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Time of death: six thirty a.m.

Awoken with a start from a restless sleep, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead, fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. The miniature lights twinkle. The early, frigid darkness sparkles like counterfeit jewels. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.

My mother is going to die.

Save the three days I slept in the ICU waiting room still dressed in the suit I wore when the call from the emergency room about my mother’s hemorrhagic stroke came, this sofa has been my bed. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room. I stack the pillows on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, piling worn blankets and duvets and stray clothing on the lumpy mattress.
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I read by the light of Christmas tree lights. The lights glow day and night, trying to stave off a sense of impending doom boiling in the pit of my empty stomach. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot drift off, even if it’s only for a single hour or two.

Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing like me. Snow tendrils creep across the roads. The slender cobwebs braid an icy lair. More than a foot of fresh snow has fallen in the night. My mother’s apartment building has lived for over thirty years is incarcerated in an ice prison. The sky, still pregnant with winter, belies the tempered blizzard, which will likely rage on for a few more hours.

Though a snowplow breaks the path of winter, pushing back the night and the snow’s accumulation, I still wonder if it will be possible to drive to the hospital once the anemic sun rises.

I wander into the galley kitchen. Turn on the electric kettle. Toss a tea bag in a mug. Collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator. Wait. When the pot boils, I pour the water into the cup, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the white bone china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster—lists cascade across my mind.

Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail: bills that need to be paid, Letters to be answered. Christmas cards have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and start adding tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and a label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards.​​

Day Nine: another day of shuttling between my mother’s bedside and hunting down elusive doctors in the maze of hospital hallways. Another day of waiting for updates about my mother’s condition that are few and far between. Her medical situation is not improving, nor is it markedly shifting into the positive column either. Though the bleed in her head shows a mild retraction, its absorption into her brain matter has stalled.

I am lost in the perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano – 6:20 a.m. The shrill ring of the telephone at this time of the day does not unnerve me. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings with daily calls from or to England or Australia, often commencing by 5:30 a.m. I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world’s circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.

“Is this Anna So Coc E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question—my mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No accent.

“Yes. I am Anna Sochocky,” I respond, crisply refusing to allow a tone of gloom seep into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake like a person struck down by tremors. I put the pen down and wait.

“Ms. So Coc E. This is a member of the nursing staff on your mother’s ward. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence? The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurses fire off companion questions.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind grows fierce. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. I have grieved for nine days. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. Why does death always arrive in the darkest part of the night or early morning? I gaze into the blizzard wind.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead.

I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney stating that my mother did not want extraordinary measures taken. I signed the medical directive that you gave me three days ago, specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Don’t you have these instructions noted on her chart or in a file somewhere?”

I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be focused through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.

“Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate my mother. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.”

“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer. I am sorry,” the nurse adds before the receiver tone clicks in my ear.

Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe.

“What’s happened,” Janet whispers.

“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Leaping to my feet and weaving around the bed, the chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink and try to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. My stomach is empty. I emit dry heaves, instead. I nod mutely into the phone, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line. A chair’s legs scrape across the floor. Boots are selected and quickly discarded. Affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs register their displeasure with being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. It will take me a few minutes to warm up the truck, and it’s snowing hard again, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. I am so sorry. We’ll get through this together, ok,” but Janet’s weak declaration dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.

With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the pillows off the sofa bed and fold blankets. Halfway through pushing the mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too.

Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel frame. Who do I call next? My husband, of course, but should I call the funeral home before we get to the hospital? Will anyone even answer the phone at this time of day? Should I post a notice on the website that I have been using to update people about Mom’s condition?

The tree lights fuse. The ornaments bleed color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming pillows onto the frame and fluffing the accent ones into place. The phone rings a second time.

Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question – are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet, but the hospital again tells me that one of the nurses found my mother’s pulse. Sign of life is thready, but there is a pulse.

My mother is being transported to the ICU. How can this be? Is she alive after all? My mother’s still alive.

I hang up the phone and toss the receiver onto the sofa. Wriggling into another sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings a third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with an apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse. Time of death six-thirty.”

