“I’ve decided to buy an insurance policy that will cover my cremation,” says my mother, wearing a white sweatshirt with a green appliquéd snowman on it. She looks at me through her bifocals. “You don’t have any problem with cremation do you?”
I do. But apparently the whole family had determined that I didn’t. “Well,” I say. “Actually -- ”
“Funerals are terribly expensive,” she says. “They can be $12,000. That’s just stupid to spend that kind of money to put me in the ground. I’m already dead. I won’t know.”
I don’t disagree, but …
One of the numerous drugstore singing Christmas clocks that decorate our house at Christmas time goes off. O Come All Ye Faithful.
Maybe it will be different this time. I’m not nineteen like I was when dad died. I don’t live in the same town as my mother anymore. I have always assumed it will be different when she dies for all the obvious factors, plus my maybe naïve one that I will be better prepared because of all the work I’ve done. I will be better prepared by the simple fact that I’ve done it before.
I went to the cemetery to visit dad’s grave a lot the first few years. I liked sitting in front of the stone on top of his body. I don’t believe he’s down there. I know there’s six feet of earth and a coffin between us, and I know I don’t want to know what his body looks like now, but I was comforted nonetheless, knowing I was close, physically close, to something that had at one time been him. I brought a tape recorder to the cemetery and played music for him, read letters to him, just sat with him until the sun went down. His body was comforting to me. The bodies of the others held me. His body surrounded by living earth healed me. I smelled the earth grow damp with dusk, watched the sun set, listened to the jackrabbits in the oleander bushes. I sat with the dead, but I was surrounded by life. It helped to see everything hadn’t died. I watched two rabbits chase each other, hopping over the gravestones, whiskers twitching. I laughed. Other mourners came. Some sat. Some cried. Some yelled. But they lived, too.
I sat with the dead, but I saw life.
I stayed all night at the cemetery the day I decided to move from Phoenix. I watched the moonrise splash the stones. Chapel chimes rang every fifteen minutes. I brought a final gift to place in the earth beside his stone.
I had separated.
When I finished my final vigil, I got in my car, drove home, and began to pack. I haven’t been back since. I have separated. The earth, the night, the jackrabbits, the moon and the sun helped me do that.
Of course I couldn’t argue with the practicality of not spending $12,000 on a funeral. My mother is nothing if not bone-numbingly practical. I don’t know how she grieves, but for me, grief hasn’t proven to be practical at all.
“You never had a problem with cremation,” my sister says. “It was me.”
It was me. Maybe it was her too. I honestly don’t remember.
Here’s what I’m certain of:
I am attached to bodies. I don’t think I would have gone to a columbarium and played music to an urn in a wall. I don’t think I would have gone to a columbarium to tell dad mom was getting married again, or that I was leaving town. I would not have sat and prayed to the earth in a space made of concrete and stone. If my mother is cremated, I will be one of those people who takes some of the ashes and puts them in a blown glass vial and wears it around her neck.
I know now, after having done this before, that I would know when to take it off. But there’s that space – that indefinite amount of time – when it’s up to us, the living, to do the separating. If the body becomes ashes before its natural time to turn to dust, then aren’t the dead doing the separating for us?
“You should start thinking about making a trust to turn your assets over to us,” says my sister. “So the state can’t take anything.” She’s a lawyer. My mother is sixty-four. She’s healthy. We’re not millionaires.
To be fair, the comment isn’t as cold as it sounds. We would never keep money from our mother, and it’s true, unprotected funds can be used for health care expenses until the person is destitute. My sister works for the indigent health care plan of the state. She knows what happens. None of us wants that.
This isn’t necessarily a strange topic of conversation for a family, but…
Another singing Christmas clock. This one is round, white with green trim, with a Christmas tree in the center whose branches serve as arms for the clock. Silent Night.
I have visions of my mother, in her need to be prepared and fair, putting sticky notes on every piece of furniture, every dish. Green for me. Yellow for my sister. I’d read of someone doing this in a short story. If I remember, the children in the story still disputed over who got what.
“I want the nativity scene,” says my sister.
