When 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.
It’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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.