Last week, I was the person to tell my mother that her mother died. My Aunt Drusilla couldn’t find my mom’s work number and was too upset to do much more than call the Hospice number stuck to the phone and also, me. I also called my great uncle and told him that his sister died. Then I called my sister and was surprised at how well I was holding it together until that sneaky word “Grandma” and then the throat closed and everything was just a croak.
I went over to the house, even though Aunt Drusilla told me that she was fine, fine, she was fine, the Hospice folks were coming and she wasn’t one of those who lose control at times like this, she insisted. None of us are, actually, or so we like to think. We all like to believe that we are strong. It’s the family heritage of single mothers of single mothers. It’s considered a weakness to get emotional, I think. I know, actually.
My mother was already there and when she told me everything that had happened since she hung up the phone with me, and started crying at the same moment in the story when she told me that she had started crying. I opened my arms to give her a hug and then remembered too late who I was dealing with: the culturally correct thing in my family to do would have been to not acknowledge her weakness, pretend nothing was happening.
She awkwardly stepped into my arms and stiffly leaned against my shoulder and then recomposed. No one in my family can cry for more than a minute–that’s as long as it takes for the emergency backup system to kick in and withdraw all emotion from the brain again. Esteban has said that my ability to go from crying to completely dead calm is one of the creepiest things he’s ever witnessed. Again with the legacy of the broken. My mother lasted about 10 seconds and then swallowed it, stepped back into the kitchen and spoke to the Hospice nurse in a completely normal tone of voice. I agree: it’s creepy as fuck.
The Hospice folks came in and said hi to me and that they were sorry for my loss. They were only trying to be nice by commenting that every time they see me, I burst in and just start taking care of everything (it just turned out that every time we happened to bump into each other, I was bringing in doughnuts or groceries or magazines or whatever) but since this was the first time they met my mother, they didn’t know that this was entirely the wrong thing to say in her presence, especially when they had left her side to talk to me. I cringed but tried to push it out of my mind, but not before wondering just how visible the dysfunction was to strangers.
Drusilla was rifling through my grandmother’s files, trying to find funeral paperwork and the cemetery deed. She was agitated and nervous, but composed so I stepped into the living room where my grandmother’s body.
She was just gone. I had been there not even 15 hours earlier, listening to her rasping breathing, holding her hand but now, this body left behind was so much less than everything she was. It’s a cliche to say that our bodies are just shells, but the void is never so apparent as when you’re looking at a recently dead body that was untouched by a mortician. Worse still, it was completely unrecognizable. In my head, I knew that it was her body, but if none of this had happened, if I had been in Antarctica for a year and then had to identify her body last week, I would have sworn on a Bible that it wasn’t her.
I sat down on the sofa next to Aunt Drusilla. Aunt Brunhilda had refused to leave work (similar to her attitude when my grandma needed transportation to her hundreds of doctor and chemo appointments). My mother was ignoring us in exchange for small talk with the Hospice people, so Drusilla wanted someone to help her figure out what to do next. She didn’t want to be in charge of planning anything, quite frankly, so she asked me to deal with the funeral arrangements, under the parameters that there wouldn’t be a viewing (per my grandmother’s wishes) and it would only be a small simple service at the cemetery with the Native American drum circle (also per my grandmother’s wishes). We still had to release the body to a funeral home, though, and deal with choosing a coffin and someone to talk during the service and just picking which day it would be, etc. There are a lot of decisions to make. Someone compared it to planning a wedding in three days: I would say that’s just about right.
I agreed to make the necessary calls and deal with the details, whatever she needed. Drusilla had had an upsetting morning already: basically she’s been caring for my grandmother nonstop for nine solid months and then attending to her mother’s last minutes and being there the moment she passed, wishing she could take away the pain — it’s a lot for anyone. She didn’t want to be there when the mortician came to take the body, so I said I’d be happy to stay. Well, not happy, but it was something to do, a clear agenda that I could follow when I didn’t know how else to be useful.
My mother then interjected and said that she really wanted us to get a pastor that she knew but she didn’t know what his schedule would be like, so we would have to wait to schedule the funeral until we knew what his schedule was. Problem was: the funeral home needed a date and time so that we could get the obituary in the paper. There was some back and forth, with my mother trying to get us to schedule the funeral on Easter Sunday (not a good idea for several reasons, least of which is that clearly this pastor would also be busy on one of the biggest holidays in all of Christendom) or do it the next morning or wait until the following Wednesday. I pointed out that we couldn’t wait too long, since my grandmother chose not to be embalmed, preferring a greener burial and said something like “Well, worst case scenario, we just get someone else if he’s not available on Monday morning.” She stomped out of the room, clearly feeling that her needs were more important than anything else, even the simple laws of decomposition.
