We buried my mother a dozen times this week. With each official task related to her passing, we resurrected my mother and buried her again, resurrected and buried her, until we were too tired to go on. Next morning, we began again.
We buried my mother a dozen times this week, although, technically speaking, we did not bury her at all. She was cremated on Friday, according to her wishes. She wanted no marker, no grave. She wanted no ceremony, so none was arranged. This left the living in an awkward spot. How were we to honor her, how achieve that terrible sense of closure our grief demanded?
Ten of us accompanied my father to the funeral home. In theory we were merely there to sign papers. But we asked for a room, and time. Seated in a circle, each of us told some story from my mother's life. Nothing official, none of the pomp she detestedjust people who loved her, acknowledging that she had been with us and that she mattered. Then the funeral director told us it was time to leave. My father was handed a small box containing my mother's ashes.
"Feel how heavy," he said.
We thought it was over but it was just beginning.
There was the trip to the nursing home, to sign away her thingsthe hallway festooned with coffins and skeletons to remind the terminally ill patients that it was Halloween. The home's weekly newsletter apprised the patients of important world events: "Daylight Savings Time Begins!" declared the front page headline. Inside, my mother's death was noted along with that of another patient.
These are the places where people die. This is where my mother spent her last three years on earth. Fortunately, after a while, she had no idea that she was there.
A janitor walked us through a vast attic where the possessions of dead patients were stored. Spinet pianos in perfect tune. Portable toilets. Plastic flowers. Objects acquire a terrible weight when they are no longer attached to people.
We saved a photograph and a blanket. The rest we signed away to charity.
Back in the sunlit parking lot, I buried my face in my father's neck. "You never have to come here any more," I said.
It all went kind of like that.
The family accountant apologized for crying. Then told us the tasks that had to be performed.
Wishing we had more time, we hustled through the appointed chores. Ridding the house of my mother's clothing. Going through her pockets. Folding each item gently. Putting it in trash bags to take to Goodwill.
Each task was a new resurrection. I remember she wore this dress. Each completion was a new burial. We need another trash bag for these shoes.
At night, in the strange old room of my adolescence, I could not sleep. Years before, when my mother was still being cared for at home, my father had turned my old room into a den for her, complete with a small TV connected to cable. The night we buried her clothes I watched The Mummy (1932), Curse of the Mummy, Tomb of the Mummy, The Mummy's Hand, Return of the Mummy, Return of the Son of the Curse of the Mummy. My eyes finally closed around the time John Carradine started praying to the ancient gods of Egypt. I thought as I lay there: My mummy has no tomb.
Some people's mothers die on Christmas Day, some on Easter. My father and brother and I get to associate my mother's death with Halloween. Each year, the skeletons will come out in more ways than one.
The next-to-last day, as instructed by the family accountant, we went through all my Mom's papersa lifetime's worth of stuff, from bank statements to my brother's school report cards. Cartoons I'd drawn for her when I was a boy. My brother's press clippings. A birthday card from her father (my grandfather), whose death at an early age had plunged my mother into a lifelong depression.
Among all that stuff we found something my mother had written.
You need to understand that although she was a natural storyteller, my mother never wrote. In fact, she claimed she "couldn't" write. When I was a boy I helped her compose letters and cards. Eventually, of course, she truly could not read or write. But before her illness robbed her of those abilities, she penned the words I found.
I don't believe she meant us to find them. Had her mind lasted a bit longer, I suspect she would have revised the text, or destroyed it to protect us from its darkness.
I had comforted myself with the thought that my mother did not know what was happening to her. The words I found destroyed that illusion. I thought she knew how much we loved her, and how much her light her life had brought to the world. But, at least on the day she wrote these words, she felt a limitless aloneness she met stoically. I hoped she would find God in her own way. Perhaps she did; if so, she was unable to record the discovery.
These words of hers are what she left. These words are her soul at a moment in time. A soul I've missed for years. A soul with depths I scarcely knew. I don't know if these words were meant to be printed here. But you have shared the rest of this with me. And this is the last I saw of her:
"Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name: in reality, it is a summary court in perpetual session."
That is from a letter of Kafka's. It haunts me. The supreme judge at that severe searching of the soul is oneself. It is I who can act, I who do the deed or have the thought, and it's I only who can judge the action or the thought. I am prosecutor and defender, Satan and Saint. I am totally responsible for all my sins and goodness. And I am alone.
That great storehouse of knowledge and memory, ignorance and idiocy, brilliance and banality, good and evil, is my own brain, and only my own brain can call itself to the bar for the agony of self-examinationan endless, life-long viva voce.
I wish I had more time to think.