By now, any tears of mine have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the hospital’s conflicting messages, I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you people doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed, the PDA you asked me to bring to the hospital. She’s dead. She’s alive. Now she’s dead. Are you sure this time, or do you want to check again? Leave my mother alone, for Christ’s sake. You have done more than enough.”

Racing on the edge of madness, I slam the receiver down on its cradle.

After nine days of ambiguity, my mother is dead, and I have moved up a generation.

Cremation changes our deaths

Marking the first loss

When a man answered the phone at a local Minneapolis crematorium, I prefaced the reason for my call with feeble qualifiers for my inquiry. My father died and chose cremation; I began. Recently, he asked. No. A long time ago. I decided not to be present, not to see his body before the cremation. Would it be possible for me to visit with a staff member about the cremation process? The man on the other end of the line received my question graciously. I was thankful. Come by tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., he replied. I hung up the phone and exhaled.

I arrived at the cremation society the next day and sat in a mauve room with lace curtains and low light. A mahogany table sat between two finely upholstered chairs, the fabric the shade of the painted walls. A matching loveseat faced the wall to my left, perpendicular to the seat in which I fidgeted. The muted light cast motionless shadows of a marble urn on the wall. A vase with a lid, I thought ruefully. Outside, a hearse idled, the driver waiting for the signal to proceed to the cemetery. In a room of an exquisite quiet, barely alert to the strains of classical music wafting through the building, I waited.

Daughter grieves for a father.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky died on June 30, 1980.

The door opened. I introduced myself to a man in his forties or fifties, with chestnut eyes magnified by thick lenses. After explaining the reasons for my visit, he appeared both curious and solicitous. He spoke slowly, listing the available alternatives for concluding services: burial, cremation, entombment, and donation to a medical facility for research purposes. Thirty-three percent of dispositions are cremations. Concern over the amount of space set aside for cemeteries, more than the cost, accounts for cremation’s rising popularity, though the choice to be cremated does not preclude a funeral. Indeed, he encouraged final services for both the benefit of the deceased as well as the living.

The man paused while I scribbled notes. He crossed his leg and stroked his well-kept beard. When I asked him why he chose to become a funeral director, he replied that he came of age at a time in history when death did not frighten the living, when the passing of a loved one was marked over a period of days and months to accommodate the tides of grief.

Our conversation turned to the desires of the departed and their families. What is the most unusual item, in your experience, that a person has been buried with? I asked. Raising his hands for emphasis, he ticked off a litany of things he once deposited in a casket of a woman: a six-pack of beer, Eddie Arnold records, a Dairy Queen cup, two pairs of socks, some carpeting, and a bottle of whiskey. She loved beer and whiskey, Eddie Arnold, and Dairy Queen ice cream. Her feet were always cold, and after years in the same house, she finally saved enough to carpet the floors.

As he finished the list, the funeral director remarked, “Good thing we put the body in the casket first!” After forty minutes in conversation, I was convinced that his gentle commitment to both the living and the dead, and the pride with which he spoke could melt a stone. I asked to see the crematorium. I followed the funeral director through the hushed hallways. I could not help but think I was slightly mad to be in this place on my lunch hour, as if I was an amateur reporter scribbling notes for a three-inch article in a neighborhood paper, only to be lost amidst the want ads and garage sale notices. At the bottom of the stairs, a compact maze of rooms and hallways unfolded like the cellars underneath a restaurant.

The cold temperature of preservation breathed between pale, gray walls. I swallowed hard, realizing the draft originated from refrigeration. Silently, I told myself not to cry in front of this kind man when he opened the door to the cremation chamber. Usually, a cremation lasts between two to four hours he began. Most family members do not attend. In some communities, like in the Hindu culture, tradition requires the oldest son to light the pyre or push the ignition button in contemporary crematoriums. Once laid in a shallow cardboard container with handle grips, each body is placed inside the brick chamber. Varied sources of heat reach temperatures of 2,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Skin, organs, and muscles vaporize immediately.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

After cremation, a body’s silhouette, mapped by bone fragments, lingers. The cranium, femur, tibia, humerus, and sternum fragments are swept into a container beneath the chamber and are ground to ashes. Though his lips moved, gradually, his softly spoken commentary evaporated, and I fell into the real reason for my visit. I was seeking forgiveness.

