After we make arrangements at Horan’s Funeral Home, we go to my dad’s for lunch. As I pull my leftover half a sub out of his refrigerator, I can’t help but think that when I ordered and paid for it last night, my mom was still alive. Dad makes a cold meat sandwich for himself and Geralynn.
I’m not hungry, but I put the food to my lips and chew and chew and make myself swallow. I know how important it is to keep my blood sugar up, my body fed.
We talk about the cost of Mom’s funeral. To say we have “sticker shock” is an understatement. The final bill is close to $10,000. Dad tells us about how some deceased used to be put out on a boat and set on fire. He says it like we’ve never heard of such a thing. “A Viking funeral,” I say. He eats his sandwich.
“Cheaper,” he says. His eyes leak tears, as they have all day.
Every man I’ve known intimately has fantasized about having a Viking funeral. I used to think it was the most masculine way to go, but as I sit across from my dad today, I realize it’s perhaps the most sentimental. I focus on chewing and swallowing.
Our next stop is the Holy Ghost Church rectory to see Father Victor about Mom’s funeral. Geralynn and I (and all of our siblings) went to school here for first through eighth grades. She and I received the sacraments of Baptism, First Communion, Penance, Confirmation, and Marriage here. Still, we have never been in the priests’ living quarters, and as Father Victor leads us down a long hallway to his livingroom, I feel like I’m entering a sacred chamber. Once we settle in, I realize this room could be a display area for a furniture store: perfectly neutral beige carpet, overstuffed sofa and chairs, matching coffee and end tables. I nearly look around for a cardboard cut-out of a TV.
Ger and I sit side by side on the huge couch, which feels like it could swallow us. Today we wouldn’t mind. My dad and Father sit on two easy chairs.
Father Victor is forty-something-handsome with big teeth like beautiful white Chiclets. He is originally from India, and though he’s been the parish priest for a few years, my dad cannot understand his accent. I find myself repeating Father Victor’s words for my dad: “So who do you think would be good readers at the funeral, Dad?” I hope I’m not being too obvious.
My goal for this meeting is to get in and get out with as little chit-chat as possible. I won’t tell Father Victor that my step-son teaches peace studies in India. Or when I had a particularly troubling day visiting Golden Age—Delores begging for someone to come and get her, Wilma crying constantly—I’d go home and say to my husband, “Guess where you’re never going?”
He’d joke, “India?” It’s the worst place he could imagine visiting—the heat and pollution wearing him down.
“Yes,” I’d say, “and you’re never going to a nursing home either.”
Now Father Victor says that he visited Mom once a month at Golden Age and just recently gave her the final sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Last Rites, I think. When did they change the name? As a kid, I know it was called Extreme Unction.
Father Victor says to us, “Did you find my note?”
I look at my dad. He has no idea what Father is asking about. Dad is tired and sad, like Ger and me, but he’s 86 years old and carrying a heavy weight today.
“Yes,” I tell Father. “I saw the note you left the day you anointed my mom. It was in her drawer. Thank you.”
He asks Ger and me where we live, and we tell him. My wish is granted: he does not ask where we go to church. Our job when we leave is to figure out which grandchildren will read the Gospel and bring up the bread and wine at offertory for Mom’s funeral mass. I tell Father Victor I will send him more personal information about Mom for his homily. Dad doesn’t want anyone from the family to speak at Mom’s funeral.
“I can’t take that,” he says and leaks tears again. We honor his wishes and trust that Father Victor will do my mom’s life justice during his mass. My only concern is that Dad won’t understand a word of it.
We choose a flower shop on the way to Golden Age, and it happens to be run by the daughter of our old neighbor. She gives Ger and me a book of flower arrangements to look through. My dad spots the bowl of free Tootsie Rolls and puts one in his mouth. And then another. He looks around at the art work.
We are more overwhelmed here than we were at the funeral home. I want to say to the owner, “You choose. My mom just died.”
“Think about what she liked,” the flower woman says gently. Mom liked every flower, I think to myself.
Ger says, “She liked every kind of flower.”
“What price range are you thinking?” she asks.
My dad says, “I want a one-hundred dollar flower on her casket and two fifty-dollar flowers on either side.” Smart way of doing it, I think to myself.
“That’s smart,” Ger says.
Next I say or maybe Ger says, “Just make them look pretty.”
We tell her that we need one to say Wife, Mother, Grandmother, and Great-grandmother. “Did you call her Mom?” she asks. She means for the ribbons on the flower arrangements. Ger and I nod.
“No. Granny,” Ger says.
Our next stop is Golden Age to clean out my mom’s room. The plan is that we’ll take her clothes and personals, and Joey will come later with his truck to get our few chairs and end tables.
It’s just after lunch time, before the afternoon activity begins—nail painting, singing, or Dominoes. The two CNA’s come to Mom’s room and say how sorry they are. Dad’s bottom lip quivers. He puts his head down and boxes up the contents of Mom’s drawers.
As Ger sorts through Mom’s closet, I say, “The three of us are here, just like the day Mom moved in. Remember?”
That day—July 7, 2011—Geralynn and I dressed Mom in a colorful outfit and brought her to Golden Age after lunch. Dad met us here. It occurs to me that Mom arrived on a Thursday and left here on a Thursday: September 20, 2012. Now we make piles of Mom’s clothes, items we want to bring home. We leave most of her pants and shirts and sweaters in the closet. Her initials, “VS,” will be crossed out with permanent marker and new ones written in after her clothes are distributed to other residents. Some women are still at home with their families, women who don’t yet know that Golden Age will be their final destination.
My dad brings a large red wagon for us to load our bags and boxes, just like we did on move in day. We leave without ceremony. The door buzzes, and we close it behind us.
As we pull away from Golden Age, I remind Ger and Dad of the day I backed into the fence in this parking lot. “Dad made me leave the scene of an accident,” I say. He laughs.
It was the day after we moved Mom to Golden Age. Dad and I visited together, since we had not yet established our individual patterns for seeing Mom. Everything was new and awful.
I’d only had my Jeep for a few days, and I wasn’t yet comfortable driving it. When we left, I didn’t crank my steering wheel quite enough and my back bumper lurched into the wooden fence which marked the edge of the small parking lot. “Son of a bitch,” I said—one of the only times I’ve sworn in front of my dad. I could see in my mirror that I broke a piece of the fence completely in half. I put my Jeep in park, intending to get out and survey the damage.
“What are you doing?” Dad said. “Just keep going.”
I put my car in drive and hit the gas. There’s no way Dad would recall that he had his hand resting on the dashboard in front of him when he said to me, “Don’t look back.”