I look over my neglected gardens, wondering what has happened to the garden fairies that, under the circumstances of my mother’s death and my head cold, surely should be working in the dead of night. A friend reminds me, “it’s never over, is it?” Every year about this time, stuff starts to grow that isn’t necessarily welcome. Things need to get planted, that aren’t getting planted. The one side of the driveway I did get cleaned up is now sprouting the aggressive sticky weed my mother called “bed straw.” The ajuga that last year was invading the creeping Jenny has now obliterated it (fine with me) and is escaping into the gravel path that I just cleared of weeds. Oh, maybe that was last summer.
I remembered yesterday, when the AT&T bill came, that I forgot to cancel my mother’s phone service. And a reminder came in the mail from the dentist that she was due a cleaning, since I cancelled her appointment a week before she died. When I realized she had an ENT appointment this month, I called both offices to tell them she had passed away and I thought the receptionists were going to cry. I still haven’t called AT&T, knowing it will take forever. I’m waiting for the fairies. It’s never over, the tasks when someone leaves behind the things the living do and the still living have to deal with them.
One of the things my sisters and I had to do when the Monday after that Saturday rolled around was sit in the black oversized swivel conference chairs around the big polished table at the mortuary (it’s called a funeral chapel, but we all knew our mother’s body was in another room) and talk about caskets and price packages and things. I don’t think any of us knew we were going to end up talking about cremation. And yet, without warning we were.
This is my memory of the only other time I recall talking about cremation and burial with a parent. I think it’s accurate, but who knows. My father told me he wanted to be cremated but my mother couldn’t bear the thought and he said burial was fine that it should be up to the person who was left behind because the person who had died was, well, dead and gone and what did it matter to them really. And so that was that. He was buried in the coffin my mother chose that wasn’t what my sisters and I would have picked, but she didn’t ask for help or advice.
I had awake nightmares for months after my father died. Sitting at work and suddenly imagining him in the cold, in the dark, six feet under and it about killed me, the thought of it, dripping tears onto the computer keys. And so, when I returned to my home town and was off an adventure that took me past the out-of-town historic cemetery, I turned in. He wasn’t there. There was his name, next to my mother’s—ready and waiting—but I felt no sense of him. He lives on in his workshop over the carport where the drawers in the workbench are filled with sorted and labeled screws and nails in cut down Darigold milk cartons; in the barn where I found a roll of barbed wire and a mouse-chewed leather glove; in the woods where he cleaned up winter blow down.
Sitting at that table, my older sister Jo Ann said our mother said she was sorry she didn’t have his body cremated. I never had a conversation about it with her. I know she was sorry she didn’t have a service for him because he didn’t want one. “It wasn’t about him,” she told me later. “You girls needed to be able to say goodbye.” I don’t know if that’s what my sister was thinking of or if Mama really had changed her mind about the other too. I thought I knew what she wanted, so I never brought it up.
Regardless, there was plenty of evidence that both my parents thought it should be the choice of those left behind. And all three of us, it turns out, had trouble with our father in the ground that we had never talked about. We all wanted the experience of scattering ashes in the places our mother loved: the trail in the natural area, Kalaloch Beach, and some in an urn with my father. And, maybe, we are pondering, in the places we love. I could find her on the backside of the Skyline Trail at Paradise.
Within moments we were swiveling from each other toward the funeral home director, his pen poised above the questionnaire, saying we want cremation. Suddenly we were choosing the least substantial legally acceptable cremation container rather than looking at silk-lined coffins. And agreeing her solid form would depart in what she was wearing when she died—her favorite pink nightgown with a strip of flowered fabric her seamstress had sewn to the bottom to make it longer, adding a matching small pocket that always contained a tissue—rather than one of the dresses that still hang in the closets. “Is there a tissue in it?” Rebecca asked. “Yes,” I said, at least there was when she died. And of course, she’s wearing a pair of lint ball covered snipped socks, because her feet got cold and she couldn’t bear anything she perceived as tight.
We sent with her the scrappy “pillow” her mother made that, inexplicably, in her last years, Mama couldn’t be without, panicking when she thought it was lost. It was special to her and none of us wanted it. Problem solved. It will be scattered with her.
It was more of a sudden knowing and agreement of what we needed than a discussion or a debate…or an argument. Or maybe it was all of that in an instant. What we all secretly longed for, but hadn’t said out loud. I hope Mama is okay with it.
And now we are cremating my mother as my father wanted to be, and creating a blow-out memorial service that my mother cheated herself out of when my father died. We are making up for the losses and regrets of both of our parents.
For many years I carried this quote on a scrap in my wallet then finally transferred it to “notes” in my iPhone.
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”
And one more thing. One day last week, as I sat at the dining room table, two Canada geese flew side-by-side from over the house behind me and flew out in front of the windows toward the valley, so close I could see all their features. One honked as they came into view. Skeins of geese frequently fly above the valley in the distance in spring and fall, but I have never seen just two geese, and never so close. It’s never over.