Forgiveness for turning away from my mother’s sage counsel that I see my father one last time. Forgiveness for swallowing my grief so wholly until it poisoned my spirit’s well. Forgiveness for disavowing any intimation, my grief required a marker. And forgiveness for failing to see the affirmation of life in the rituals left behind after death.

Sometimes it takes years to mark a loss, especially when the loss is not only the inevitability of death but the passage of a history that has defined you.

Moving up a generation

After the private funeral, one of the attendants assigned to manage my mother’s services leads me into the room set aside for the visitation. Trays of hand-cut sandwiches, bowls of marigold yellow potato salad, and a selection of sugar cookies arranged in buffet style line white linen-covered table. Strong coffee brews. Classical music pipes into the room. I am alone for a moment. To assuage my scarce appetite, I pour a Styrofoam cup of coffee and move to stand by the ice-etched window. Outside, after nights of sky-saturated storms, the sun shines, dazzling warmth into the room. Tempered by mourning and memory, I turn away from the glaring reflection of fresh snow.

I have grieved in this room before.

Once upon a time, doctors and nurses streamed into this funeral parlor. My mother and I sat on a plush floral sofa. Synthetic. Lifeless. On display. Strangers to me competed for my mother’s attention and offered me posthumous advice. Be strong like your father. Do well in school, Anna. Face after face drifted past. Everyone knew my name. I knew so few and stayed silent. The voices of former patients reverently recounted how my father had saved their lives. His passion and fierceness beat back my illness, balding men testified. Friends from school huddled around the entrance to the same room I stand in now. Only when their mothers nudged them did my confused friends enter. Emotionally stunted by adolescence, none of us had the vocabulary for loss.

No sandwiches. No salad or cookies.

The room thirty years ago lacked reassurance, so the morning of my father’s funeral, I set my grief on my dresser, promising to return to it another day. Thirty years later, I cannot afford to be silenced and disengaged by grief again.

Librarians, like doctors and educated wolves, travel in packs. Gathering as police officers or military personnel do when one of their own has fallen, my mother’s co-workers stream in from the freezing temperatures — a circle of women sporting tightly permed heads and sensible winter boots forms around me. The woman who drove the bookmobile when I was a child, Shirley, timidly enters the room. Three decades fill the distance between us. We hug awkwardly.

Bookmobile, circa 1975

“Do you still check out too many books, Anna? Your mother and I used to have to edit your stack each week. Your mother was such a special lady,” Shirley pronounces, moving to blow her nose.

“Well, instead of checking out too many books from the library, I buy too many used ones on Amazon,” I answer with a wink. “Thank you for coming, Shirley. Please have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” The memory of plastic covered, well-worn books I cherished as a child fills my head. I wonder if the engine of the antiquated bus still hums off-key. In the mirror over Shirley’s shoulder, I see the reflection of me sitting with my knees tucked and pressed up against my favorite bookshelf, stacking treasures beside me.

The reference librarian followed by the woman who staffed the video and young adult books department arrives, and soon the group of women that formed the nucleus of my mother’s life for seventeen years swells. I nurse a now tepid cup of coffee. My concentration wanders. I only retain snippets of stories told. Janet moves into the fold and supplants my attention, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate moments. I willingly fade into the background. Shifting from greeter to listener, I am relieved by a sudden wave of anonymity.

While the book women trade recycled stories about the library and my mother and nibble on ham sandwiches, I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a slight woman dressed in a waist-length, brown, faux leather jacket. The mysterious woman nervously shifts back and forth and tries to catch my eye. Gripping her bag as if she is stranded not on an iceberg of grief but in a dicey neighborhood after dark, her behavior attracts my attention. I do not recognize the woman. During a brief lull in conversation with the librarians, I excuse myself. In two long strides, I am at the agitated woman’s side.

