you for being you. I know that wherever you are, you are singing your heart out.