I spent Saturday night at my brother’s house with family and friends. His house is always lively, where anyone is welcome, where shouts of playing and laughter echo through the halls–and I’m just talking about the grown-ups. It was a great time, and always fun to catch up with friends new and old.
My mom was there, and also enjoys reminiscing with our friends– the people she watched grow from boys and girls into men and women. One of my brother’s friends, Dom, was regaling us with stories of my dad, and the years disappeared as he recounted spending weekends at our house as a teenager.
As we were leaving, my mom gave Dom a big kiss and said, “Be sure to come to my funeral, Dom?” “Mrs. Trainer!” he replied, shocked, “I’ll see you again.” “I’m only teasing,” she said. He hugged her tightly. “Well, don’t talk like that!”
But talk like that she does. Daily.
I have been preparing for my mom’s death for as long as I can remember. My mother has always been fixated on death–hers and others. I know the reasons–a father dying in front of her at five; an only child due to her mother’s numerous still-borns.
Sure, I understand why. But that didn’t help my youthful angst. Angst that lie with me in bed each night after kissing my mother and saying, “I love you. See you in the morning.” And her reply: “God willing.” Angst that rode next to me in the passenger seat as I drove to places with my mother’s directions, explained in tragic landmarks: “Go up to the road where that little boy was killed on his bike, and then turn right at the funeral home where Uncle Jimmy was laid out…” Angst that stayed with me for decades–each day a body count from the news she watches, each week a report as to how many people we know–or I do not know, as is often the case–who are sick and dying.
Yet, in my later years, I do not meet her comments with anger or angst. I laugh. And I laughed when she said this to Dom in the kitchen. My mom, the Gram Reaper.
My wife was indoctrinated into my mother’s morbid ways early in our marriage. During that first year, my mom came to our house one Saturday afternoon with coffee and a garment bag. As she handed the bag to Pam, she announced,”This is my funeral dress, hon. I want you to be in charge of it.” Pam laughed and cried at the same moment. I just shook my head and smiled. Yet, that dress has hung in my wife’s closet for over 13 years–it has moved two times with us. Pam has her job.
At school, the teachers marvel when I mention the various paraphernalia I receive from my mom: a handful of “Living Wills” to distribute to my friends; the deed to her cemetery plot; her living will. And most recently, the letter announcing she can officially have her funeral mass at the Villa where she resides in an apartment building run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Here you go!” she announces one night while over for dinner, thrusting it towards me with the gusto of a high school senior who has just been accepted to college. “Now, I just need to make a copy for everyone else.” “Why?” I ask. “You didn’t even need to give me a copy. I’m sure Sister would tell me when the time comes.” “I just thought you should have it.” Translation–you may not have thought about my death in the past few days, and I didn’t want you to forget!
If there is one thing that is unforgettable about my mom, it is her passion for all things tragic. She has had her share, as have I, as have all of us. But the funny thing is, the more I have embraced my mom’s sense of the tragic, the more I have made it my job to emphasize the comic. “You’re going to outlive us all!” I say when she hands me the latest item for her funeral. And she just might. She’s beaten both breast and ovarian cancer. But I know that does not comfort her. There’s no fun in dying if no one’s there to mourn.
Last year, after reading the book This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper–a book about a dysfunctional family sitting Shiva–I had an epiphany. I called my mom the next day. “Mom, I have a great idea for your funeral.” “What is it?” she said, excited I had started to take a genuine interest. “Well, you know how Jewish people sit Shiva for seven nights?” “Yeah.” “Well, to eliminate any drama, why don’t each of us take a night–each of your seven kids could have a night where they get to sit with you, and their friends can come and pay their respects. And other relatives can come whenever they like.” “There’s a thought,”she said, but I got the feeling it allowed for too little drama and not nearly enough pageantry. It sounded like the right approach to me, though.
In the car today, just the two of us, we chat about my brother’s party. “Isn’t Dom funny,” she says, “the way he remembers all those things about being at our house?” “He’s a riot,” I say. “It was good to see him.” Then the conversation quickly turns to death. She begins, “You know, we had a guy in this week from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery–a real young guy, handsome, to talk about planning our funeral costs.” “I know, you told me already. The one Sister had a crush on.” She laughs. “Guess how much less it is to get cremated than buried?” “How much?” “He said seven-hundred dollars.” (I can’t tell if that’s good or bad.) “Oh!” I say, “Are you going to be cremated?” “I don’t know.” Then she launches into a story about someone who buried a box of their relatives ashes on top of someone else’s grave. “Didn’t cost them a thing,” she says. I try to comprehend this logic. “What happens if they have to bury someone else in that grave?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, now wondering.
“So, if you get buried, who will you be with?” I ask, although I should know. The answer comes without pause: “Pop [her stepdad], Daddy, and Phil.” Phil is a neighbor who died in his thirties–long story on how he got to be in the family plot. “Oh, God!” I say. “You can’t be buried with those three–you’ll never rest in peace. That settles it–you’re being cremated.”
We laugh. My mom and I laugh. It may sound like a weird approach to others, but that’s what we do. It’s certainly what I do. And in a strange way it makes me feel closer to her. I don’t shut down when she brings up this sorrowful topic. I no longer yell at her out of fear and confusion. I just acknowledge it, and then try to see it from a lighter perspective. It helps.
As we drive, I feel this sense of satisfaction. My mom and I driving around on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in November.
I try to change the subject so she’s not thinking of her impending demise too much. “So,” I say, “do you have any funerals this week?”
Photo: Courtesy of Steve Hardy, flickr.com