“Thank you for coming this morning. I don’t believe we’ve met, but you likely knew my mother. How did you know my mother?” I finish securing a context for this stranger. The woman with closely cropped, dyed hair erupts into a spasm of desperate sobs. Who is this woman?

“Why don’t you and I sit down on the sofa,” I suggest pointing to a loveseat positioned underneath the wall’s mirror. I take her hand, bone-cold from the morning I rub her hands in mine and wait. Still ignorant of the woman’s identity, I retrieve a couple of Kleenex squares from my pocket and hand them to her.

The nameless woman’s words come slowly. Tangled and chastened by an attack of sadness-induced hiccups at first, her story crystallizes like a car gaining traction in the snow, Not from the library, not from a past life as a doctor’s wife, the woman sobbing beside me is Sherry, my mother’s hairpiece stylist. For as long as I can remember, my mother wore a tasteful hairpiece, a well-coiffed bun perched on the back of her head to cover thinning hair and a bald spot. In every childhood photo in which my mother plays a supporting role, Sherry’s tailored handiwork’s silhouette is evident.

Once gaining her composure, Sherry speaks of how shocked she was to pick up the newspaper and find the obituary I wrote. “Your mother was such a kind lady. When my son died, she called and wrote to me. I still have those letters. She was so very kind.” Sherry’s effort to choke these few words out into the air produces another round of tears. Is she grieving for my mother or her son? The circumstances of the son’s death had always been in question. Although never charged with murder, the son’s wife had come under the glare of police suspicion when the husband’s autopsy detected poison in his body. Sherry, convinced of her daughter-in-law’s role in her son’s death, poured out her suspicions to my mother. “I won’t keep you,” Sherry interjects as I shake my head no and insist she stay for a coffee.

“I won’t stay. I just wanted to pay my respects to your mother. Thank you for sitting with me. Even though this is the first time we have met, I can tell you are kind like your mother. I will miss your mother,” she declares, rising to her feet and slipping out the door like a shadow.

“Who was that woman?” Janet asks in mid-step. Approaching the sofa where I remain sitting, she announces, “I think the librarians are getting ready to leave.”

I nod and glance over at the disassembling group reaching for purses and coats. In the midst of the pending departures, my husband, Steve, holds coats and guides arms into sleeves. Though he has met so few mourners, Steve falls into conversations stunted by shock and sadness with ease, comforting strangers with a kind word or a brief but firm hug. Though I have barely had a moment to say two words to him since early this morning, I will be able to manage this day because I know he is close.

“The woman you were talking to was pretty upset,” Janet hints a second time, bringing me back to the present.

“Oh, that was Sherry, the woman who did my mother’s hairpiece for years. I never met her. Her son died, and I think she was thinking about him as much as Mom. Nice woman. Probably will never see her again, though. Funerals are weird that way, I guess. You have really intense conversations that evaporate as quickly as they brew. If she signed the guestbook, I’ll send her a note.”

With one eye on the entryway, I make a mental list of new arrivals, greeting and thanking each person individually. I recognize my mother’s acupuncturist and his assistant, but their faces will not stay with me. The car salesman who sold my parents each of their Buicks since the late 1960s corners me between the sofa and the entrance. His body language, polyester trousers, and a cheap gold chain peeking over his shirt collar suggest anything but chaste condolence. I squirm. Nod. Smile. Say, thank you. I raise my eyebrow. Janet sees my signal. Just as the one-sided conversation switches gears to what a lovely young woman I have become, Janet swoops in with the news that another guest has arrived. Leaving Janet to distract the harmless flirt, I intercept new arrivals.

A stout, short woman surveying the gathering of mourners enters the room and stops abruptly. Evaluating each person with beady, twitching eyes, her gaze lands on me. I examine her for a moment as well, and after a deep inhale, I reach her in one stride with my hand outstretched.

