Tell Me Something Wonderful by MT Cozzola

most memorable ribbon november 2012When my mom got the cancer, I wanted her to have the best post-death experience ever. She had this thing about being buried alive. “It’s not the dying that scares me,” she used to say. “It’s what if I’m lying there and I hear them shoveling the dirt over my head?”

She worried a lot. When I was a kid, during a thunderstorm she would unplug everything—every lamp, every TV—and then sit in the dark and worry about a tree falling on the house. She’d make us kids come downstairs and sleep under the dining room table. Actually, my brothers don’t remember that part, so maybe it was just me she could wake in the night, to hang out with her and listen to rain hitting the air conditioner. So when we got the diagnosis—inoperable, six months—I wanted her to feel absolutely confident that everything was perfectly under control and she’d be totally dead in the best possible way.

marble urn boxIt’s a little awkward to plan someone’s death when they look as healthy as the day you took them to the doctor, a little under the weather but mostly fine, just fine. Hospice comes and they’re telling us Mom’s going to get a new bed and oxygen tanks, and Mom is so busy getting drinks for everyone and setting snacks out that she misses most of it. “What am I supposed to do with this?” She asks when the bed arrives.

“It’s so you sleep better.”

“I sleep fine.”

“But, eventually…”

“Eventually, I’ll sleep great—I hope. I don’t wake up and they’re shoveling dirt over my head.” She’s already annoyed that we won’t let her drive (“How am I a worse driver today than I was yesterday?”), and we’re shopping for a caregiver (“I don’t want a stranger in my house”), and we’ve got a rotation set up so one of us kids always spends the night. “So now I gotta get up early to make breakfast for Rick?”

“No, you have to stay in bed and let Rick bring you coffee.”

“That’ll be the day. And Jimmy’s worse. I can’t even get him to eat a piece of toast before he leaves.” Don’t get me wrong, she knew she was dying. I mean, she got the drama of it, the poignancy. She loved to sing along to Michael Feinstein CDs, especially when my husband Dave was over so he could work the boom box. She’d sit on the edge of my chair and serenade me,

Demons’ll charm you with a smile for a while, but in time

Nothing can harm you, not while I’m around

Then she’d look at me and raise her eyebrows like, “But we both know, I won’t be around.”

The first time she sang that song, I cried and cried. When she told Dave, “Play it again,” I cried a second time, not quite as hard. The third time, Dave tried to sneak out of the room, but “No, turn it up, Dave!” And the fourth time,

I can do it, put me to it, show me something I can overcome

Not to worry, Mum

When her eyebrows went up, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Oh, Mom.”

“Oh Mar.” She put an arm around me. “Why would the Lord do this to me? He’s been so good to me, and now…”

“Um, Mom? You are 81 years old.”

Mom pulled away slightly. “What?”

“Not that you look it. But, I mean, you’ve had a pretty great life, right?”

“That’s the tragedy,” Mom gazed into the distance. “Everything was too easy. The best husband, the best kids, I love my house, I love my neighbors. He made it too easy for me, and now I have to pay.” She patted my shoulder. “Play it again, Dave.”

Despite her love for drama, Mom did not want a wake. “I don’t want people looking at me when I’m dead.”

“No problem. We’ll do a funeral mass and a party at the house.”

“Order from Bertos. I don’t want you kids messing up the kitchen.”

“Got it.”

“And I’ve been thinking about it. I want to be cremated, like Daddy, and I want the rest of his ashes mixed with mine, but don’t put me near his mother. I want to be by my parents. Can they get me in Georgie’s plot?”

I call the cemetery to find out. Yep, you can bury someone in their brother’s plot if there’s room, which there is if you cremate them, and if you get permission from the immediate family. So I go to the cemetery office—a bustling place, three people behind the counter, not funereal at all, more like a UPS store. My guy cheerfully pulls out a permission form and instructs me to have it signed by Mom’s brother and sister. “Oh,” he adds, “and make sure you tell the funeral home she’ll be going into a Catholic cemetery.”

“No, no funeral home,” I say. “She doesn’t want that.”

“Then make sure you tell the cremation folks – we can recommend one – that you need a Catholic cream-urn.”

“Cream what?”

“Cremation urn,” he explains. “It’s specially sealed and authorized. That’s very important.”

“Okay, but if it’s sealed, how do we get some of my dad’s ashes in there?”

“You don’t. This is a Catholic cemetery. There is no mixing or dividing of ashes.”

