Losing Mom

The person in the casket is not my mother.

“Hell’s bells,” she would’ve said if she were standing beside me looking down at this pallid woman with her head propped up on a pink satin pillow. “Doesn’t that just take the cake?”

Mama liked those expressions, and had a saying for everything. The other mourners give the casket sideways glances like it’s a tacky centerpiece that no one wants to look at directly. I know they’re trying to rationalize the change in appearance from life to death, but keep coming up short. Sure, people look different after they’ve passed away, but not this much.

Leaving the larger question of who’s in the casket and where Mama is. I’m sure everyone else is staying calm because I’m calm, so they figure nothing is amiss, but I’m quietly happy about the turn of events. Mama thought funerals were silly, and she didn’t want to be on display.

“Arrangements should involve flowers, not people,” she said.

Mama wanted to be cremated, and said I could do whatever I wanted with her after that. The difficult part is not smirking at my invasive aunts, both clad in black like identical thunderclouds. They’re wringing their hands and peering at me like they expect me to say something to the funeral home director, but they didn’t come to visit Mama for the past eight months, just swooped in from Cleveland and Columbus after she passed away and said cremation wasn’t showing proper respect for the dead. There had to be a headstone and burial with the rest in the family plot. They wouldn’t listen when I said that wasn’t what she wanted. I was tired, so tired, and capitulated after the sixth or seventh round of haranguing in the funeral director’s office.

“I have enough money for cremation,” I said. “Anything you want done after that is coming out of your checkbooks.” When they paid up, I was amazed. And dismayed. This serves them right.

“She’s a good looking stand-in,” Mama would have said. “Nice cheekbones.” The woman is slim, thinner than my mother, but with similar short gray hair that marks her just shy of seventy. She is not smiling, but wherever Mama is, I’m pretty sure she’s cracking up right now. That makes me smile, and then cough, but I’ve been having respiratory problems all day. I brought my inhaler, but the barrage of aftershave and cologne and odd chemical scent of the funeral home gives me a headache. I’ve had to step out several times to get some air and avoid a full-blown migraine, but that helps me strategically avoid my aunts who dump on perfume and literally make me sick. That was another reason why Mama and I were not big fans of theirs. When we asked them to wash it off they said those sensitivities were all in our heads. It didn’t explain what prevented them from showering before a visit, but in many ways it was good we didn’t see them too often.

I’m hit with a cloud of their cloying musk when, an hour into the visitation, my aunt Marie grabs my elbow and hauls me to the funeral home director’s office.

“We have to discuss this,” she says, but she and aunt Genevieve have realized I will be of no help, so they do all the talking.

“Where’s my sister?” aunt Marie says, pounding a fist on the funeral home director’s substantial hardwood desk. The last time we were in here, the director left us alone for a moment as we “worked out our differences” over the fate of the remains. I shrug, since I have other reasons to be upset that are more important than the current situation.

“This is who was delivered to us,” says the funeral home director. “People do tend to look different after the embalming process and facial reconstruction.”

“Call the mortuary,” aunt Genevieve says. The funeral home director glances at me. I wonder if anyone is going to answer on a Saturday afternoon, but I guess someone does because she explains the family thinks there might have been a mix-up with a body. She says “Uh-huh...I know...yes, I understand,” before she gets off the phone without more to tell us. The mortuary handles bodies for the whole county, which includes a bunch of small rural towns. Everyone is identified by their toe tags, and this was the body they had for my mother. End of story.

My aunts huff out of the room, muttering about a lawsuit, but whatever body was in that casket would not be my mother, she’s already gone, so I don’t care to get involved in legal wrangling. Mama and I have been through enough over the past year, and she’d tell me not to waste time enriching lawyers when I could be doing more productive things.

“They did a nice job on her,” I say to the funeral home director, then meander out of the office. My aunts conference in the room for family members, where assorted other aunts and cousins have orchestrated a potluck lunch for after the funeral, with potato casserole and hot chicken sandwiches and Jell-O salad, standard Midwestern baby shower or funeral food.

Nobody has said much to me about the not-Mama in the casket, but maybe they think my vision is so poor that I can’t tell it isn’t her. For some people I blot my eyes and say, “She lost a lot of weight when she was in the hospital.” The performance keeps me from really crying.

Stacey, the nurse who helped me care for Mama for four hours a day, five days a week, comes over to hug me and offer condolences.