“You must be Anna,” the stranger declares, taking positive note of my conservative but stylish suit. “I’m glad you are not wearing black. So predictable and dismal. I am Madge Wilson, your father’s senior nurse on 4 East Ward. I never met your mother though I am sure she was a lovely person, but I recognized the name, Sochocky, in the obituaries and knew that she must have been married to your father.” Madge takes a wheezing breath and turns to sit on the couch by the door. I follow silently. I suspect there will be little opportunity to squeeze a word between Madge’s monologues. For this, I am thankful.

“As I said, I was your father’s senior nurse and, boy was he a challenge to work with each day. But he was the best doctor on the ward, and he liked me because I stood up to him. Madge, he would shriek, standing in the doorway to his office, and I would take my own sweet time getting to his door. Your father was an excellent doctor, though. So compassionate. Never gave up when so many others would pack it in too early. He used to call me into an examination room and put his feet up on the gurney while I cleaned up the mess left behind. Domestic, he wasn’t. And another interesting feature of your father is he was obsessed with the condition of his bowel movements. He always wanted me to judge his stool samples. Very strange. I think he was a hypochondriac,” Madge muses, before exploding into laughter.

The content rather than the location of her telling leaves me nonplussed. My father’s hypochondria, the subject of his daily constitution’s quality and condition, often drove him back to Duke University for evaluation.

Janet shoots me a look over Madge’s shoulder. I stare past both Janet and Madge wondering how many people can count stool sample stories told by a woman who does not even know the person who has died as part of their ‘strange things that happened at my mother’s funeral stories’? If Madge weren’t so genuinely quirky and florid with her description of my father’s obsessive medical habits, grief would win the battle for my attention.

As the two hours pass, I retrace not only the past of both my parents but moments of my own adolescent life as well. During a lull, my high school English teacher and yearbook advisor peers into the room. Dressed in corduroys, an elbow patched topcoat, and a thick fabric tie, he smiles and hugs me.

“Thank you so much for coming, Doug. I am just about out of conversation with people I barely know, if I know them at all. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I am exhausted.”

“I know. Talking to everyone is so tiring, but I saw you making your way around the room like a skilled politician,” he winks and pats my arm. Politics, as well as books, cemented our friendship from the beginning. “I had to come. I was so shocked to read her obituary. She was such a lovely woman. Let’s sit down,” my favorite teacher gestures to the couch where I learned about my father’s stool obsession only moments before.

Sinking into the familiar fabric pricks me like a balloon, and I burst into tears that I have managed to keep at bay since the private service. As he had done thirty years ago, Doug retakes the reins as my confidante and listens to my rambled recounting of the past six months. Shaking his head, he comments, “The past few months must have been terrible for you and your husband. I have requested a Mass be said in your mother’s honor.”

“Doug, I’m afraid that my ambivalence about God hasn’t congealed much over the years, but thank you. Thank you for having a Mass said for Mom, and thank you for coming. Mom really liked you, but I suspect that’s because you always gave me good grades and kept me out of trouble with the priests and the nuns.” I grimace and then smile at the memories of how many occasions Doug had rescued me from punishment after one of my argumentative outbursts.

“Parent-teacher conferences were always enjoyable when I saw your mother. And I gave you good grades because you earned them. You probably still earn them. Besides, you are the best yearbook editor I ever had the pleasure to work with past and present.” The visitation numbers swell again, and Doug rises to his feet. “I signed the guestbook. Take care of yourself, Anna. Please. I know you are facing a mountain, but take care of yourself. I’m really glad I came,” he finishes.

When my high school boyfriend, Mark, sans braces, walks across our thirty-year gap, the two of us engage in a nostalgic but vaguely uncomfortable conversation. I stay mute, growing disconnected from the ambiance of a distant history he retells, a history of summer evenings when we drove through a maze of unpaved roads. For six adolescent weeks, summer evenings passed sweetly but awkwardly between us. With Elton John whining through the glowing dashboard, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under the tire rims, cracked the melody of Benny and the Jets into pieces. The sweet smell of corn stalks dangled in the muggy air. Red-winged blackbirds descended on plowed remains in the fields to feed. This was the South Dakota I once knew, the South Dakota I had to leave.

