My phone was being x-rayed by airport security when I got the call. There was a voicemail from my sister Lori. I didn’t need to listen to the message– I knew what she had to say. I imagined the best thing to do under the circumstances was to get to my gate and find a quiet spot to sit down before I played the recording back. But I didn’t need to. My sister phoned again.
She was calling from the hospice. Our mother was dead. The mortuary people were already there. Death may sometimes be a slow affair, but the business of death is always alarmingly swift. My father and stepmother would pick me up at the airport and take the two of us to the funeral home to make the arrangements for mom.
I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but I knew it was going to be a long day. I wandered over to the Peet’s coffee kiosk for a medium regular and the first muffin I saw.
When I returned to the gate, I sat down and picked at my pastry for a minute before I noticed on the receipt that it was called a “Morning Muffin.” I said to myself, “They forgot the ‘u’ in mourning.” I thought about my mother again. She couldn’t have eaten that muffin– it had sunflower seeds on it. She couldn’t eat seeds. In fact, there were a lot of things she couldn’t eat. But she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I threw the muffin away, sat back down, and played a little game with myself where I pretend that everything is just fine.
I debated exchanging my free drink coupon for a tiny bottle of whiskey on the short plane trip home, but thought better of it. I worried I’d get emotional and become “that guy who cries on planes”. It wasn’t the right moment for self-medication– there were caskets and flower arrangements to select and such things are best done with as clear a head as possible under the circumstances. Besides, whiskey was one more thing my mother couldn’t have. It would have been her 40th sober birthday in February. I asked for water. No ice.
At the mortuary, we discovered that the only time we could book the church for our mother’s funeral services was the day before Thanksgiving. We knew a lot of people would not be able to attend. There was no other choice– waiting almost two weeks was not a possibility we were willing to face. And at the end of the meeting with the funeral director, my father looked directly at me and said, “You’re doing the eulogy,” which sent a ripple of horror through my body. He was right, of course. There was no one else to do it. I’m “the writer” in the family. I’m the one who’s supposed to have a way with words.
But how does one go about writing a eulogy for one’s own mother? How do you compress 82 years of a person’s life into a few minutes? How do you distill an ocean’s worth of information into a cube of essence the size of the cardboard box we’d soon be storing her keepsakes in? I stared at my computer screen for days trying to come up with something worthy. My sister had been there for her every single day for the past two years during her decline. I worried that I would fail in the one important thing I was asked to do.
I also worried that I was no longer a writer.
Over the past several months as my mother withdrew deeper and deeper into her dementia, I found myself withdrawing more and more from writing. My desire for composition directly correlated with my mother’s declining desire to eat. Perhaps we no longer saw the point in doing that which sustained us.
She had always been so proud of my writing. “You know where you got that gene from,” she’d say. She was the editor-in-chief of her high school paper and was studying journalism in college when she met my father. She was always asking when my first book was coming out. Later, when she started getting confused, she thought it had already been published. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that no publisher wanted it. I felt like even more of a failure that I never got to show her one. Not that it would have bothered her. Not too much.
But as I sat in bed in my brother’s old room on the day before the funeral, I realized there was something that really would have bothered her– that I was sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself. Or worse, that I wanted to stop writing. She’d frequently told me how proud of me she was for never giving up. It must have been true, because she kept on saying it even after her mind began to go. The idea that I would use her death as an excuse to give up on writing would have really made her angry.
And she was a woman you really didn’t want to piss off.
So I moved out to the family room, which is the one bright spot in the incredibly dark house of my childhood, and took to heart the most writerly of clichés– write what you know.
I understood that there was a lot I didn’t know about the woman we were about to bury. She shared different parts of herself with different people– she was a friend, a coworker, a counselor, a wife, a neighbor and, in my case, a mother. So I started to write a list of all the things I could think of about her life and used that list as the basis for my eulogy:
Like how she turned down being a stewardess because the airline wouldn’t let her wear her engagement ring on the job. And how, instead, she wound up taking a top-secret position at North American Aviation working on the X-15– the first thing the US technically got into outer space– where she had to model Chuck Yeager’s fight suit (because they were the same size) and got to fly in a bomber plane with a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist like a Cold War spy.
