Ceremony

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 kitchenWhy 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.”

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Posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Brothers and sisters, Caregiving, Death and dying, Family, Fathers and daughters, Generation X, Husbands and wives, Mothers and daughters, Mothers and sons, Sandwich Generation, Sisters, Terminal Illness | 1 Comment

Zombie Girl

I put one foot in front of the other, my body in forward motion.  My head is lost.  There is no other word.  I find myself wondering Did I say that out loud or just think it?  To compensate I say, “I’m sorry if I told you this . . . ”

Yesterday on my way to the grocery store, I realized I was still wearing my bedroom slippers.  This morning I accidentally put a CFL light bulb in my clothes dryer.  Days ago I set it on top of my washing machine, and today when I put wet clothes on the washer, it clung to them as I moved my pile into the dryer.  At first when I heard that familiar clink as clothes tumbled, I thought I left some coins in a pocket.  When I opened the door to see the many broken pieces of a light bulb, I wanted to crumble on the floor.  My mom died, and now I have a frickin’ broken light bulb and mercury fumes all over clean wet clothes in my dryer?!

I went upstairs and told my husband, who got up from his laptop and gave me a good, long hug.  Then we  Googled “Clean up CFL light bulb.”  Big surprise: “in a dryer” was not one of the millions of options.

It’s the weekend, and I have my usual weekend chores.  Still, I can’t wait to get to my dad’s and just be there with my siblings.  We share the ultimate experience: Mom died.   It’s not funny to me when I say it at home alone.  My grief comes in waves.  When I finally put my head in the dryer to pick up broken slivers of light bulb glass, I sob and sob.

 ~

Tonight at Dad’s, Ger and I sit so close to each other on the couch that our thighs and arms touch.  We have a photo album between us and a beer in our hands.  We’re flipping through pages searching for pictures of Mom.  Ger went through her own albums last night and brought over a stack of old photos.  Now she says, “In every one Mom has a baby on her lap.”  I pour over them.  In my favorite, Mom has four of her grandbabies—ranging in age from twelve to eighteen months—lined up on the diningroom table in front of her.

My sisters who live away—Juliann, Sharon and Jackie—have arrived.  We’re waiting for David and Mary to come from across town.  I tell my sisters that Mom’s last words to me were “God dammit.”  I make my voice sound like a possessed woman in a horror flick, like the Zombie Girl I seem to be these last three days since she died.  “God dammit,” I say again.  Everyone laughs.  “She really didn’t want me to take her teeth out that night.”  Mom never swore until she got Alzheimer’s, and it was funny to me every time.  I never imagined a swear word would be the last thing she said to me.

1978: I’m ten and looking at a photo album with my mom.  David sits near us.

We look at more albums and drink more beer.  Since my mom died, I’ve been fueled by adrenaline and Miller Lite.  We can’t seem to choose which photos of Mom we’ll use, so we agree to take out all of the photos we might use.  Each of us has a stack  next to her.

Later in the day Ger says, “I almost forgot to tell you.  Mom’s last words to me were, ‘I love you, Geralynn.’”

I tear up.  “Really?”

She nods.  “Then Mom said, ‘And you’re my favorite.’”  Everyone moans.  She so got us.  We’ve played this I’m their favorite child game for years.  I am ready to award Ger the ultimate winner.  Instead I scream, “You bitch.”  Everyone laughs some more.  “You had me at I love you.  Look—YOU made me cry.  And my mom died.”  We howl with laughter.

After supper, David brings old home movies that he has recently transferred from VHS to DVD.  We gather in Dad’s livingroom and watch as our parents open gifts at their fiftieth wedding anniversary party fourteen years ago.  Mom is chubbier than I remember.  Her voice is strong, almost shrill.  After their gifts are open, she dramatically tries to fit her foot into the tiny wedding sandals she wore in 1948 when she was eighteen.  We dug these out of her attic, I remember now, and in the background hang Mom’s wedding dress and Dad’s wedding suit, which my brother suspended from the ceiling as anniversary decorations.  “Cinderella,” she is saying.  She can’t quite get the words out given her laughter.  “Cinderella.”  We can’t hear Dad over Mom’s cackles, but we can see him wiping his nose.

