“Write what you know.” That’s not just sound advice, it’s a warning. Honoring that old adage should disqualify me from tackling anything more presumptuous than a grocery list. It should. But it doesn’t. Because… go big or go home. So here’s a little story about death and grief.
My mother died this past February 1st, exactly two weeks shy of her 99th birthday. My brother called that evening to let me know that her caregivers thought our mom had probably had a stroke (or a couple) and that she had maybe a day left, or two at the most. I decided to drive up to Boston the next morning and then spent a restless night second guessing myself about not having gone right away. When I finally surrendered to insomnia sometime before dawn, I wandered downstairs to make coffee and check my messages. There was a text from my brother, sent just before midnight. Two words: “It’s over”.
After my father died twelve years ago, my mother lived for awhile with our family in Connecticut, then later with my brother in Belmont, MA and then, finally, in institutional care near him. My brother became our mom’s primary custodian and he was devoted to her. He visited her most days, regularly springing her for afternoon drives, ice cream and wheel chair rides to hilltop sunsets. He took her to concerts, to the theater and brought her back to his house for parties and gatherings. He supplied her with endless recordings of the classical music she adored and otherwise made sure she wanted for nothing. He set her up in a series of first class custodial arrangements of increasing intensity as she became less and less independent and arranged for her transfer to an inpatient Alzheimer’s unit when she could no longer safely be cared for in a traditional geriatric setting. In the last month or so, as she lost strength and started making it abundantly clear that she was “ready to go”, he arranged for her transition to hospice care in which comfort she spent the last few of her thirty six thousand one hundred forty seven days. And my brother was by her side at the end. A gymnast might say that my mother stuck the landing at the end of an amazing routine. We should all be so fortunate.
After my brother contacted me and both of our out-of-area sisters to let us know our mom had died, he made all the necessary arrangements (attending physician, funeral home, coroner, etc.). The ambulance corps snuck her body out in the very early morning so as not to freak out the surviving residents at the group home and her furniture was removed later piece by piece with similar discretion. That’s the kind of attention to detail you don’t think about unless you’re in the business of caring for the very old. And my brother was all over all of it. By the time I got up there the next day, all the heavy lifting (literal and figurative) was done. All that was left for anyone to do was let it sink in.
Once I knew my mother was dead, I honestly didn’t have much appetite for confirming that fact by viewing her body. My son felt the same way and articulated it thus: “When I saw her at Christmas, she was smiling and holding my hand. And that’s how I’d like to leave it”. Amen. Some people need more closure than that but, like my son, I’m not one of them. It’s not that I get queasy about death (at all) but my experience with corpses is that they are like empty boxes the day after Christmas. Not the gift, if you know what I mean. And…recycle comes to mind. But of course I drove up to Boston anyway because it seemed like the right thing to do and I really just wanted to be with my brother for awhile. My youngest daughter insisted on begging off her Super Bowl bartending gig to join me. I immediately assumed she was one of those people who needed to put some witness punctuation on The End so I didn’t fight her on her decision to tag along. But when we got to the funeral home she took a seat some deliberate distance from the body, made pleasant conversation with my brother and his wife and didn’t really even look at her grandmother. And then it hit me. She didn’t need the closure either. She’d just instinctively made the trip to be with me. When I called her on that she said, simply, “Yeah, I’ve got your back”. Hmm.
The funeral director had unlocked his place just so the four of us could spend some time with the vessel that was my mom before it got shipped off for cremation. I thought that was pretty decent, especially on a rainy Sunday when his shop almost certainly otherwise would have been closed and he’d probably have been at home pre-gaming the Seahawks – Broncos tilt. My mother’s body was laid out simply on a plywood platform supported by a collapsable stainless steel table on rollers. She was covered from neck to toe with a simple cotton blanket and looked to be sound asleep. Except that her left eye kept drifting open, just enough to add to the illusion that she was stirring or dreaming (my brother carefully shut it each time). And I don’t know if it was the lighting or what but if you turned your head at just the right angle it looked for all the world like she was breathing. Totally weird. It was unnerving enough that I finally put the back of my hand on her forehead to make sure that she wasn’t more than room temperature. But she was cold. And gone. For sure.
