The night before my mom’s funeral, I sit at my kitchen counter drinking beer and listening to audio recordings I made of her throughout the last three years. She died late on Thursday night, and now it’s Sunday. For the past four weeks, I have not gone this long without seeing my mom. Tomorrow at the funeral I’ll see her for the last time. I can’t wrap my mind around that, so I sit at the counter and let my mother’s voice fill my kitchen.
“You’re a good person,” Mom says to me. It’s May of 2010, and she’s in her complimentary phase. Then she says, “Aren’t you lucky. You made yourself that way, didn’t you?”
“You had a little to do with it,” I tell her.
After each time I recorded her and my dad, I’d come home and load the MP3’s onto my computer and listen, usually like this, late at night. Somehow my audio recordings are more intimate than video.
Earlier this evening I sat in my dad’s livingroom with my family and watched home movies. In one, it’s Christmas day at my parent’s house, and Mom opens a gift from David and his family: a new fishing rod. She sits on the couch, moving the rod up and down, as if she is fishing on the carpet. She laughs and laughs. She’s got her apron on. It’s after lunch. I’m nowhere in the shot, though my first husband is there, sitting on a footstool at the edge of the livingroom. This was a lifetime ago. As I watch, I wonder, Am I washing dishes in the kitchen? Why did I miss this with Mom?
Long before Mom died, my dad decided not to have a wake the night before her funeral but to have a “visitation” or “viewing” for two hours before the service. “Not enough tears for two days,” he said. We all agreed.
Historically a wake was for family and friends to view the body of a loved one and to keep watch over it, usually at home. In some cultures, a wake allowed time to make sure the person was truly dead, and sometimes a bell was attached to the body with string so family would hear if the person stirred. Some cultures believed the watch vigil was for family to protect the body from demons until the person’s spirit crossed over.
My mom once told me that when she was a little girl, the most afraid she’d ever been was when her parents were laid out in their coffins in the family living room. I never knew to ask if she lay in bed with her sisters, all night listening for a tinkling of the bell that meant this had all been a terrible mistake. Her mom was alive.
When I leave my house on the morning of the funeral, I pass Slim’s Saddle Bar, where the barstools used to be topped with real saddles until some drunk fell off and sued. Even before 9 am there’s a group of people on the front porch smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. They are just off the 11 to 7 shift, I’d guess, and having a few drinks before bed. No one knows I’m on the way to my mom’s funeral, and for not the last time today, I will realize it’s just another Monday to the rest of the world.
I pick up my son. As a pall bearer, he has to arrive early to carry his grandma into church. We gather with my dad and all of my siblings and their spouses and children and grandchildren in the vestibule. We See’s make a crowd.
“I’ve got Mom’s purse with me today,” I say to my sister. I hold it up.
“I’m wearing her dress,” a sister says. It’s a lovely navy blue print from 1950 or so, when Mom was a size five.
“I’m wearing her earrings,” another sister says. These are sweet tributes, part of our own ceremony, though none of us told the others we were going to do this.
“I’m not wearing her underwear,” Geralynn says. We all laugh.
My son and his cousins go out to the hearse to get their grandma. Last night we estimated the weight: if Mom is 80 pounds and the casket is 220, then the six grandkids can sure lift fifty pounds each.
When they carry her in, a sister says, “There she is,” as if Mom’s been missing.
Her casket seems too small to hold a body. My hands feel enormous. Everything is slightly fuzzy around the edges. For a moment I think I might pass out.
The pall bearers rest the casket on a cart and push Mom up to the altar. The Horan brothers open her casket for our family viewing. This is the moment I have dreaded: seeing her “laid out.” I stand next to my dad. I hear a brother suck in his breath and walk away. We’ve got about thirty minutes with Mom until guests start to arrive. Let’s just get through this, is all I can think.
“She’s pretty,” I say to my sisters.
Dad didn’t want anyone to take photos of Mom her last two weeks of life, given her lack of dentures and empty stare. Today, she is beautiful. Anyone who knows her well knows this isn’t how she looked, but she is lovely. The Horan brothers have filled in her cheeks—no longer the hollowed out features of a person starving to death—and they’ve given her back her large bust. The first thing I notice when I see her in the casket is these breasts standing at attention.
My siblings and I gather around Dad. “Who brought a camera?” he says. “I did,” I tell him.
He says, “Now you can take her picture.”