Dad says now, “I must have had a cold.”  He’s in his lift chair, an oversized recliner with an electric lift that allows him to easily get out of it.  I’m sitting on the floor at his feet.  We’ve got about fifteen family members packed into his livingroom to watch David’s videos.

“You were crying,” I say over my shoulder.  We all watch him hand his Kleenex to Mom, and she takes off her glasses and wipes her eyes.  She’s crying from laughing so hard.   In the video, my son and his cousins are first or second graders who jump up and down beneath the camera so just the tops of their heads appear on film, as if on a trampoline.  We watch this, and laugh and laugh at these little boys, now college students.  Men.  I miss my mom, but at this moment I could weep just at the passage of time.

The next video shows Christmas Eve at David’s house, and our parents are there delivering gifts to his four little ones.  His youngest, Evin, is four years old and as soon as he unwraps a “jogging suit” from his grandparents, he strips to his socks and underwear and puts on his new clothes.

Tonight, we roar with laughter, but the people in the video don’t even seem to notice Evin changing his clothes.  I’d forgotten so much:  that Mom and Dad gave each of their 16 grandkids a red garbage bag full of gifts—that this was how Mom “wrapped.”  They delivered gifts on Christmas Eve to each of their five local kids’ houses.  Evin runs a wide lap around the room as David records.  “Dad,” he is saying, “Dad.  I got a jogging suit.  I’m jogging.”  My mom is so pleased that he loves her gift.  She tells Evin’s brother to stop it when he tries to interrupt Evin’s jog.  Her sharp tone is one my siblings and I all recognize.  We scream with laughter.

Tomorrow we’ll see Mom for the last time, in her casket.  Tonight we watch her on the TV screen because of a treasure David brought for us in his coat pocket.  I’m not sad, here in Dad’s  living room, where thoughts of “personal space” disintegrate when we all pack in.  Sometimes on holidays all these people make the house claustrophobic and the air so heavy we have to open the front and back doors, not just because of the body heat but because if we don’t the  house may explode.  Tonight it feels good, close, just what I need.

I sit on the floor with my nieces, all in their twenties, though on the screen they are little girls in bib overall shorts and funny glasses.  Some sisters are squeezed on the couch.  Someone leans against a paneled wall. Guys stand around tonight—one hand in a jeans pocket, one hand wrapped around a beer—just like they do in the video.

Posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Brothers and sisters, Caregiving, Death and dying, Family, Fathers and daughters, Generation X, Husbands and wives, Mothers and daughters, Mothers and sons, Sandwich Generation, Sisters, Terminal Illness | 4 Comments

Phone Ticks

My sister, Juliann, called me six times in the 36 hours since Mom died.  I lost track of the number of emails she sent.  She wrote to offer advice about planning the funeral and the flowers and the photo boards.  Then she called to hear how it went planning the funeral and the flowers and the photo boards.  Being four hours away is difficult for her, especially now.  After one call, which I take at Dad’s kitchen table while we’re eating lunch, he says, “It’s about killing her not being here.”  I nod.  She doesn’t want to miss anything.

Juliann calls for the last time, just an hour before she’ll get in the car to drive here.  When I pick up she says, “Am I being a woodtick?”  She cackles into the phone in a way that reminds me so much of our mother.  Woodtick was my nickname as a clingy kid.

“You’re my phone-tick,” I say.  “Call anytime.  I know how hard it is to be away.”

I tell her we saved the photo boards for her to put together for the funeral, so she’ll have a job when she arrives.

Since Mom died, I’ve called Ger a few times, and I’ve been with her often.  On Friday night—after going with her to the funeral home, the church, the flower store, and Golden Age—I resist calling to ask, “How are you doing now?”  On Saturday morning I pick up my phone to call her, and she’s dialing me.  Later I call to ask when she’s going to Dad’s.  I call about what I should bring to Dad’s.  I am her phone-tick. She is my link to Mom.

When I was maybe four or five years old and our parents went out, Geralynn was often in charge of David and me.  At bedtime, she’d hold me in the old rocking chair, and I’d say to her, “You’re too bony.  You’re not like Mom.”  She was fifteen.  I can remember the way my face felt against her thin shoulder.  I could never find a comfortable spot, mostly because she didn’t have nearly the “padding” that Mom did.  Large families like ours functioned because older kids took care of younger ones.  My mom used to say that I had five other mothers: my older sisters.