Drusilla left and I stayed as planned. My mother decided to stay too, since my sister had by then arrived, which was (direct quote) “Good. Now that my daughter is here, I’ll be ok.”
The funeral home folks came and asked if we wanted to leave the room while they moved the body. My mother piped up cheerfully and said “Oh, we’ve seen the worst. We’ve been caring for her for awhile now. There’s nothing that can shock us.”
While we did all feel a little shell-shocked from watching my grandmother in pain for so long, I will tell you right now: if the people from the funeral home suggest that you should leave the room, you do it.
I can’t begin to tell you how horrible that was. It was horrible. Beyond words. “Horrible” is the only one that comes close so I keep using it and even now, I know that it’s an inadequate description. Once my mother had made her grand proclamation, we all felt like we couldn’t rush out the door and hide for the ten or so minutes it took to clumsily move her body to the stretcher but I wish I could go back in time and leave the room when he made the suggestion. It was just… so horrible. Even though intellectually you know that she’s gone, to see her body handled in such a manner, there are just not words. Drusilla was smart to leave, even though no one ever realized it was going to be so bad.
I walked them out (I suppose that I could say that I escorted my grandmother every step of the way, but really, I was just holding doors for them to make it easier) and after they left, I got in my car and drove away and cried on some random residential side street.
Did you know that morticians don’t have hearses anymore? Toyota Sienna minivans. True fact.
Afterward, I picked up Drusilla, who didn’t feel ok to drive, and we went to the funeral home to make arrangements. I was able to track down the same drummers who chanted at Fern’s dad’s funeral, through grace and providence (and still the funniest darkly hysterical voice mail from Fern afterwards that started “Wendeeeee!…. what’s UP!!!!”) and got everything more or less settled, down to picking out the coffin and writing the obituary. My aunt joked that it was a good thing I was along because otherwise no one would have known how to spell all of the last names (probably true, actually… we have some awkward German names that sound nothing like they’re spelled).
After several hours with the mortician, we still didn’t know what to do about the service: were we using my mother’s guy or what? The mortician suggested that we call and find out because it had to go into the paper that night, so I called my mother and asked if she knew if her pastor was available. She hadn’t made any attempt to find out, so I asked if she could get in touch with him and call us back in the next fifteen minutes or so (they really wanted to know right then, but I couldn’t say “Snap to it!” or anything) but she immediately got angry and said “Well, I don’t KNOW if he can do it, Wendy! Why do you need to know?” and I said “Well, can you find out and call us? The funeral home needs to know, otherwise we can go with their guy,” and she freaked and said “Well, fine, you do that then!”
And then she hung up on me.
I relayed this to Drusilla and she shrugged and said that we’d go with their guy then, since my mom was being such a diva about everything. After all, it’s not like this pastor was a close personal friend of the family: my grandmother had never even heard of this person. In fact, when she planned Betty’s funeral, she chose this funeral home, so going with their celebrant seemed more in line with my grandmother’s wishes than going with some guy my mom knows peripherally.
We made an appointment with the funeral celebrant to come back later and talk about family stories of my grandmother so that he could get to know her a little better and personalize the service. Then I drove her home and went home myself to change out of my “work from home” yoga pants and sweatshirt that I’d been wearing all day and also, eat a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, from the box I save for Emergency Comfort Eating.
Cinnamon Toast Crunch is a godsend. It should be part of everyone’s household emergency kit.
Then I went back to the funeral home and met my aunt in the parking lot. She had just gotten off the phone with my mother, who was screaming at her. Apparently, she was very offended that my aunt and I were planning the funeral. Apparently she felt that it was HER place as oldest to have that responsibility, and apparently I had stolen the ONE THING she really wanted to do. Then my brother’s father (and my mother’s sometime boyfriend/hanger on) hopped on the phone and took over screaming at my aunt about how she didn’t have a right to blah blah blah.
Yes, you read that right: my aunt had cared for my grandmother for nine months solid with little to no help from her sisters, and now five hours after her mother died, her beloved sister was on the phone screaming at her that SHE WAS DOING IT WRONG.
My family, ladies and gentlemen.