Condolences and nostalgia only carry a conversation so far, however. Our exchange about humid summer evenings collapses into a discussion about how Mark cannot believe he is raising two teenagers. I glance at my watch when he turns his head for a moment, making a mental note to ask for his email when a disembodied photo waves in front of me. Mark laughs. Both of us have seen this photo before.

In the Polaroid image, crepe paper decorations and a stenciled sign read: “Welcome Back, Anna. Dino and all of us love you.” At the sight of my first horse, his head thrust over his decorated stall door, standing under the sign, crepe paper strings falling off the dirty walls and gently waving in the breeze, I am catapulted back thirty years. For a moment, I look at the Polaroid image of the sign made by my stablemates. I turn to see my high school riding instructor’s brown eyes welling with tears and collapse in her arms.

Too many reminders. Too much conversation. Too many days to come as a motherless daughter. The emotional tank I filled early this morning is running on empty. The string of condolences, repeated replays of stories and saddened questions about the cause of my mother’s death left me mentally scorched. When the room empties for the last time, I exhale all the conversations, all the tears, and all the memory stirred by the grief of others. I sit alone on the sofa. Kick my heels off. Lean back into the plumped pillows, staring without focus into the empty room.

My mother’s funeral may be over, but the aftermath of her death has only just begun.

I have moved up a generation.

Death keeps you busy

I climb the stairs and duck under the canopy shielded entrance. The plum-colored tarp bends and twists from the force of the thirty-mile an hour wind. With effort, I heave the glass door open, lodging it with my elbow until I manage to scuttle into the foyer. I step out of the subzero temperatures. Only 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and all the steps have been shoveled; pellets sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the pavement melt the ice.

British rail car London to Cambridge

The Miller Funeral Home hums with a buzz of foreign activity. Funeral directors, older men with graying temples, glide silently across the carpet, their silence, and presence as pronounced as helpful monks. The earliest hours on a Saturday morning, yet each man is dressed in full suits, their crisp white or cream shirts ironed and unblemished by the day. Ready to attend to the business of grief, a receptionist, seated at a weighted mahogany desk, crouches over a phone receiver. She wedges hushed tones of sympathy between scheduling a new appointment.

The parlor revolves with the air of an airport terminal’s baggage conveyor belt. Arrivals of the living, departures of the dead, the motion of loss infinite. As my swollen eyes adjust to the muted light thrown off by small lamps peppered around the foyer and track lighting sequestered in the ceiling, another wave of shock and horror sweeps over me, and I burst into tears. With a hint of my knees giving way, a funeral attendant materializes and gathers me into his muscled, aged arms.

“I am so sorry for your loss; weep as long as necessary. We are here to help in any way we can. The shock is still fresh. Don’t feel like you have to make any decisions right now,” he murmurs. His hand rubs my back in a circular motion, and with each move of his hands, my breath settles. After a few minutes, as the wave subsides, he asks, “Who in your life has passed on?”

Passed on. Such a strange, perfunctory, predictable phrase. Passed on where, when, how, why, passed on, uttered to reassure, to console, perhaps even to obfuscate a pain that is often more physical than emotional. With so little sleep, I find it difficult to silence my ping pong mind, my thoughts scuttling across my mind. One minute I am contemplating what the phase ‘passed on’ means, and seconds later, my head is in another plane entirely listing people I need to phone and in which country.

Questions rather than answers flood my mind. Should I schedule a religious service? Why does death always seem to come in the darkness? Why is my mother gone? I cannot silence my philosophical paradigm. First, I am numb, then suddenly analytic. Every activity, every thought I observe and record, then promptly forget. As quickly as my emotional breakers recede, I am clear-eyed. I gaze over the funeral attendant’s broad shoulder noting the natural choreographed entrances and exits of funeral staff into the reception area. All move across the stage of loss as naturally as breathing.

