Sunday, August 06, 2006

“Let no one weep for me, or celebrate my funeral with mourning; for I still live, as I pass to and fro through the mouths of men” - Quintus Ennius

Burying my mother

At the funeral Thursday morning, standing beside the open grave, avoiding carefully the fresh graves beside us, I realized that to me, she was just my father-in-law’s cousin. To the women and man standing there next to the casket – D wearing a lace mantilla, her hands on her young daughter’s shoulders in front of her; N, sobbing, supported physically by her husband; T, who’d whispered a moving tribute to Susie’s courage – she was their mother. They were burying their mother today. They were putting that lovely bronze-colored casket into the ground, and leaving her in the cemetery, alone, while they went home and tried to carry on with their lives and sort out her stuff and go on living. With a big mother-shaped hole in their daily lives.

Not just a father-in-law’s cousin-shaped hole, on the one or two occasions our paths might have crossed in a year.

I am well acquainted with the mother-shaped hole.

To this day I still sometimes want my mom.
Not just miss her, or think of her, or even pick up the phone to call her, absent-mindedly dialing the number that is still embedded in my muscle memory and that hasn’t been HER number for at least six years now.
Never mind the strife and stress she could cause, or the hurtful things she sometimes said; remember the hugs, the cool soft hands, her tears when I left from a visit home, the phone calls all hours of the day or night because I knew she’d always listen, the carefully-packed boxes I received full of goodies and books she thought I’d like.
Sometimes, I still want her.
I mean actively crying, “I want my mother, I just want my mom.”
It eases a bit but it hasn’t gone away.
I’m 36 years old and I still want my mother.

And my tears Thursday fell not really for Susie, who is finally at peace, but for her children.
Her motherless children.
Who are old enough to have children of their own.
But that doesn’t make it easier.
In fact, in some ways, that makes it worse.

Things I remember from the day I buried my mother:

We’d had to go buy my older brother a suit for the funeral. And I wore a plum-colored suede-ish suit, with black t-strap shoes that did NOTHING for my hunky – as in Eastern European hunky - calves. What did I know? I was just thankful H had brought me something presentable to wear.

H and I were teetering on the brink of divorce. I was surprised, frankly, that he drove to NJ to be with me.

My friend Bentley wore a white dress shirt with Mickey Mouse on the pocket.
He and Michelle drove from Pittsburgh, 6 hours, to be with me. So did my now-ex-friend Susan.
To my in-laws’ everlasting credit, they did too, as did my brother-in-law, his wife, and their baby daughter. My mother-in-law may drive me up a freaking wall and I may despise her at times, but I will never, ever forget that she and my father-in-law came.

My little brother got in trouble at his job at a prestigious NY hedge fund, for taking off more than a day for the funeral. In the weeks when my mother was sickest, he cared for her physical needs – toileting, bathing, shampooing - gently, respectfully, and without complaint. She was most comfortable with him, and he was simply amazing. Don’t ever try to convince me that the people who work in the NY financial world have hearts. I have proof that they don’t. They should have been down on their knees thanking the powers that be that they had my brother working for them.

My big brother’s girlfriend, who NEVER came to any family function, had taken off work to be there. Must’ve been a big event. I mean, I guess she figured that if you don’t go to your boyfriend’s mom’s funeral, you can’t really ever expect a ring. (She did turn out to be a grasping bitch, but that's a story for another day.)

The funeral director was an old family friend. If you were a member of my family, and you died anywhere near or in South Jersey, you were being buried out of DuBois funeral home. You didn’t even THINK of going anywhere else.
He helped us write the obituary – he was the one who knew we’d accidentally left out a brother (my mom was one of 11- wait, 13 – no, 11 children.) And he fixed it.

In addition to her brothers and sisters, and children, we put in a phrase about “Also survived by her dear friend, R.” R was so touched, and so grateful – she was my mom’s best friend; how could we not have included her?

I think some people were scandalized that my brothers and I sent flowers from my mom’s six cats. But I know she would have liked it. Crazy as it was. And we didn't do it seriously, but we did it anyway. Wally told us stories of people he’d buried who’d had their pets euthanized and buried with them. We briefly and half-seriously considered it for George, the one cat no one liked - because that’s the kind of wretched, ungrateful children we were, making light of death - but we decided against it. (Which I personally regretted later, but we’ll get to that.)

Picking out a casket is one of the most surreal activities I have ever taken part in. You wouldn’t believe some of the selling points on those babies! Thank God we didn’t have to deal with a tombstone, as she is buried in the vets’ cemetery next to my father and they have very strict rules about markers.

We had a closed casket, so we might just as well have buried her in her favorite sweatpants and a flannel shirt. She would not have cared, for herself. (Even though she insisted in burying my dad in his light blue jacket because she thought he looked so nice in it. *We* all lobbied hard for the horrible green suit he loved so much, that we used to actually threaten to bury him because it was so hideous.)