“This is too goddamned funny,” she says in a low voice. “I bet she orchestrated it from beyond.”

“Wouldn’t put it past her,” I say. I have vented to Stacey, and several of my cousins, about how my aunts refused my mother her cremation. Everyone has nodded sympathetically, and not blamed me for relenting to the force of an aunt tsunami, though I blame myself. I should have had enough energy to fulfill her last wishes before I slumped over.

When my aunts re-emerge from the back room hideout, their faces are set in identical expressions of mourning and determination. They want to bury someone, and they’re going to bury this woman.

So we do. I drive alone to the cemetery, though my aunts try to shepherd me into one of their cars. In this next phase of my life, I will resist more often. I toss a white rose from the casket arrangement into the grave of this anonymous woman who will rest with my other departed family members.

Good-bye, slim lady who was not my mother but might be someone else’s mom. I hope you don’t mind being here. My grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles are basically nice and well-meaning people, though sometimes a little overbearing.

Everyone drives back to the funeral home to eat, but I take a long detour so I can stop at a 7-11 and buy a copy of the local paper and a grape slurpee. I need to scan the obituaries and have a Slurpee in honor of Mama. With my three remaining days of leave from school, I should start sorting Mama’s clothes and decide what to keep and what to donate to Goodwill, not to mention grade a pile of algebra tests that needed attention a week ago, but I have been busy with the details of death and know I won’t want to sit in Mama’s living room doing any kind of math. I’m too restless for that.

I’m accustomed to one-sided conversations with Mama sitting in the passenger seat, so it’s not hard to resume a dialogue with her as we drive back to the funeral home.

“I guess I should go to the three other visitations happening this weekend,” I say. The little farm towns that pockmark our county are small communities where everyone knows everyone else, but based on the details in the obituaries, it shouldn’t be hard to fake a relationship with the deceased. One lady taught piano lessons for years. Another lady worked at the public library, and the third worked at the post office. They were all over sixty and gray-haired, not the spitting image of Mama, but tired embalmers mixing up toe tags could have gotten them confused. Since we didn’t bury Mama, it might be nice to know who did.

“But I’m still angry,” I say to Mama. “I thought we were doing well, then we weren’t. What did we miss?”

It’s only when I’m sitting at a stop sign with these obits and my slurpee that I find sadness again and know this shouldn’t be happening. I should have seen that Mama was hurting. I should have taken her to the ER. That’s what a good daughter would have done, and the thought makes my head ache in the way it’s been doing for the past week. The good thing about driving on back country roads is that you can cry for a good four minutes at a stop sign and nobody comes up behind your car and honks for you to move. I release the latest buildup of tears—better here than in the funeral home—and drink more of my slurpee. Beside me in the passenger seat, Mama shakes her head.

Over the past eight months I’d gotten accustomed to her sighs of frustration, her eye-rolling admonishments, her half-smiles at my jokes. She was resuming life after the stroke, learning to type and eat and brush and draw with her left hand. We were adjusting to the fact that her right hand might not work again, and she might not find more than three words due to aphasia, but her doctor reminded us she had made progress, great progress, and that could quite possibly continue.

Right after the stroke, when my aunts swooped into her hospital room with their sickly smog of perfume, they tugged me into the hall and said she’d need to go into assisted living or nursing home care.

“It would be too much for you to care for her on your own,” said aunt Genevieve.

“You can always visit her in the afternoons,” said my aunt Marie.

When I said no, I was going to live with her, they said suit yourself.

Mama was released from the hospital two months later, and we hired Stacey to help her while I was at school. Mama could toe around the house in her wheelchair, but she needed someone to watch her when she used the walker, since she had to drag her right foot along because it still wasn’t cooperating. She could get her elastic-banded pants down and up again to go to the bathroom, but Stacey helped her bathe and did some light housework and chatted and made sandwiches for lunch. Mama still loved tomato soup, which she drank from a mug, and red jello with bananas, and peanut butter cookies. She had a medic alert button to call the neighbors the rest of the time, and yes, it was a lot of work to help her practice walking down the hall, and do the laundry and cooking, and take her with me to the store, but it was worth it, and it wasn’t too much. Usually.