Patti and Ger, 1973.  I’m 5 and “clingy.”  She’s 15 and “bony.”

Saturday when I get to my dad’s his driveway is full of cars, so I park on his front lawn.  When we used to bring Mom home from the nursing home I parked in this spot, right next to the front door so we could easily walk her up the four front steps and into the living room.  When she could no longer walk, her son or my son carried her from car to house and back again.

Today Joey and his wife park on the street and walk towards my Jeep as I unload my food and drinks.    “Why’d you park there?”  Joey asks me.

I shrug.  “Cause my mom died.”

He bursts out laughing.  It quickly becomes my phrase of the day. Want another chicken legSure, my mom died.

Joey carries my case of Miller Lite into the house.

Early this morning my neighbor called to see when she could drop off food for my dad.  His neighbors did the same.  These are items we rarely eat: fried chicken with deed-fried potato wedges—what we Midwesterners call “jo-jo’s”—maple Danish, brownies with thick chocolate frosting.  Delicious, but terrible for us, as if when a loved one dies all dietary rules are suspended until after the funeral.  There’s an ice cream bucket full of pasta salad, a bowl of fruit, coleslaw, pumpkin bread.  Every time I open the fridge I spot more food and think of that Harper Lee line from To Kill a Mockingbird, “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between.”

We all sit around Dad’s kitchen table, a smorgasbord laid before us.  Joey and his wife eat a piece of fried chicken over a napkin.  My dad nibbles on whatever gets passed around.  Trays of sliced summer sausage and cheese or cut up vegetables.  I notice bakery buns with the price tag scraped off of the plastic wrapper.  This minute detail, a gesture between neighbors, makes me choke up alone in the kitchen.

My son stops over before he goes out for the night.  He eats two pieces of fried chicken over a large Styrofoam container, the top warped from the heat of the chicken or the warming lamp.  He gathers his bones in a napkin to throw away and saves the remaining thigh and breast pieces for someone else.  This is a family affair.  No one uses a plate.

“Have a donut,” I say.  “Your grandma died.”  My dad giggles.  Alex stares at me.

“I was going for funny,” I say to Alex.  Dad laughs some more.

I pack two huge maple Danish for my son to take home.  I’ve been divorced for over seven years, but whenever I give Alex food I still send enough to share with his dad.  My ex-husband lives just down the street; technically he’s my dad’s neighbor.

Ger and I are supposed to be looking through old photo albums so Juliann can make a photo board for the visitation at the church.  We plan to take framed photos of Mom and the family and as many pictures as we can arrange on the 3-foot by 3-foot fabric-covered boards the Horan brothers gave us.  Instead we sit at the table, drink beer, and talk about food.  I’m tipsy on two beers.  “I’ll have another,” I say to Ger.  “My mom died.”  We laugh and laugh.

My husband arrives in the midst of our second round of grazing.  He’s still new to this family and to all of these people packed in a relatively small space.  He sits at the table and everyone passes him chicken and coleslaw and jo-jo’s.  He’s a guest, so I offer him a plate.

Posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Brothers and sisters, Caregiving, Death and dying, Family, Fathers and daughters, Generation X, Husbands and wives, Mothers and daughters, Sandwich Generation, Sisters, Terminal Illness | 9 Comments

Don’t Look Back

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.

“Grandma?”

“No.  Granny,” Ger says.

One of Mom’s bouquets.

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.”

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A Condo Overlooking Leinenkugel’s

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.

Posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Caregiving, Death and dying, Family, Fathers and daughters, Generation X, Husbands and wives, Mothers and daughters, Sandwich Generation, Sisters, Terminal Illness | Leave a comment

Prayer for the Departed

I wrote my mom’s obituary over a year ago when she first went to Golden Age.  We suspected she was going there to die, but she lasted another fourteen months.

Four days before she died, I gave a printed copy of what I’d written to my dad.  “Let me know what you think and we can talk later,” I told him.  I didn’t want to be there when he read it.

I come back to Dad’s on Thursday, after I visit Mom at Golden Age.  I don’t know yet that it will be the last time I see her alive.