She wore the dress she’d worn to my wedding – I hated it. First of all, it was a ghastly turquoise. And beaded. The perfect example of the frumpy mother-of-the-bride dress. (WHICH, the mother of the GROOM wore as well, only in ivory.) But I know she felt she looked nice in it, and I guess she did, even if it was not my taste, so we picked that.

Her neck and clavicle were all banged up from the shunts and IVs and stuff, so we also buried her wearing a beautiful Liz Claiborne scarf I had given her for Christmas the year before. One of the very few gifts I had given her that she actually liked, and used.

And pantyhose. Can I tell you how many sleepless nights I have when one of the things in my litany of guilt-inducing actions running through my warped brain is that I condemned my mother to an eternity in PANTYHOSE?

I have my mother’s nose. As she had her mother’s. I had always thought I looked just like my dad, but seeing that strong, sharp ridge and pointy, ski-jump end, in her thin, sickly face, made me realize, I had my mother’s nose. That is what I will look like when I am old and sick. And dead.

My uncle – her brother – spoke at the (very short) service. We didn’t have a minister. He told the story of my mother visiting my father’s grave in February, when she was attacked by a bee, and she swore it was my dad. We all laughed, hard. (My family has always been really goods at remembering the good times; often, our family funerals were great fun, in a twisted kind of way.) Uncle Johnny spoke, we prayed, H played his guitar, I read a psalm she’d had marked in her Bible, that had been read at HER mother’s funeral. And we sang, “How Great Thou Art.” It was my mom’s favorite hymn.

I didn’t cry.

The cemetery was way the fuck up in central Jersey. (It pains me that I can’t visit, to put wreaths on her and my dad’s graves at Christmas, and flowers for Mother’s and Father’s Day. I could ask one of my brothers to do it, and they would, for me, but I wouldn’t ask.) But sweet holy Jesus, it took FOREVER to get there that day.

They don’t let you go to the gravesite at this particular cemetery. In fact, you don’t even get the casket wheeled into the chapel; it sort of works like a McDonald’s drive-thru, honestly. It was bad enough that we had to leave my mom all alone in the funeral home overnight; but to not get to see her into the ground – no closure, let me tell you. The Catholics are slowly coming round, but I think the Jews have it right. Put the body in the ground, throw the dirt in after – it’s final, it’s clean, it feels right. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; dust thou wert and to dust thou shalt return. (At the funeral Thursday we went to the gravesite, but they didn’t lower the casket into the ground. Small steps, small steps. If you ever need some interesting non-fiction to read, try Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death; fascinating stuff.)

My little brother’s friends brought beer – good beer, several cases – to the gathering at my Aunt J’s house afterwards. My family are all Baptist, so no alcohol, but everyone else was happy to have something to drink, to take the edge off. And to accompany the trays of cold cuts, the rolls from Del Buono’s, the potato salad from Heimie’s, the Jewish apple cake my Aunt M baked – all traditional funeral meats for my family. (The only thing missing were my mom’s little cheesecake-y cupcakes topped with canned blueberry pie filling, which might not actually have been such a bad thing.) (She’ll come back and haunt me for that.)

When we went to feed the cats at my mom’s house later that night, we found pools of bloody cat piss all over the loving room. I thought George the cat had died, too, and that is when I cried. Not that I LIKED George. I was just quickly reaching th epoint where I could not cope with ONE. MORE. THING. H tracked down the stupid cat, made certain he was ok, and cleaned up the piss. (The idiotic cat had a kidney infection that cost my brother hundreds in vet bills, but that, too, is a story for another time.)

I got SMASHED the night of the funeral. Have not been drunker before or ever since. I feel asleep on the floor of my cousin P’s guest room, where I’d been staying for the weeks preceding the funeral when I wasn’t sleeping at the hospital. More technically, I should say I passed out. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically drained, and very VERY DRUNK.

I think that no matter how old you are when your parent(s) die, the realization that you are an orphan is one that takes you completely by surprise.


Badger said...

Aw. Damn.

DH is also an adult orphan. Well, his biological mother is still living, but (loooong story) she's not really his MOM.

His parents both donated their bodies to science. Talk about some weird closure issues. Ugh.

Hugs to you.

Caro said...

That was a beautiful post. You made me sad and you made me laugh too.

The eternity in PANTYHOSE comment was priceless.

It's strange the love/hate relationship we women have with our mothers.

blackbird said...

I am holding close while I cry and read this...

Sarah Louise said...

sitting over here in the corner, holding the kleenex box when you need it...

lazy cow said...