Together, we turn to the table to look at it. It’s made of industrial strength cardboard and is now falling apart. The orange hay is glued to the floor. It was our mother’s when she was growing up in Brooklyn. I remember getting down on the green- carpeted floor of our house in Charlotte and playing with the manger figures. An angel hung above the barn. She was pretty, but sharp because of the pin on the back to hold her up above the star. Two other angels, without pins, stood safely outside the manger. There was a cow and a donkey, three wise men, two shepherds with a few sheep, quite a few of which now had broken or missing legs. There was Mary, in her standard issue blue gown, and Joseph in predictable orange. He matched the hay. The baby Jesus grinned from a bed of Big Bird yellow hay, apparently quite pleased to be stuck all over his body with hay needles.
“Fine, then,” I say, surprising myself. “I want the baby Jesus.”
Everyone looks at me.
“You what?” asks my mother.
“You’re not even Christian!” says my sister.
It’s true. I’m not. I just, in my three-year-old space, don’t want her to have the complete set. I have no attachment to the Christmas story. I have despised Christmas, in exponential increments, every year of my life. But I do remember holding that baby Jesus figure, stroking the smoothness of his belly and head. He was the only thing bright in the manger. Every other figure was painted with muted colors. His blonde hair and blue eyes (something which today causes me to groan) popped from his hay bed. He looked sweet and friendly. I didn’t want him to save me. I wanted him to have a happy life. From everything I’d read, it didn’t turn out so well. You can live your own life. I used to whisper to the figure. You’re not responsible for us.
The Singing Santa stationed by the front door, dressed in red from his hat to his boots, begins to sway from right to left. Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Indeed.
I didn’t have a particularly bad Christmas experience (if you don’t count the one when I was twenty-five and my mother told everyone I wanted socks for Christmas because she forgot who she told what to and I ended up with fifteen pairs of socks and nothing else). I resent, I suppose, the idea of forced family. I see my mother and sister regularly. I talk to them on the phone. I don’t really want to support the idea of mandatory consumerism. Not because I’m pious and believe in the essence of Christmas. But because, I guess, I believe life is continuous, not observed on a single day.
What will the baby Jesus figure save me from if I have it with me after my mother dies?
My stepfather offers wine. For once, we all take it.
“I don’t understand, Laraine,” says my sister. “What problem do you have with cremation?”
I feel my throat tighten. I’ve seen a cremation. When I trained to do grief counseling, I had to spend some time at a mortuary. I’ve seen embalming. I don’t have any doubt that the body is empty when either is performed. I know what my problem with it is, but I’m the oldest child and it’s my job to make sure that everyone else’s needs are met first. My mother is an oldest child, and that’s what she is trying to do – save us from unnecessary stress and financial obligation when there is nothing left to be done. She’s trying to be good. She always tries to be good. She leaves no trace of having been somewhere. She leaves a park bench cleaner than when she found it. She looks around to make sure she hasn’t forgotten anything when she visits. She erases as she goes. In some ways, I do this too. I don’t want anyone else to be obligated to care for me or to pick up after me. I am self-reliant. Don’t leave up to others what you can do yourself. My internal mantra.
Paying for her own cremation is my mother’s self-reliance. She will erase herself forever. She will think it is easier for us that way.
“It’s fine,” I say.
“But I don’t understand.”
“ It doesn’t matter.”
My mother is about to launch into a story about an expensive funeral she attended recently. Lately, she’s been very concerned about the cost of long-term care, funerals, hospitals. She’s been very clear on wanting no extraordinary measures if she is in a terminal condition.
We’re all in a terminal condition, aren’t we? It’s really just up to time.
Christmas clock number three. This one is white with a snowman in the center. You guessed it. Frosty the Snowman.
My mother got rid of my father’s things the week after he died. I managed to save a maroon golf sweater, a blue golf T-shirt, and a money clip with his initials on it. I would not have moved his things out so fast. But grief is different for all of us. I would have slept awhile in the shirts, looked at the shoes, held the watch. I would have kept the after-shave, maybe a razor, a toothbrush. Not forever. Just until I had separated.
I know now what it will be like.
I will keep the baby Jesus on the shelf next to the orange cat my father got me from Eckerd’s when I was seven. It says “I love you this much” with its yellow-gloved arms stretched out wide. I will have no living place to go with my grief, no cemetery, no trees, no grass. Just stone. Cement. Nothing soft. Nothing alive.
From time to time I will take down the baby Jesus and touch his head.
You don’t have to save us. You can live your own life.
And I will step outside, my own flesh now the only piece of my mother that will ever return to earth and find salvation.
Causes Laraine Herring Supports
Amnesty, Planned Parenthood, Women for Women International, The Humane Society