“I wouldn’t change anything if I had to do it over again,” I reassure Mama, taking another swig of my slurpee. We did the right things, or the best we could, and found our rhythm, getting up at five-thirty so I could help her dress, though she was getting better at doing that herself. I made cinnamon toast and scrambled eggs, and a full pot of coffee that she could sip until Stacey came and made another. Mama could pour with her left hand, though sometimes she gritted her teeth in frustration when she spilled coffee on the counter or tried to draw or write with her left hand and it didn’t come out right.

The nurses in rehab said getting her up and moving was important, and spending too much time in the chair could lead to blood clots in her legs, but I preferred when she toed around in her wheelchair when I wasn’t home. She could walk more steadily in the morning, but by the time I got home she was in her chair and writing at the kitchen table. She toed to the fridge to get juice, then toed to the counter and pulled herself up to balance on both legs, an aerobic feat I tried to imagine. How much strength and feeling was in that right leg? But she adapted, and took to using huge cups and mugs so she didn’t have to fill them as often.

Stacey helped me decode the small print on Mama’s pill bottles. My vision has been awful since I was a kid, and only got worse after I hit forty. I couldn’t make out the tiny type, which seemed to require a magnifying glass, and made me wonder what old people, whose sight was probably worse than mine, were supposed to do. Stacey admitted she had her own problems since there was a slipped disk in her back that sometimes acted up, and she had a bum knee from a couple hard falls in parking lots and on hospital floors.

“They’re just some of the job hazards of nursing,” she told me once. “Show me a nurse with a good back, and I’ll show you a nurse who’s not working hard enough.” But she didn’t have to lift Mama so much as she had to be a stable pillar for Mama to hold when she stepped into the tub and sat on her shower chair, then stepped out again after the bath.

We were doing okay. So I don’t understand why Mama didn’t let me know last Wednesday night that something was wrong. She looked pale, and I asked if she was okay. Mama nodded slowly and kept typing at her laptop, but she must have been feeling shitty, really shitty. We were already at the hospital for rehab three times a week, and I think she was tired of that building. She must have thought the sickness would pass, or she could be examined on Friday after her speech therapist had exercised her vowels. Wednesday night she wanted to type.

She’s still arguing this point with me. “I thought I’d be fine. You worried too much about me, anyway.” She knew I was scared about her toilet transfers when I wasn’t home. What if she missed the seat and fell down and hit her head and couldn’t press the medic alert button?

“But this time it was justified,” I say. This time it was an embolism that led to organ failure.

“Slow down, we’re coming to another stop sign,” she says.

“I see it, Mama,” I say. When she could no longer speak, she tugged on my sleeve to alert me to traffic signs.

“Just making sure. I worry about you missing things with your sight like it is.”

I sigh. Even in death, she’s not answering my questions.

At the post-funeral lunch I load my plate with lasagna and macaroni and cheese, and explain quietly to Stacey and my cousins Lisa and Heather that I’m going to three other visitations to see if I can find Mama. It’s not so much for my benefit as the other families, since they will likely make more of a stink than I did. Lisa and Heather had lunch with me and Mama a few times after the stroke, and they’ve heard the short and long-form rant on how my aunts wouldn’t let her be cremated.

“Do you want company for the drive?” Stacey asks. I shake my head, want to get used to alone time.

I drive to the first visitation that evening—might as well since I’m already dressed to mourn. I don’t know if I should move back into an apartment close to work, since my old one was only a twenty-minute drive from school. Mama’s house is twice as far. I could pack up my life over the summer, but I’m so tired of boxes, and I’d need to box her things, too, the ones I want to keep, and put the house on the market. Exhausting.

The last time I moved was eight years ago, when my longtime boyfriend went to New Mexico for a job teaching high school science in Albuquerque. He’d complained about the muggy Midwest for years and wanted to return to arid spaces where he’d grown up. He was also seeking a partner who wanted kids, though this was an unspoken part of our mostly-peaceful dissolution.

I moved to a one-bedroom apartment and wondered about long-term commitments and whether I wanted another. Mama had said one marriage was enough for her, but I wasn’t sure what had gone wrong in our equation. I thought I’d been clear in telling him I didn’t want children of my own—I liked kids, but had plenty at school who needed my cheering and coaching and occasional hugs, and by the time I got home I was drained of maternal energy. Somehow he spent seven years thinking the desire to procreate would strike me like lightning. I should have had the grace to break up with him earlier, but I ended up mad at both of us, the same way I’m mad at me and Mama for missing something we should have caught.