He has my printed pages on his kitchen table, and I notice his hand-written lines in the margin.  He wants to add something about the CNA staff who were so kind to him when Mom first went to the nursing home.

“Is that good?” he asks me.

“Very sweet,” I say.  I swallow hard.  I don’t have to hide my tears from him, but the last thing he needs is a blubbery daughter.

“Now we just have to fill in the blanks,” he says.  I know he means the date of her death.  I tell him that I really want to print a “before and after” photograph of her with the obituary.

“Why?” he says, in a tone that usually means “no way.”

“Because I love those young and old photos in obituaries.”

“Okay,” he says, “but I get to choose the picture.”  He instructs me to go to his buffet where he has arranged framed photographs of my mom and him from throughout the years. “The one next to our wedding picture,” he yells to me from the dining room.

I tear up when I see it.  My mom is maybe sixteen, in a studio portrait I suspect my dad paid for when they were dating.  She is wearing a necklace he bought for her, his first gift.  He told me once that it cost $100 dollars, but he got it on sale for $25—big money in 1946.  My sisters and I have known for years that he wants this necklace on Mom in her coffin.

I bring him the framed photo.  “That’s the one,” he says. Neither of us knows that Mom will be dead four hours from now.

I tell him that the other photo should be from their church portrait taken in 2008.  “But I’m in it,” he says.  I tell him we can crop him out.  I tease, “You’re far enough away that your arm and ear won’t show.”  Like me, he reads enough obits to notice pieces of family members in so many photos of the dead.

Joe and Virgie, 2008.

I have always loved obituaries.  As a writer, I find it intriguing that a person’s life can be reduced to 500 words or fewer.

What follows is my mom’s obituary, which appeared in our local newspapers and in one near her childhood home:

After a long, fierce struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Virgiline See, 82, passed away on September 20, 2012 at Golden Age Assisted Living, where she lived for the last 14 months.  Her husband was a faithful caregiver since she was diagnosed nine years ago.

Virgie was born at home on the farm on April 22, 1930 to Ignatz and Anna (Altman) Weinfurter in Sherry, WI, the eleventh of fifteen children.  Both of her parents died before she was ten, but Virgie always recalled her childhood as a fun time with lots of brothers and sisters.  She loved school and was spelling bee champion of St. Killian’s Grade School.

She met Joseph See when she was fourteen.  They married four years later on September 1, 1948, and moved to Chippewa Falls where they had over 64 years together.  Her life’s work was being a wife, mother, and granny.    She volunteered many hours of her time to Holy Ghost Church and Grade School.  She always shared part of whatever she had.

Virgie loved God and babies and old people (long before she was one).  Her purse was ready whenever she got a call to go somewhere.  She liked being at the camper at Six Lakes Resort to fish and play cards and take a daily shake at the tavern.  She liked spending winters in Florida with Joe and having her kids and grandkids visit.  She liked gambling and thrift sales and flea markets and finding a bargain, or, better yet, getting something for free.  She never saw anything as “junk,” and she was reusing, recycling, and saving long before it was called “going green.”   She talked to everyone, and she made friends wherever she went.  She had great patience with children, and above all else she believed in the power of prayer.  She welcomed anyone who visited her home, and she often said goodbye with a sweet, “Nice seein’ ya.”  She hated to miss anything.  She loved to laugh and did it often.

She is survived by her husband, Joe, and their eight children: Sharon See, Jackie See, Mary (Dan) Goulet, Juliann (Jim) Goelden, Joseph Jr. (Tami) See, Geralynn (Tim) Schemenauer, David (Lauri) See, and Patti See (Bruce Taylor).  Virgie was a proud grandma of sixteen grandchildren: Candice (Bill) Seder;  Katie (Jon) Kester;  Robin (Eric) Prince;  Karri (Matt) Wold; Lauren Goelden (fiancé Ryan Bice) and Marissa Goelden (fiancé Taylor Kotke); Alex Thornton; Nick, Jaimie, and Justin Schemenauer; and Christen (fiancé  Dave McIlovy) , Jennifer, Codie, Mitch, Audra,  and Evin See; and of seven great-grandchildren: Madison,  Katelyn, Nolan, Owen,  Kambria, Denim, and Olive.  She is also survived by brothers and sisters Ida Klawakowski, Evelyn Dobbs, Bernice (Robert) Schroedel, Helen Chapek, LaVerne “Vernie” (Joan) Weinfurter, Leo “Sonny” (Kathy) Weinfurter, Violet (Dick) Zabel; by in-laws Doris See, Jim (Clarabell) See, Jeanette (Clem) Santoski; and many other relatives and friends.