I just don't even want to think about it. Ever. made me do it. And it was a great post. You must be exhausted writing it though :-)

Caterina said...

I keep wiping away my tears thinking I'll stop crying, but they keep coming.

Just a few hours ago I was over at my parent's house having dinner. My mother is going on vacation in two days, so when I said g'bye this evening I hugged her tighter. Every now and then I think about what it will be like when she is gone, gone as in dead not on vacation. What will I do? How will I survive? I always get the "Oh, you shouldn't think like that." But I do.

Thank you so much for this post.

Jess said...

I agree about the way funerals are done. The best funeral I've been to (also the most heartbreaking because he left two young children) had an open casket, an unembalmed body (he looked dead instead of plastic - so much better than my grandmother) and the family hammered the lid on the casket and shoveled the dirt into the grave. There was no pretense about it.

My mom called me out of the blue the other day to tell me what kind of burial she wants. I can have a discussion about it, but I can't even imagine it as a reality.

Sarah Louise said...

Btw, thanks for being brave and sharing this with us. The subject is not one I think of a lot (I thought about it more when my grandmother was dying). And when my mom's in town, you can borrow her anytime.

It sucks that she's gone. I'm sorry, Babs.

Oh and on funerals: have you been to one for a fireman? Lord, it's bigger than...I can only imagine there's more pomp for the President.

Have a kleenex.

Paula said...

I'm sorry.

Sometimes, I miss my daddy, so much I can hardly stand it.

Gina said...

Does Primo understand that your parents have died? That he only has one set of grandparents?

Rogue Librarian said...

I remember that day and that time in your life. I look back on that time as the first evidence I was to witness of what an ungodly strong woman you are.

I do however remember you crying. Not much mind you. It was an instant, but I remember when you hugged Michelle you broke down. Just for a second, and then you made a joke about having to cry all over my shoulder next and you were fine again. I also specifically remember the bee story.

Amy said...

I saw my mom die 13 years ago Thursday. It is still as fresh as yesterday. There is nothing routine, normal or logical about death or how we handle it, but I think the quirks and oddities help us to cope and deal and move forward.

Nancy said...

Somehow I think that we are kids until our parents die, and suddenly we have to really become responsible adults. Thanks for your story. My Dad died last November--see my post on Guardian Angels at It was an amazingly hard thing to go through, and isn't amazing all of the little details we remember.

Anonymous said...

I heart your little brother.

yt said...

Thank you.
Someday I'll tell you about my son's funeral. He would have been 36 last month.

savvycityfarmer said...

I'll have to catch up with you on Wednesday. . .not too much time today.

Anonymous said...

Condolences to you. That was a very moving post. Thank you.

A bee stung me at my grandmother's funeral.

Lynne@Oberon said...

I can't even think about my Mum dying. I don't know how I will cope.
It must be a terrible thing to be without your Mum - the one oasis of neverending caring, accepting, and trust in this big bad world.
That was a beautiful post.

Suse said...

I can't believe you're an orphan at only 36.

I am sending you big fat tear-stained hugs.

MsCellania said...

I read the title and went for the tissues. Beautiful post, straight from your guts. So much of this is perfectly stated and priceless - too much to quote.\

I have found my Perfect Post.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is why I dragged my 81 year old mother to Cape Cod for 2 weeks, and made her have fun whether she liked it or not, or drove me crazy or not.

Thanks for reminding me.

Undomestic said...

So touching. It took me two tries to get through it, thinking about my grandmother who just died in South Jersey last year (Egizi Funeral Home). You details so vivid, so touching. You last line gave me the chills. Thanks for sharing.

Jenn said...

What a wonderful, touching post. I don't cry often, but this brought tears to my eyes. I occasionally think about what I will do when my mom dies, but I brush that thought away as soon as it enters my head. It's a thought I don't want to deal with right now.

My float said...

This was an amazing post. My friend who is 34 lost her father a few months ago, and it has brought up huge issues for me about losing my own parents. That whole love/hate thing is very strange. It's lovely that your family remembers the good things. Someitmes I think I'll have to dig hard to remember them, but at other times, the memories come easily. Thanks for showing that humour is part of everything, even death. The bee and pantyhose stories are v funny, despite all the sadness.

weirdbunny said...

I'm so glad you were close to your mother. My Father died when I was 21, he was 50. People said he was young to die, yet to me 50 was really old! But he had lived his life to the full and I don't think had any regrets.

Anonymous said...

My mother drives me crazy sometimes. I even think that we never liked each other when I was a kid and until now have issues against her parenting style. Still, the older I get the more I appreciate everything she's done for me and what she'd sacrifice so I could be who I am now.

Dad's gone and I still carry regrets over how I didn't make a lot of effort to be a dutiful daughter to him. I don't want to have the same regrets when my mother leaves me.