Novelist | Singer
I felt like I had never been to a funeral. I am 55 years old and have at least several dozen funerals under the soles of my feet. Still, I stood at the casket trying desperately to see her through that drawn, plastic expression creased with makeup she would never have worn. The hint of a smile curled from the corners of her mouth—a smile I had never before seen. Her natural smile was bright and toothy, or full and sunken after she couldn’t keep her upper plate in any longer.
They were delaying the funeral for me. The funeral director stood to the side next to Pastor Cage, handsome and strong in his vestments, his expression a mix of pure sympathy, godliness and professionalism. All pastors know how to do that. They must offer Countenance Classes at Seminary. The church was solemnly hushed. And still they waited . . .
I had intended to stand straight with a resolute mask of appreciation for the handful who had come to see my mother off to heaven. That was where she had gone. I had intended to remain dry-eyed, and foolishly applied the makeup I almost never wear, thinking about people I hadn’t seen in years, letting vanity guide my decisions. Already the mascara was burning my eyes.
Mom’s hair looked better than it had in years. Maybe they had cut it. During my bimonthly visits from the East Coast, I had cut her hair despite her gentle protests, but she would let me do anything I wanted. Though her hair had been short ever since I could remember, she had come to prefer long hair because she thought it made her look younger. Long hair gave her a wild, crazy old lady look. She had slept a lot this past year, and the aides didn’t have time to comb it every time she woke. I would ask them to keep it short, but she wouldn’t let them, not like she let me.
I had painted her nails pale pink the week before. I wish I had chosen shocking red. Before she went to the Memory Care unit, she had broken, peeling nails that would never grow. It was odd, what happened to her these last two years. Her mind had retreated, but her nails grew long and hard, and the aides often painted them, even bright hues of red. It made her feel young.
She was a little girl on her first visit to the beauty parlor. It was fun. We sat face to face, her hands delicately laid on top of a pair of Depends to keep the wet polish off her bedclothes. After the first coat, I lifted her tiny sculptured hands so reminiscent of baby bird feet, and blew gently on the shiny surface of the polish. One coat barely revealed color. The second, a bit more of the color emerged. On top of the pale fingernails, I appliquéd little flowers and butterflies. I was determined that the nails be well-polished because I knew this would be the last time. Damn all the lasts we suffer during the final lap of someone’s life. The last haircut, the last meal, the last breath. She didn’t think that way. To her, it was just one more day in a long, long line of days that blossomed into one lifetime. Last week I took her outside for the last time. I thought about that, too. She had lifted her face to the warm November sun, her last November, her last Thanksgiving, her last poinsettia dyed orange to match the season. “It’s so nice to be outside,” she said in barely a whisper.
Standing there at the casket, I knew they all were waiting for me, but somehow, I didn’t mind making them wait. Mom’s left hand lay on the Luther’s Catechism she had received at her confirmation. “Marjorie Mann” was written in beautiful cursive on the inside front cover warped by time. That one book was 77 years old. Alongside the bound cover of dark red lay my favorite photo of our family, circa 1965. My younger brother told me at the visitation the night before that it was her favorite photo of our family. I hadn’t known that. It was my favorite photo, too.
Mom was so snazzy in her black jacket with orange, blue and green embroidery. I had pulled it from her closet just three days before. It was beautiful, but I was quite sure it wasn’t hers. It had appeared in her closet following her two-month stay at Ashton Creek Rehab after she fell and broke the bone that held her left titanium femoral head. Perhaps someone who had died left those clothes behind, and they happened to be the right size. Whoever it was had very nice clothes. There was also a yellow sweater, pale yellow, one of Mom’s best colors. I wasn’t sure, but I had left them there because I didn’t have the heart to eliminate anything just yet. I had already chosen another blouse on my September visit, but changed my mind in favor of the jacket. It had more body than the blouse, and would fill out her skeletal frame for the viewing. Later Aunt Norma would tell me that she had the same jacket, and the coincidence both puzzled me and made me very happy.
When I hugged her last week, I could feel her bones through skin that hung limp like a silk scarf on her frame. She had always been small, but her condition scared me. She needed nutrition and calories, but near the end she was simply unable to eat. I couldn’t blame her, because all of her food looked like gray, orange or green spackle. She had been put on pureed foods months ago, and anything they prepared came out in one of those three colors.
She also suffered from choking response, and it was frightening to watch her eat. The choking and coughing would start and go on for what seemed like ten minutes. I would sit helplessly and look into her eyes, wishing I could slap her back or something, anything to make it stop. Then it would slowly dissipate, and she would forget immediately that it had happened. I would scoop another small spoonful of the pureed stuff, hold it up for her, and pray.