She was preceded in death by her parents and seven siblings: Delores (in infancy), Carl, Raymond, Sylvester, and Hilary Weinfurter; Mary Cummings; Rita Kudinger; and numerous brothers and sisters-in-law.

Virgie’s family would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital Hospice and at Golden Age—especially Camel, who made the transition from one home to another much easier, and Sammy, who often met Joe at the door with a cup of coffee.

Memorials in Virgie’s honor may be made as follows:  bake a batch of cookies and give them away, drop everything and go on a trip even if your kitchen floor needs to be scrubbed, help out a stranger’s kid, stay out in the boat a little longer and catch another big one.

Posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Brothers and sisters, Caregiving, Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Death and dying, Family, Fathers and daughters, Generation X, Husbands and wives, Mothers and daughters, Nursing Home, Sandwich Generation, Terminal Illness | 5 Comments

Last Day

I sit with Mom on Thursday after work.  She’s sleeping so deeply that even when I put a wet sponge in her open mouth to moisten it, she doesn’t stir.  I wash her face with a warm wash cloth and rub lotion on her face and neck.  Even since my last visit two days ago her face feels smaller in my hands.  While Mom sleeps I call my sister, Juliann, and put her on speaker phone.  Somehow I think our loud, familiar voices might rouse Mom.  I set my phone on the table next to Mom’s bed, and I use both of my hands to rub her body through her blankets while Juliann and I talk.  Though she was here just four days ago, I know how difficult it is for Juliann to be four hours away.  We talk on and on.   This was our Saturday ritual for the last fourteen months that Mom lived here: I visit Mom at lunch time, and I put Juliann on speaker phone for Mom to listen.  Before Mom lived at Golden Age, I used to give her Saturday baths at home and while Mom lounged in the livingroom in her robe, we talked to Juliann on the speaker phone.  It was just like she was in the room with Mom.

“Dad’s good,” I tell my sister today.  It’s what she needs to hear, and today it also happens to be true.  He was with Mom earlier, and she didn’t wake up.  He has lunch plans tomorrow with old friends.  I wrote Mom’s obituary, and he added a few things.  “We just have to fill in the blanks,” he said.  He means the date on which she dies.

Mom wore this Virgin Mary necklace for about the last seven years.  She had it on when she died.

Tonight when I walk out Mom’s door, I realize I haven’t said goodbye.  I go back and kiss her on the eyelid.  “See you, Mama.”

My sister Geralynn visits after me, and she overlaps with our sister Mary and a great grandson.

Geralynn calls me when she gets home and we make plans to visit Mom this weekend at the same time.  I say, “It’s so much better if we go together.”  What I mean is, I hate waiting more than anything in the world, and we are waiting for Mom to die.   “Mom must have a strong heart,” Geralynn says.  We can’t believe she survived this long.

I’m so exhausted that I go to bed around 9:30.  At 11:00 I dream my phone is ringing.  I pick up just as someone hangs up.  I see the number and know it’s the nursing home.  “This is it,” I say to my husband.  “I’m sure my mom died.”  I call the number back and a CNA says, “Your dad didn’t answer.  We didn’t want to leave a message. Virgie’s gone.”  I call Geralynn, who I know will realize our mother is dead as soon as she sees my name on her phone at this time of night.  Then I call David.  He once told me he never answers the phone because he doesn’t want to get “the call.”  He answers immediately.  The curse of caller ID is that we guess bad news before we hear a voice.   David says he will call Joey.

I slip out of my pajama bottoms and pick today’s pants out of the hamper and put them on. I dig in a drawer for a sweatshirt and wonder if this CNA happened to check on Mom and notice she wasn’t breathing.  What if she was dead this whole time, and I didn’t know it.  I was putting away laundry or brushing my teeth, and my mom was dead.  I’m not sure why that troubles me so.

In the car I call Juliann.  Then I call my dad.  He answers on the second ring.  “I’m coming to pick you up,” I say.

“Why?”