Drusilla and I had talked quite a bit about how people parse grief and I reminded her that my mom really wasn’t mad at Drusilla but rather the fact that her mother was dead. I asked Drusilla if I should leave, but she wanted me there, and had told my mother that if she wanted to be a part of the planning, then she should get down there. She didn’t show up, though, or as I darkly thought but did not say, the shouting phone call was probably more likely a sign that my mother was about an hour into a nice long alcohol binge.
We made arrangements and decided that Drusilla would offer my mother the opportunity to plan the post-funeral luncheon so that she wouldn’t feel left out. At that point, what do you do?
Drusilla told me that my mother and other aunt were concerned about how much money the estate had so there wouldn’t be flowers at the funeral. This bothered me a lot, so the next morning, I decided to just buy some flowers myself and word the cards as though they were from the entire family. The next day, I picked out some flowers that I knew she liked, had them put “grandmother” and “mother” ribbons on them and felt better about the whole thing. And then I realized that I was probably going to get in trouble for it somehow, which I did, of course, because apparently Brunhilda said that she wanted to get flowers, so asked for money from the estate to do so, which Drusilla gave her, and then when she brought them to the funeral (late), the flowers I brought were already on the casket and were (no way around this) huge and gorgeous and made Brunhilda’s bouquet look like a prom corsage. She then wouldn’t talk to me and my mother came over to me and hissed that it wasn’t my place and that I was showing off. Because that’s exactly what I had in mind! To grandstand yet again! I told her that I would take the flowers off to make room for Brunhilda’s flowers, but she stomped off.
Oh god, and then the celebrant mentioned during the service how much he had learned from talking with Drusilla and me and then thanked us again later and then cited our personal memories, singling us out each time by name. Later, Esteban said he was watching my mother and thinking “Oh god, oh god, shut up! Stop saying Wendy’s name!” which is more or less what I was thinking too. Drusilla came over to me later and asked if my mother had said anything to me about the service, which… no, not yet. She’s saving that one up for a really good moment, I’m guessing.
Afterward, no one knew what was going on. Brunhilda told some people we were going to meet at my grandmother’s favorite restaurant, because that’s what she thought my mom had said, but post-funeral, my mom called an audible and decided that everyone should instead go to a Chinese buffet, one that she didn’t know the name of or how to tell anyone where to get to it, nor did the restaurant have any idea that an entire funeral party was going to be descending upon them right before the lunch rush. So, that was a bit crazy, but about half of the people made it and I’m hoping that the other half weren’t waiting at my grandma’s favorite restaurant, or if they were, that they had themselves a nice piece of lemon meringue pie in her honor.
I hated that the day that was supposed to be about my grandmother turned out to be filled with a ton of drama, but I think we focus on that because it’s easier than losing control in front of a bunch of people from our past and present.I know that it’s just transference again and that it’s easier for my mom to be pissed at me for stealing what she believes to have been her rightful role of whateverness.
I think my grandma would have been pleased to see so many of her old friends and family at her service. She has a beautiful place in the cemetery that’s walking distance from her childhood home and she’s surrounded by the names I remember from her stories. In quiet moments, you can hear the gurgle of the river that runs on the other side of the road and she’s buried next to Betty. She’s back in her hometown, somewhere she’s been trying to get back to for fifty years. It was a rare beautiful sunny day, warm enough that we could get by with only sweaters.
Before the funeral, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d get in a car to oestensibly go somehwhere and find myself in a completely wrong part of town with no idea how I got myself there or what I had been thinking as I drove. It was a little scary. During one moment, I had refolded half of all of my t-shirts and sorted out the whites from the colored shirts in a neat stack before I realized what I was doing was super OCD. I’ve been channeling some of my energy into genealogy. It’s always been an on-again-off-again hobby of mine. My genealogy project definitely had ramped up over the fall as I rushed to get past some brick walls (with success) so that I could share them with my grandmother. She’s always encouraged me to do genealogy because she has had such an interest in where we come from, understanding our place in the world. After her death, I decided to get lost in the stacks of playing historical private detective at one of the historical societies. I was scrolling through old newspaper clippings and found one report that totally supported the rumor that my great-great-grandfather had been involved with the mob and ran alcohol during prohibition, and another instance where that great-great-grandfather had sold land to an ancestor on another branch of the tree (which was proof that they knew each other) as well as an ancestor of Esteban’s(!!!).
And in my excitement, I imagined her reaction to this news and then realized that the only person who would really appreciate how weird that was or even get excited about this news wasn’t here anymore.
I don’t know what’s worse: knowing that she’s gone forever or knowing that I’m going to be missing her like this for the rest of my life.