“Sure there is.” I come back to the desk. “Some of my dad’s ashes are here in Lot J plot 22, and some are scattered in Colorado, a few are in Venice—”

“No. I didn’t hear that. We did not have this conversation. No mixing, no dividing. Here’s your form.”

So when I go to my mom’s and she says, “Tell me something wonderful,” like she does lately, holding court on the front patio, I say, “I got the form.”

“Good. Did you write the check?”

“I have to get signatures from Auntie Marie and Uncle Ralph first.”

“So what are you waiting for?”

After I drop off the form at Auntie Marie’s, I call the cremation place. They’ve got multiple offices and packages, and even a membership option! And they’re perfectly nice until I ask about sneaking some of my dad’s ashes into the container. “That’s against the Catholic church,” says the phone rep.

“Yeah, no, I was just asking.” I go online and look for options. I find another cremation website that looks kind of homemade—one page, not much text, and a phone number. So I call, and a lady with the loveliest Southern accent answers, Candy. She drawls, “My son was an undertaker, but we started this business together to give the personal touch.”

“Great. The thing is, my mom wants my dad’s ashes mixed with hers, but I realize that the Catholic Church—”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Candy shushes me, “I’ll stop by and we’ll figure it all out.”

The next time I go out to Mom’s and she says, “Tell me something wonderful,” I’m ready. “I found the most awesome cremation place. They even let you be at the—um, you know, where they do the ashes.” (That’s another fear of hers, that when you’re cremated someone else will end up with your ashes. “What do they care? They’ve got your money.”)

“Good,” says Mom. “Did you write the check?”

“Not yet. She’s coming out. She’s Italian, too, but she’s Pentecostal Italian.”

“She’s coming here?”

“Is that okay?”

“Yeah, why not. Pentecostal Italian, I never heard of that.”

By this point, Mom is a little weaker, but she’s doing fine. She’s starting to look like a normal 81-year-old woman, instead of a semi-hot 65-year-old. And on most afternoons, my Auntie Marie comes over to watch Jeopardy. So one afternoon this big Escalade pulls up and I go outside with Django, my dog, to meet Candy. It turns out she’s a dog person, too. She has three tiny dogs in the car, yapping away. She’s telling me about where she rescued them and petting Django and looking around and suddenly she says, “Only one step down, that’s nice.”

I realize she’s thinking about carrying my mom’s body out of the house. She scans the roofline. “And inside the home, will we be taking her down any flights of stairs?”

“Um, I’m not really sure where she’s going to die,” I say. “If it’s in her bedroom I guess it would be a short flight, do you want to…”

“Oh yes, let’s go inside.”

So we go in, and Mom and Auntie Marie are guessing Jeopardy answers. “Who is the Earl of Oxford?”

“How did you know that, Marie?”

“I don’t know.”

“You always know.”

I interrupt, “Mom, this is Candy, from the place.”

Candy extends a hand in her warm, Southern way, “I’m verra happy to meet you,”

Mom looks briefly at Candy. “Hi.”

“Candy, I was telling my mom you’re Pentecostal Italian, which neither of us has ever heard of.” Auntie Marie looks interested but Mom just says, “Do you have the checkbook?”

“Yep.”

“Good. Shut the door if the TV’s too loud.” So I guess we’re not going to all have coffee together.

Candy and I go in the dining room and shut the door, and Candy sets out some forms and says, “Now usually it’s just John and myself, but I’m getting older and with the stairs we might need… Of course, your mom is fairly small.”

“Uh-huh. So, about the mixing of ashes?”

She changes the subject, “Oh, and let me show you the cream-urns.” Which don’t actually look like milk jugs, which I was picturing in my head. They look like tiny marble tombs. “Fake marble, but verra nice.”

“That’s great, but about my dad’s ashes?”

Candy looks me straight in the eye. “So just, on the day, you just give them to me and don’t worry about another thing.”

After she leaves, and Auntie Marie goes home, Mom says, “Tell me something wonderful.”

“I really liked Candy,” I begin, but she says, “Not about today. Tell me you believe in Heaven.”

Which I don’t. I mean, not the way she talks about it, with cocktails and welcome mats.

She says again, “You believe in Heaven, right?”

And I say, “Sure.”

And a few months later, right on hospice schedule, Mom dies at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning. And I call, and sure enough, Candy comes out in the Escalade. But her son John had some kind of emergency, so instead it’s this other guy wearing a football jersey. They roll in a stretcher, and my favorite hospice nurse Molly says, “Maybe we should wait downstairs.”