“My mother. My mother has died. Someone found her slumped over her steering wheel in a Walgreen’s parking lot, the one on Minnesota Avenue. Who found her, I wonder? When I was in Sioux Falls in August, I thought our visit might be the last time I saw her alive. Why did I know? Did I know she was going to die,” I string question after nonsensical question together, praying that I will find the focus to stop talking? “Mom lived for nine days after her hemorrhagic stroke. I knew she was going to die from the moment I saw her in ICU,” I babble without limit or effort. For someone who could barely string a sentence together at the hospital, I have reverted to my chronic habit of providing too much information in answer to a question.

“I am indeed very sorry for your loss,” he responds, nonplussed by my verbal incontinence. “Your mother is at peace, and our job is to help you assure that she rests in eternal peace. Why don’t I get you a cup of coffee,” signaling to a second man hovering on the edge of our conversation? “Would you like cream and sugar,” he asks, reaching for a packet of tissues his wingman offers; my clenched hand releases long enough for me to accept the offering.

I shake my head no but quickly change my mind. “Cream, please. I’d like some cream. Thank you.” Every pore of my body wilts, and though I have ingested little more than coffee in the past few days, the prospect of a warm, Styrofoam cup shimmers like a cairn in the mountains, guiding me to certain safety.

“Did you phone from the hospital a couple of hours ago,” the old ‘monk’ inquires, gently turning my shoulders, guiding me to a well-positioned chair. When I mutely nod yes, he suggests that I sit down and he will inquire as to whom I will be meeting with to make final arrangements for my mother, bowing ever so slightly before moving away towards the receptionist’s desk. Like the man with gentle eyes who caught me before I kissed the ground, the younger man with coffee appears like a specter, and I slump into the chair’s warm, plump, floral fabric. Plucking two tissues from the plastic packet, I blow on the coffee’s surface. Sensing the burning heat, I set the cup on the square faux wood accent table on my left.

Thirty years have passed since I have been in this building for my father’s visitation and his meager funeral, and little seems to have changed. Or has it? Stunned by grief at the age of fourteen, I really wouldn’t have noticed if the décor had been deep, tonal wood paneling or bright blue linoleum. But now, with the cold comfort of coffee, my eyes swivel around the foyer and across the passageway’s entrance. Every surface – pedestals with potted chrysanthemums or deep crimson Christmas poinsettias, corner tables and chairs, the receptionist’s central desk, the sideboard against the pinstriped wallpaper in the hall – is populated with clusters of travel tissue compacts.

Slumping further into the chair, I watch the funeral staff navigate unchartered waters for the newly bereft. I reach for the thick notebook I have carried for nine days like a worn talisman and absently begin to turn pages of penciled lists, lists that have come to define not only by days and nights but my new self. I tick items off the bloated list. Cremation – yes. Private funeral; only close friends. Open visitation. Timing should be over the lunch hour; friends and co-workers can dash out of their jobs and drop by to pay their own respects and grieve. Small sandwiches and cookies? Definitely. With the cold winter wind, people must be fed.

Questions of religious services stump me. Faithful but not religious, my mother opted never to join a congregation. Religion is different in this country; she frequently declared. After my father’s death, attending church services became my mother’s lifeline, but as the years waned, her commitment diminished as well. Instead, she clung to a country lost, past lost, dreams lost until she was incapable of moving forward and taking up the reins of her life for a time. I never saw my mother pray; my mother kept her faith to herself as well.

With my father’s death, decisions that were not my own to make seeped through the telephone and under the front door, peppered our mail, and masked our emotions. Now, it was my time to make all the decisions. Making choices and facing facts is my forte. I sip the cooled coffee – how much better if it were it laced with brandy.

Perhaps I dozed in the warm foyer, I don’t know, but when Janet finally walks in the building, I startle at her voice. “So, we’re parked in the Starbucks parking lot. None of the roads have been plowed yet, and Starbucks is the only lot that has been cleared. It’s about a block and a half from here. Have you talked to funeral staff yet,” she asks, stomping her snow-caked boots on the entry rug.

“Monks,” I replied. “I spoke to one of the ‘monks.’ Someone should be ready to meet with us soon.”

“Monks? What are you talking about? Are you alright, well as alright as you can be right now.”? Janet brushes the snow from her down jacket and stamps her boots once more.