The visitation for the librarian is first, and I’m happy to see a lot of cars in the parking lot so I can wander in and out and not be conspicuous in the haze of tears and tissues and flower arrangements. When shaking the hands of family members, I avoid phrases like “I know how you feel,” since that only makes people feel pissed. I stick with “She was a lovely woman,” which everyone accepts with a gracious nod, not pausing to ask who I am because there’s another more familiar hand to shake behind me.

I sidle up to the coffin, and imagine Mama beside me as we peer inside.

“Too much blush,” says Mama.

“Other than that, they did okay,” I say. I take the little memory booklet and pretend to read it while standing beside the wall, because it seems rude to stay for just a couple minutes even if I don’t know anyone here. Will anyone at another visitation recognize Mama lying in some casket, and give me a call? Would family members at the other funerals have guts to say something to the director, or would they behave like the rest of us good Midwesterners who somehow believe that saying something isn’t polite, because you’ll only make someone feel bad when they can’t do a damn thing about it. This is why my grandparents were smiling people who stewed quietly and took nips of red beet wine in the cow barn.

On the way home I stop for a burger and fries. All Mama wanted to eat when she got home from the hospital was pizza and burgers and fries and milkshakes. I was too exhausted to cook, and loaded down with mid-semester exams.

“I guess we’ll eat healthy tomorrow,” I told Mama as we sat in the dining room of another fast-food joint. She grinned, happy to be back in the real world, that she could make her own cup of tea and instant oatmeal, and not have her life ruled by buzzers and blood pressure machines and someone else’s clock.

I eat in my car because I don’t want to sit at the kitchen table where Mama was always stationed with a pad of paper or her laptop, drawing or writing or typing with her left hand, thought she never let me see what she wrote in her moments of solitude. I understood why she wanted to be home alone, to look out the window at the bird feeder and not have someone barging into her space every two hours to validate that she was still alive. She did have to press her medic alert button every hour to let me know she was okay, since I was gone from seven until four and Stacey was there from ten until two. I wondered if Mama sent psychic messages to me, reminders not to worry, to let myself stay lost in the flow of students and lesson plans and staff meetings so I could pretend everything was the old normal instead of the new normal.

But before she died she didn’t tell me her computer password, so I can’t unlock her files and pictures and thoughts she typed out letter by letter over the past seven months. Mama, why did you have a password? There is so much I want to know--your reflections, your memories, your fears--or maybe there wouldn’t be that much you haven’t shared with me, in words and gestures. It’s a patient lie I tell myself to not feel so bad.

I consider taking one of my extra apple pies to the second funeral because I have too many desserts, but offering secondhand funeral food would be weird. I should freeze everything and eat it later. Mama would get mad if I let food go to waste, and I assume the post office lady would, too. When I see her lying in the casket I think she’s smirking, like she just told the opening to a good joke and is waiting to deliver the punchline. I’m the only person who pauses to really look at her, but peering down at someone in a casket isn’t easy. It’s a recognition that hey, that will be me someday. It’s why Mama wanted to be in a urn, so nobody would waste time considering their own mortality.

From whispers around the funeral home I guess the post office lady was sick for a long time—she had some kind of cancer and was home on hospice care, which makes me think that yeah, maybe I do know a little about how this family is feeling, and how after a few months the world doesn’t ask how your loved one is doing, because they don’t want to hear the answer or they don’t have time for a long story. I understand that—everyone has a right to be lost in their own lives--but you go home to your family member every day, you know exactly how they’re doing and that things are not over. You don’t want illness to be the only thing you talk about at work, but you do it anyway.

If she died in Hospice, the post office lady’s family members probably won’t be lying awake at night for weeks, wondering how they fucked up. How I fucked up. Maybe this is why people gave me so many pies. So I’d have something to eat at two in the morning.

“You know she wouldn’t have changed a damn thing,” Stacey says when she calls me that night to ask how I’m holding up.

“I guess,” I say.

“She was happiest at home,” says Stacey. “She was a hell of a lot more active in her own place than she would have been in any old institution.”

“I guess,” I say again. But if the nurses in a home had thought Mama looked sick, they would have done something. They wouldn’t have waited until the next night when I got home from school and she was so pale and didn’t want dinner and I knew I had to do something.

We just wanted things to be normal. She crushed soda crackers with her left hand into her chicken noodle or broccoli cheddar soup to make a thick stew that was easier to eat without many drips. I made sandwiches she could manage with one hand. She used her right hand to steady bananas while she peeled them with her left. But sometimes she rubbed her right arm and frowned, then cradled it like a doll, like she was trying to convince it to work with the rest of her body. How many swear words was she thinking?