Like how she was one of the first people to use a primitive form of the internet working for the Anaheim Convention Center, but still found it nearly impossible to send a damned email.
Or how everyone was so convinced she would die when I was six years old that a priest was called in to the hospital room to perform her last rites. And how she was somehow given a second chance at life and grabbed it with both hands.
That she managed to work two jobs, raise three children, and finally get her university degree at the same time.
That she fought like mad to keep my brother alive and healthy for years after he was diagnosed with AIDS. How she did so at the cost of her own health.
And how she still never lost her sense of humor.
That she was smart and loving, loyal, protective, beautiful and giving. That she could also be stubborn and hard and unforgiving at times. That she was as complicated as the next person. That she was wonderfully flawed and beautifully human.
And that, when I hear someone say that people are incapable of change, I always use her as an example to prove them wrong.
I was strangely relaxed when I delivered the eulogy. As much as anyone on the verge of burying one’s mother could be. I think my mom would have enjoyed my speech because it was as free of bullshit and white-washing as I could make it. It was a small turn out, as predicted, but the people who were there were all important to her. My sister and I were pleased.
There were only eight of us who drove out to Pacific View Memorial Park. It was windy on the hill and the clouds had blown sufficiently apart to give us all an eyeful of the ocean promised in the name of the cemetery– so much so that we could see Catalina as we lowered her into the ground next to my brother. I took a flower off the casket before she was lowered. And then my father offered to take everyone present out to eat.
We lunched at another place with a view, appropriately named The Summit House. When our server commented on how dressed up we all looked and asked what we were celebrating, I responded, “My mother died,” rather bluntly. My father’s best friend Don suggested that the next time I might say something like, “We’re celebrating my mother’s life today.” I took his advice to heart. Our server was unfazed. Without missing a beat, she suggested that under the circumstances we might need a round of drinks as soon as possible. She was marvelous.
The restaurant was festive and even more dressed up than we were– they were ready for The Holidays. We placed our orders, most of us choosing the prime rib of beef for which the place was famous. For starters, seven of us ordered the iceberg wedge salad with bleu cheese dressing. It’s a dish I’d never ordered before in my life, but I remember how mom loved it– at least, in the days before my brother’s death when she could
actually eat salads without getting sick.
I thought about my menu choices and realized that my mother not only couldn’t have eaten the salad, but she could eat neither the prime rib nor the creamed spinach nor the creamed corn. She certainly couldn’t have had the martini I was drinking. Nor the second one I was planning on ordering. The only item she could have consumed in relative safety was the top of the Yorkshire pudding, which was the lone disappointing bit of food in front of me that afternoon. But she would have sat there with her iced tea and dried out suet pudding and not complained. She’d just have had a little sandwich and potato chips when she got home later– it’s what she liked.
And then it struck me that I would never share a meal with her again when the salad arrived.
The wedge of lettuce placed in front of me was dotted with crumbled bacon. “Kummer specks,” I thought to myself, playing with words to make such an awful moment seem less so. I knew the day I learned the word kummerspeck that I would always remember it, because my brain would never forgive me if I forgot such a marvelously specific German term for the weight gained from grief eating. “Grief bacon.” My wedge was literally flecked with specks of grief. I didn’t know whether to laugh at that or to cry.
I chose to do neither. I kept that little joke to myself. Instead, I decided to eat and drink all the things my mother couldn’t when she was alive. I lifted the martini glass to my lips, finished off its contents, and gave a subtle nod in the direction I’d like to think she headed when she left her body. I hoped that she was now in a place like heaven where she could order whatever the hell she wanted to, knowing that in doing so she would be finally free from all pain.
Then I ordered a second martini to help dull my own.