So Molly and me and my husband Dave and my brothers all huddle down in the family room while the football guy and Candy carry her down the short flight of stairs. We can hear soft bumping sounds. “Should we say a prayer?” We keep listening. Then it gets quiet. I go upstairs and Candy’s sweating a little. “Did everything go okay?”

“It’s all good, honey.” She smiles, her upper lip glowing.

“Wow, thanks for coming.”

“That’s what we’re here for, honey. But, uh…” and she raises her eyebrows.

“Oh!” I run into Mom’s room and grab the tin containing the last of my dad’s ashes. “You’re sure this is okay?”

She gives me one nod, like “Rosebud.” And they get in the Escalade and drive away.

And after all that planning, the little mini-coffin sits on a bookshelf in my living room. It’s two years later, but for some reason we haven’t come up with a burial date. One brother’s in Colorado, and maybe the next holiday, etc., etc. So the little tomb is sitting there. On top of it I have her prayer book and the signed form for the cemetery. Leaning against one side is my copy of the Where’s Mom Now that I Need Her cookbook she gave me when I graduated college. On the other side is a novel she loved, Leave Her to Heaven, that was turned into a movie starring Gene Tierney. Good movie.

And every now and then, I take out the little tomb and sit it on my lap. It feels good, holding the weight of it and knowing that her – they’re called cremains – her cremains are right on the other side of the fake marble. It’s not a spiritual thing, it’s not religious; it’s very physical. And it’s just like she wanted them. All her ashes and some of my dad’s, mixed together in this Catholic-sanctioned fake marble mini-casket thing. And I really sort of hope we never find a good burial date, because I like pulling out the thing when I’m really missing her, and just sitting with it.

MT-CozzolaMT Cozzola is a Chicago-based writer and performer. Previous prose and poetry have appeared in Crawdad Literary Journal, After Hours, and Hippocampus Magazine, and she’d told stories at This Much is True, Essay Fiesta, and other venues. She keeps a story blog at www.midwesternrobot.com and you can find her first feature film, Eye of the Sandman, on Amazon.com. Some things she loves are the color orange, a fully committed clash of context, and really, no kidding, the kindness of strangers.
Print Friendly
  • Pingback: Editor’s Notes: November 2012 – Winners Announced in the 2012 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction | Hippocampus Magazine – Creative Nonfiction – Entertain, Educate, Engage()

  • Deanna Moffitt

    I love this story and the beautiful, simple imagery MT creates. Not being Catholic I had no idea about the inability to mix or separate ashes.  I’m guessing her mother would be much happier knowing she’s resting in her daughter’s warm home rather than a cold, cement box somewhere. Lovely story to wake up to.

  • Your Mom was and still is one of my favorite childhood memories!  I LOVE this story, and it is very similar to our own, only we don’t have the words committed to paper.  – Anne Brow Thinnes

  • I’ve known MT for years and her writing has always inspired me. I had the priviledge to read this story before she submitted it and I cried for an hour. It’s such an honest and heartfelt story that just makes you want to give everyone in the story a hug. Rereading it now made me remember exactly how I felt the first time I read it and it’s a rare great story that can do that. Bravo, MT!

  • lynne mcmahon

    One of the more startling things about this non-fiction piece is the fact that it refuses any “poeticizing” or elevated language to talk about grief.  In her desire to honor her mother’s spirit and feet-firmly-planted realism, MT stays as true to the vernacular and warmth and attention to the ordinary details of life-before-death as her mother did–which is in itself both homage and clear-eyed mourning.  The celebration exists under and alongside all the day-to-day decisions about how to accompany a loved one as far as possible to the end.

  • bompus

    Love this! The dialog gives us straight-to-the-heart portraits of her characters. An artful mix of pathos and humor with well-chosen details makes this an unforgettable story. Bravo.

  • What a beautiful story.  MT has a talent for writing stories that are touching, serious, yet humorous at the same time.  Keep up the good work.  I love, love, love her work! 

  • Robert Bernacchi

    I feel like I know your Mom much better after reading this. Good writing always comes from real-life, first-hand experience and this story proves it! Good work.

    • Thanks to you all for reading and commenting. It’s a pleasure being about to write about her, because it keeps her alive to me. 

  • Your mom would have loved this story. 

  • I love this story. It’s so immediate, and touching, and humorous, and achingly sad, all in one. Absolutely wonderful.

  • Henrietta Atkin

    Wow. This is an amazing story. It made me think of my Dad. Is every parent from the “Greatest Generation” that quirky and funny? Guess so. Very humorous and full of warmth.

