The morning after my mom dies, Geralynn and I plan to meet at Dad’s and take him to the funeral home. He calls me at 9:30 am. “Bring a pair of underwear for your ma,” he says. “I can’t find any of hers.”
“I only have the thong-kind,” I say.
Long pause. “Ya,” he says, “I’ll call Ger.”
When I get to my dad’s he’s got two of my mom’s dresses draped over the back of an easy chair in his livingroom. “Pretty,” I say. “Not the one Mom wanted to buried in, though.”
“I can’t find it,” he says.
“Did you sleep?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “You?”
I shake my head. “Did you expect to?” he asks. He gives me a grin.
Geralynn comes in the back door and pulls a pair of Mom’s underwear out of her coat pocket.
“And I didn’t even wear them yet,” she says. We laugh. Did she consciously save this pair in the back of her underwear drawer? I won’t ask.
We search every closet in the house for Mom’s burial dress. “I think maybe we gave it back to Sharon,” Ger says. We both agree that when Mom said she wanted to be buried in this certain dress—white with pink and purple flowers, the one she got from Sharon and wore to my niece’s wedding—she could not have imagined she’d be tiny enough to fit in the lovely purple dress my dad picked out this morning. We make a pile of funeral home items on the kitchen table: purple dress, purple rosary, a necklace that was the first gift my dad gave Mom when they were dating, her wedding ring, her mother’s ring with the birthstones of eight children, her glasses, and her dentures which my dad has wrapped in a napkin and secured with a rubberband.
Horan’s Funeral Home has been a Chippewa Falls institution for five decades. Over fifteen years ago, when my parents were spending the winter in Florida, they ran into Ed Horan, the owner. My dad teased him, “Did you have to come this far to measure me for a casket?” Now Ed’s sons run the business. I went to high school with Pat and Mike, and I once dated Mike’s best friend. We’re all connected in this small town way.
As we walk through the parking lot, Dad says to Ger and me, “We’re gonna buy like we lived: in the middle.” Ger and I shoot each other a look.
Mike takes us upstairs to the planning room. Caskets line three walls, and on the fourth is a display of guest books and stationery. We all sit at a large table. My dad says to Mike, “We’ve already got a condo overlooking Leinenkugel’s Brewery.” He used this joke last night when he talked to Mike’s coworker, the undertaker who came to get my mom’s body. I think I have to translate for Mike: “Mom and Dad bought a spot at the mausoleum.”
“I heard that,” Mike says. I watch him write “Entombment: Hope Cemetery” on his notepad.
We go over the obituary that I sent in early this morning. We pick a prayer for the memorial card to be distributed at Mom’s funeral. I say to Ger, “How about St. Francis of Assisi? Mom lived it.” Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
Dad says, “Whatever you girls choose.” I start to choke up. My tears won’t help my dad today. I swallow hard.
Next we have to pick the funeral music. I look at the titles in Mike’s songbook, but I can’t quite conjure any of the songs in my head. I am so fried. I slept maybe two hours last night. I just couldn’t turn off my brain. Mom’s dead. Mom’s dead. Mom’s dead. I knew this was coming. Still, I laid there wondering how could I be in the world without my mom. I finally fell asleep around 4 am. I was thinking about Mom entering heaven. I bet she hasn’t stopped talking. She’d been mostly silent for over eighteen months.
“How does this song go?” I ask Ger. She hums a few bars of “On Eagle’s Wings.” I tear up.
I say, “What’s the one with pilgrim’s feet? Is that ‘America the Beautiful’?” Ger hums it. Mike watches us. I’m sure he’s seen many loved ones in worse shape than us. He must have had training in how to get the bereaved to make choices.
“Mom loved that song,” I say. Remember her belting it out in church? And she loved ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Our final job is to pick out a guest book, memorial prayer cards, and thank you notes. The package deal is $269. I whisper to Ger, “Can you believe that price?” I’d make a joke about highway robbery, but I’m too sad. Later when I tell my best friend, Karen, she’ll call this “highway to heaven robbery,” and we’ll laugh and laugh.
Ger flips through the guest books, and I look at caskets. I’m drawn to plain ones—no hardware, no gloss. I’m just about to call my dad over when I hear him say, “We’ll take this one.” He chooses like I do: “Yep, that’ll do.”
I notice above me is a big sign, “cremation,” which explains the plain wooden caskets and corrugated cardboard boxes. That’s the way I’d go, burned up or not.
The casket my dad has chosen is on the floor. I reach down and touch the pink lining. When my husband was a child, he often visited his mother at a New England casket distributor, where she worked as a secretary. He and his sister played in and around the coffins. “Good places to hide,” he told me once. As I look inside my mom’s final resting place, all I can think is this looks like a good place to hide.