One other thing I now know for sure is that you can’t not inform people when your parent dies. If you don’t tell, folks wonder why you left them off the distribution of that chapter in your life and they feel neglected and hurt. But if you do tell, it almost always provokes in the tellee a physical grief reaction which is either a flashback to some other heartbreaking personal loss or a fast-forward to an impending one. And so I cringed at the burden I’d impose by sharing the news. Because, at least in the case of my parents, the people I’ve informed were usually made to feel significantly worse than I did. My mom and dad were in their mid forties when they had me and they both lived long (ridiculously long in my mother’s case), full, rewarding and fascinating lives. A majority portion of those lives was archived history before I was even born. Profound grieving over either of their deaths just didn’t happen for me. At least not in the traditional sense of a stabbing loss or regret or betrayal. Because, in both cases, my parents’ deaths seemed timely and the aftermath, therefore, very normal. But tell somebody “My mom died” and it’s as if you’d announced the family dog had been run over in the driveway. For some reason it comes off as the most shocking thing you can say out loud. Right up there with “I have cancer” or “The Yankees just signed Ellsbury”. Terrible.
Anyway, when it was time to leave I took one last look at my mother’s body and then headed for the door. Just as I left the room I had a sudden and sharp moment of clarity that, with both parents dead and none of their siblings surviving, my brother and sisters and I had finally severed ties with a whole generation. And with that realization came a stab of panic, like I’d had my mooring rope sliced and was drifting helplessly away from the float. That’s the only time I got a little weepy. And in that vulnerable moment I did something completely unplanned. I turned to the funeral director and mentioned to him that my mother had an artificial hip. And asked him if he could salvage it for me from the crematorium.
I don’t know much about the funeral home business except that A) it’s a growth industry and B) it takes a special breed to do it right. My guess is that part B includes keeping a straight face and an even keel in the face of the myriad manifestations of grief and loss. Whatever, this sturdy pro did not flinch. He told me he wasn’t sure about the crematorium’s policy on requests like mine but that he would follow-up and let me know. Long story short, I got my mom’s hip. A little sooty after baking @ 1800 Fahrenheit for a couple of hours but otherwise completely intact.
Some of you will, by now, have concluded that I am insane. That is completely understandable. But here’s the thing. My mother, a true child of the depression, was an instinctive collector and saver. Dozens of used margarine cups and their lids carefully nested in a forgotten drawer. Heaped scraps of interesting fabric. Jars of buttons, sorted by size. Miscellaneous shiny objects. Rivets from the Eiffel Tower. Ancient mortar purloined from the Great Wall of China. From the ridiculous to the sublime. Collections on collections. Each special to her for some now forgotten reason.
Here’s another thing. My mother was the least squeamish person I have ever known. Possibly the least squeamish person with a fully developed conscience who ever lived. Trained as nurse, she was coldly clinical about animal biology and pretty unflappable in the face of gore. She took out more of my stitches than doctors did. She kept her own removed gallstones in a jar of formaldehyde. She brought adorable laboratory animals to visit at my nursery school before euthanizing them, by hand, back at the office. Ask anyone in my family about the surgical steel pin-through-her-phalanges hammertoe repair which she boldly displayed to all on Christmas Day one year (that still makes me squirm). Unbelieveable.
Of our species, my mother was a compelling specimen. She was quirky. She was interesting. She was fearless. Why I loved her so much. And in that one clear, sad moment I suddenly wanted to hang on to her. So, her hip: Closure curio? Titanium talisman? The ultimate consolation prize? Insert joke here. It’s on the mantle over our fireplace now. An odd, cool and memorable item. Just like its previous owner.