  • ntsoutsouris

    I’ve heard this story live and and loved it. And now I’ve read it and I might love it even more, which is the true test of a story, isn’t it? I didn’t know your mother but feel like I’ve known her forever. It’s touching, hilarious and just lovely. 

  • chamakid

    mt…. thanks for letting me visit with your mom for a while today. your writing has caused me to playback  many great memories of your mom/my auntie phyllie. well done!

  • RoccoGC

    really wonderful.  It tells so much about Ms. C, her daughter, and her family in a story.  In terms of writing, it’s a little bit like those terrific introductions Vonnegut used to write to his books — stories about friends from the Army, that in some ways told the story of the whole novel in four pages.  Thanks for sharing it.  

  • didlee

    What can I say MT?  It is an amazing story.  You’ve taken something a lot of people are afraid to talk about and brought it to life (so to speak)  It’s funny, enlightening, and so heartfelt.  Congratulations girl!!

  • J

    I would like to try to say something fittingly wonderful: For a mother who continues living in her daughter, there is no burial date. MT, I am humbled by the beauty of your story with its unassuming humor of everyday life even in the face of the saddest of planning. Thank you for sharing. Julia

  • This is the most poignant, charming, moving tale.  These lines should become classics: “I wanted her to feel absolutely confident that everything was perfectly under control and she’d be totally dead in the best possible way.”   

    And…

    “What do they care?  They’ve got your money.”  How could you not fall in love with dear Mrs. C?

    MT gives me this goofy, warm, heartbreak unlike any writer I’ve ever read.  She paints a world I want to live in. 

    • J

      I thought the same thing re: “”I wanted her to feel absolutely confident that everything was perfectly under control and she’d be totally dead in the best possible way.”   

    • Thank you to every generous reader who left a comment or shared this story. I wish my mom were alive to know how many fans she has..but if she were, there’d be no story. Literature is ruthless! Sincerely, thanks you guys.

  • Wonderful and touching story by MT.  She has a way with putting one word after another and making real magic with them.  Her stories are funny, moving, tender, brave and dangerous.   A real work of Art!

  • Libby Olson

    Skip… all soft and quiet from this story… and that awkward, funny bumblingness – so well captured…. felt like I was right there with you sharing this patch of your life. thank you.

  • Djavgo

    Wow!  This brings it all back.  You really captured the feel of  mom’s last months.  So strong, still completely herself, joking around and being mom right up through her last few hours of life.  More concerned about taking care of everyone else and making sure that her kids were okay.  Reading this today brings all that back for me, as well as other parts of her amazing character that made her so precious.  In some ways it made the loss more sad, and in some ways it gave us the strength to get through it better.  We were to lucky to have her.  Thanks for writing this Mare.

  • ehilger

    Wow MT!  I always love reading your writing, and this was so personal that I was compelled the whole way through.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts and deeply personal experience.  I wish I could have known her.

  • That is so lovely.

  • Wow that was wonderful!  You are very gifted, thank you for sharing!!! – Jen E.

  • Anne Phelan

    Wonderful.  You should write more!

  • o i loved it… hi mom..mt writing about her mom makes me of course b with u mom..and today is the day my dad died … the day after thanksgiving …and reading this, the day after thanksgiving.

  • I connect with this story on so many levels. And dealing with tragedy with an airy light-heartedness is especially true.  It is honest, loving and sad. Excellent story MT!

  • Oh good Lord, I can’t stop crying.  What a wonderful tribute to your Mother.  I am sorry that I never met her.  I would have liked to drink her coffee and eat her toast.

  • Mark Spearman

     Sweet and true and verra nice. And I love that your mom loved ‘Leave Her to Heaven.’

  • cacrowell

    What beautifully written memories.  It’s so evocative of my own experiences. (My mother also passed away from cancer and had much time to contemplate as she had a three-year battle. During her last six months, she focussed on what would be her final arrangements. Also Catholic, she was very concerned about whether or not the Church allowed cremation–this was in the year 2000, and yes, they did–and her being buried on consecrated ground next to her Aunt Mary.) Your memories recall for me all those poignant moments in time those last few months when love and pain collided, producing exquisite yet difficult recollections. Your ability to capture the details and the deepness of those moments is amazing. Thank you for writing this.

  • When I read that line “Play it again, Dave” I thought of Ingrid Bergman. And now I think will always picture your mother as a glamorous character from an old black and white movie. Beautiful story.

  • Loved it, MT. I felt I could understand what your mom was like as a person. And the last paragraph got me crying,  damn you.