“Mom died.”

“I’ll be dressed when you get here,” he says.

I pick up Geralynn, and then we both go in to get Dad.  He’s standing in the kitchen with his  coat on. “After you,” he says and ushers us out the door.

Dad’s in the passenger seat, and Ger’s in the back.  I feel like I have to say something.  “I’m so glad this is over,” I say to Dad.

“Tears of joy,” Dad says.  He looks out the window.  I realize that I rarely drive this late at night. Our small town is quaint and lovely at this hour.  We’re the only car on the road, and my mom is dead.

We walk into Mom’s room, and Mary and her daughter, Karri, are sitting in chairs across from Mom.  “We were here when she died,” Mary says.  I throw my arms around her neck.  “I’m so glad you were with Mom,” I say.

“I just got done reading your blog to my mom and Grandma,” Karri says to me.  They noticed Mom’s breathing changed, and then nothing.  In other circumstances I might make a joke that it  was cause and effect.  My writing might put someone to sleep, but never this.

Mom looks exactly like she did 5 hours ago when I was here, except her quilts are not moving with each breath.  I touch her face and her hair.  I take my turn with her and then move to another side of the room, so another child can be near her.

Soon Joey and his wife then David and his wife arrive.  Dad opens a folding lawn chair near mom’s bed and sits down.  I call my other sisters, Sharon and Jackie, who live away.

“You sit for awhile,” we take turns saying to each other.  There are ten of us here and four chairs.  We are somber but nobody cries.  Mostly we laugh, a nervous response, or simply what we do best together.  A hospice nurse asks when we want the undertaker called.  “It takes about 30 minutes for someone to get here for the body, once I make the call,” she says.

Dad says, “I got my pants on in 30 seconds.  What’s his problem?”  We laugh some more.

It’s after midnight and I realize my son may be ending his bartending shift soon.  I call, and he doesn’t pick up.  He calls me back. “Grandma died,” I say.

“I’ll be right there.” I didn’t expect this response, but I’m so glad to have him near.

As I wait for Alex, I look at my watch and hope the undertaker doesn’t show before my son does.  I don’t recall the time that either was called.  I’m tired and flighty and maybe a little bit high on adrenaline.  Alex comes in the front door ten minutes later.  I give him a hug and thank him for coming.  He says that he knew about Grandma as soon as he saw my call.  “I could have had great suggestions for your religious studies paper,” I tease. He sent me his paper right before I visited my mom this afternoon, and he asked for a read-through.  “Maybe something that couldn’t wait till morning.”

When the undertaker arrives, he shakes Dad’s hand and offers condolences.   We make plans to go to the funeral home at 11 am the next day.  “You can bring her dress and undergarments then,” the undertaker says.  Dad looks at me.  We both know that we gave away all of my mom’s underwear at least a year ago.  I look at a sister-in-law, who ended up with most of them.  “We can get some,” I say to Dad.  I don’t want to explain to this stranger that Mom’s been in diapers for longer than a year, and Dad offered her underwear to other family members.

Dad says to the undertaker, “Why does she need underwear?  No one’s gonna lift her dress and look.”  We all laugh.

I’m sure this guy deals with many family members who are relieved when a long-suffering Mom or Dad finally dies, but perhaps none so punchy as we are right now. It’s 1 in the morning, and our dead mother is lying inches from us, quilts covering everything but her face.  We carry on our conversation as if we always gather in this tiny room at this hour with a corpse.  Dad puts Mom’s glasses in his shirt pocket, and I slip her dentures in my coat pocket.  We’ll need both when we visit the funeral home tomorrow.

We file out of Mom’s room and some of us linger in the hallway.  “Do you need me to go tomorrow?” a brother asks.  “I think we’re set,” I say.  Dad walks out the front door and the familiar alarm buzzes and buzzes.  He’s ready to get home.

“Bus is leavin’,” Dad says to me, what he used to say to Mom each time he was heading out to start the car and wait for her.

Posted in Aging Parents, Alzheimer's Disease, Brothers and sisters, Caregiving, Death and dying, Family, Fathers and daughters, Generation X, Husbands and wives, Mothers and daughters, Mothers and sons, Nursing Home, Sandwich Generation, Sisters, Terminal Illness | Tagged , | 8 Comments