There weren’t too many occasions when I was up until one in the morning grading papers and wondering how much longer I could do this, like when Mama tried to manage her own transfer to the bathtub and fell and almost hit her head on the toilet bowl. I wanted to yell but didn’t. She said a lot with a look--she wanted to shower on her own again, was trying not to mourn her old self, but it was difficult.

During my lunch period, sometimes I turned off the lights, locked the door, and took a nap at my desk.

At the third funeral, the one for the bakery lady, they serve chocolate cake. Nobody brought me a chocolate cake, so I take a large piece and look at her urn surrounded by flowers on a display table in the front of the room. She got to be cremated. Lucky lady. But when I see her picture on the memorial booklet, she looks a little...familiar. More plump than I remember, but familiar. I glance at the urn again. Are you my mother? Did we bury a sweet person who worked in a bakery and raised four kids and six grandkids and made great peanut butter cookies that seem to be the only thing everyone is talking about as they stand around and eat cake? Who has her recipe? No one seems to know.

I scrape the chocolate cake crumbs off my plate and remember Mama trying to write. I wondered what she was thinking, though maybe my imagination wouldn’t have been far off: Come on, hand, you can do this. Don’t rush it. We’ll be able to draw again, and paint. Think Pollack. Think Impressionism. She concentrated so hard when she was working on her letters, like anyone trying to write her name for the first and second and third time, figuring out how to make the muscles coordinate smoothly. It’s fucking hard.

In therapy they were always hopeful for improvement, for building strength in her muscles, though they had to show the insurance company that she was gaining mobility or else they’d stop paying for rehab. So Mama drew circles and letters and trees and I think she tried to draw the cat next door when it lazed on the porch. I don’t think she looked at her old sketchbooks, but it was best to focus on her new incarnation in the new world.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” I said to her every day and night. “I love you,” I whisper to the urn before I leave, just in case. Then I drive home and wonder what I will do with all of the pop-tarts I bought when they were on sale, because Mama loved them and we still have three boxes. Maybe I’ll take them to school. Maybe I’ll eat them myself, though I shouldn’t. We ate too much sugar, an easy comfort, but we were becoming little kids looking for some way to alleviate the adult world. Often it was food.

But what to do now when I’m afraid of the kitchen table, when I can’t touch her wheelchair or walker that are in separate corners of the living room? Did my worry keep her in the wheelchair too much? Did she not want to bother me to practice mobility when I got home from work because I looked too tired to support her? Did I grimace when I stood up to help her toddle back and forth down the hall? Mama, Mama, Mama, why didn’t you tell me you were hurting last Wednesday? But I know the answer is that she was tired, I was tired, we didn’t want to deal with moving our bodies. This is what makes me cry while paused at another stop sign, hoping some guy with a combine doesn’t pull up behind me and need to get by. I know I will keep crying and giggling at various times during the next six months, year, two years, forever. That’s life. And death.

Stacey says she’ll come over when I’m ready, maybe next weekend, to help me go through Mama’s clothes and eat casserole. The wheelchair, the walker, the shower chair, we can take to an assisted living complex so other people can use them. Until someone is with me I don’t have the courage to step into Mama’s room, just close the door and sit on the couch, watching TV and grading the leaning tower of algebra papers.

When we watched television, Mama slipped her left hand over mine, I flipped my hand up, and we held hands like we did when I was little and we walked to the park and she said Don’t let go of me until we reach the playground. I dragged her across streets because I wanted to get to the huge slide, but I hadn’t thought about the importance of touch, the I’m here and you’re here and we’re together, which is why she wanted to stay home, to be home, with me. Mama’s favorite quilt, the patchwork one from my grandma, is still on the back of the couch, and I drape it over my shoulders. I work and nod off, letting my pen trail embarrassingly across a quadratic equation, but then I relent for the night, put the papers on the coffee table and let myself lie down, curling my knees close to my body. I don’t know if I found Mama, but the mystery must rest as I return to the rhythms of my life tomorrow, a new one not marked by rehab appointments, but rolling through the archive of my mother and deciding what to keep, what to let go. I will eat those pop-tarts in remembrance of her, a little memorial before we drive to school, Mama now beside me in the passenger seat and reminding me about all the stop signs.  

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