At the coffin side, I placed my hand on hers, the one holding the photo. It didn’t feel like flesh. It was cold, of course; a temperature I had prepared myself to feel, but which still took me by surprise. My brothers stood behind me, impatient for my signal, that now we could finally get this thing behind us. I didn’t want it to end, not just yet. In seconds, the funeral director would close the heavy dark brown wood cover, hiding that ceramic face for the last time.
I wanted to kiss her forehead or her cheek like I had hundreds of times in the last three years when I put her to bed, or when I tore myself away from her bedside to catch yet another plane back to my own life in the East. She had had such beautiful skin, almost wrinkle and blemish –free. How had she accomplished that? She had loved the sun and getting a tan. She had loved dawn and dusk, fierce winter storms and sultry summer nights. Actually, she had loved everything, all of life.
I saw her cry only two or three times in my life. One was when Dad died, and that was over the phone in September, 18 years ago. She reserved her grief for private times, one of the valuable lessons I learned from her. “No one wants to be with a Gloomy Gus,” she told me. Where did she come up with those expressions? “For crying out loud,” “What the Sam Hill?” —some things I never heard from another human being—just her. She didn’t cry when we took her to Harbour Assisted that first day, during her surgeries or rehabs, or any of the times I left her to return home, or at the end. She wasn’t afraid to die, not at all. She told me that.
Just an hour before the funeral, we had gathered in the Founder’s Room to pray with the pastor. He prayed, and we bowed our heads and folded our hands as we had thousands of times before in church. I wished I had a recorder so I could save those spiritual words for comfort in the days ahead—the days when life returned to “normal,” and no one could see the pain that I held deep inside because my mother was gone.
She was gone. For good. The person she had been was not lying in the wooden box with the red rose flower spray draping its cover. I had no idea who that person was. It could’ve been a mannequin. That was not my mother.
Still, I couldn’t leave. There was something else to do, but what was it? I pictured her floating above me, sorry that I was sad, urging me quietly to hurry on with the others and leave this lifeless body, absent its spirit. I couldn’t kiss the stiff cold cheek. It was too creepy. I had kissed it for the last time on Thanksgiving Day.
Wispy elongated notes floated out of the nave as the organist set the stage for the sparsely attended funeral. The ushers had seated all of the guests on the right side of the aisle. They were attempting to make the crowd feel cozier; close together so they felt free to sing with Lutheran gusto. It had the look of a shotgun wedding to me. Everyone who was coming was already here. The clock had made its way past 1:00 p.m. There were around 30 people in attendance, some of them former neighbors, some of them Dad’s co-workers, some of them my high school friends, very few relatives and some I had never before seen. Where were all the people who had known her? This cavernous church should be packed to the vaulted ceilings with those who knew her while she was still alive. They must’ve known what a beautiful, generous lady she had been, and still, they hadn’t come. But, she was 91. How many of those people were left?
She had chosen three hymns: For All the Saints; I’m But a Stranger Here; and Lord, Keep us Steadfast in Your Word. We had sung the same ones for Dad’s funeral. It would be quiet and morbid and sad, so unlike her. She could’ve chosen When the Saints Come Marchin’ In. Oh, how the Lutherans would’ve shuddered.
The organist played on, finding ways to incorporate phrases from the service’s hymns into his beckoning intro, reminding everyone that, yes, the service was now starting. Lutherans are funny. They are never pushy. They nudge gently to remind you to stay on track, color within the lines, but never forcibly. Living out East, I had become accustomed to a more directive demeanor. In a twisted moment of grief, the imp inside me wondered how long they would continue to allow me to stand here with my Mom before leading me away to the front pew. Five, ten minutes? It would never be enough, and I knew this was the last time I would ever see her face—the real face, not just a photo. The real face that was hers but not hers.
From now on, everything would be in the past tense; my speech, my writing, anything that concerned her. She was gone.
I leaned my body against the side of the casket to steady myself. Her image blurred with tears that forced their way without permission out of my eyes. I was embarrassed for the others to see. Crying in public is not my thing. I placed my right hand on her chest and bent over, touching my head gently to hers. The skull was cold and hard, and the tears came in force now. She was gone. For good.
She and I, forehead to forehead like school girls in a playground. I spoke to her. “Mom,” I sniffed and caught my breath in a gasp. I could feel her presence strongly close at hand. “Mom, I love you. Everything’s okay now. I’ll make sure that everything’s okay. We’ll be fine.”
I touched her hand for the last time; the hand that held our photo when everyone was happy and safe and living in Kansas. My husband tucked his hand through my elbow in a gentle reminder. We have to do this now, honey. Let’s get on with it.
I turned from the casket so I wouldn’t see them close the weighty lid that would trap her body forever inside. The massive pipe organ issued the first breathy notes of I’m But a Stranger Here; Heaven is My Home.