“The funeral attendants. They seem to glide across the carpet like ‘monks.’ Look at these men,” I insist, “all of them dressed in suits and ties. I heard the receptionist tell a caller that the funeral home is open twenty-four hours a day. And it’s so busy, even though it’s barely nine o’clock,” my voice trailing into an unexpected wave of tears.

My body absorbs shock from my mother’s death like a violent contusion. Unable to hold my limbs up with intentional will, my body crumbles, as if my bones are disintegrating into dust. Efforts at conversation, normally as clear as a winter sky, have become a foreign language.

The call from the hospital three hours ago fades into the funeral home’s floral carpet and is absorbed by other families’ arrivals, stunned into silence by loss. Fresh coffee percolates somewhere, the smell benignly drifting into the belly of equally fresh grief.

Long minutes pass before Janet asks, “Did you phone people in England? Not everyone needs to be called today, Anna. Can others make calls for you?” I nod mutely into my coffee cup. Sobs that had once been violent have transposed into a few seconds of quiet tears.

Janet’s question dangles, unanswered, and she does not repeat it.

Death keeps you busy. I have inherited my mother’s penchant for manufactured control over capricious situations, a mistress of the list. Meticulous, organized, and prioritized, enslavement comes from the pen as well as the phone.

I do not have time to grieve. I am drowning, simply drowning.

Baking away grief

The fruitcake batter, rich with Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, dried cherries, cranberries, and dates, rises slowly. Resisting the overwhelming urge to open the oven door for the third time, I wait to learn if my cakes match my mother’s ones once made at Christmas. Baked for friends and old workmates from the public library, my mother’s cakes attained a legendary holiday status, christened the best fruitcake ever tasted. Trays of mince pies line every surface of my kitchen counter, too, the scallop-shaped button pastries burst with hot, sticky, dried fruit.

Though I bake the mince pies in the shadow of my mother’s history, I adjust the fruitcake recipe with the fruits of my own time. Gone are the maraschino cherries, green candied fruit, and orange peel. Dried cherries and dates, steeped cranberries, freshly roasted green chili, and a hint of ginger replace the familiar holiday fruitcake.

A month before her death, my mother’s memory of baking her jeweled fruitcakes failed her completely. “I never bake!” she angrily claimed to those who ate the rich, dense fruitcake slices year after year.

Mince pies triggered more soothing images in my mother’s deteriorating memory. Weeks before her death, she retrieved the baking tins I now use from her cupboard and a jar of mincemeat to bake the dainty pastries.

Entering her apartment, after spending three days and nights in the ICU at my mother’s bedside, when I found my grandmother’s tins and the candied fruit on the kitchen counter, I burst into tears.

Like my mother, I am conscientious about food and purposefully eat smaller portions and leftovers without hesitation. I do not waste food. I love food and will eat anything offered to me except liver and game of any kind, the taste of blood and death is too consuming for me. I relish the primal process of eating with my fingers, moving hands to mouth. I love the earthy smell of green vegetables pulled from the dirt with the sweat of honest labor. The sweet smell of berries and nectarines in summer and apples and rhubarb in autumn reminded me of my grandmother’s flourishing garden and the days when I used to crawl under the netting in the summer heat to pick the pregnant fruit.

Though I ferret out offbeat food vendors like my father, buying fish and vegetable curries with a few Thai bot coins or freshly rolled tortillas from a child on a rural South American road, I do not starve myself as he did. I do not eat raw garlic – an old Ukrainian habit – preferring to suffocate omelets, lasagna, and salads with the pungent cloves of his addiction. I do not compulsively monitor my calorie intake, and my evening meals do not consist of bowls of white rice, either. Instead, I prefer the ecstasies of cheesecake and blindingly rich artichoke dip.

I am also a liar.

I buy twice the food I need if it is on sale, squirreling it away in cupboards and the freezer, yet I ration what I buy, metering it out for a holiday, or a birthday, or for an undisclosed moment when hunger will surely strike. I am lazy about food, too. I skip meals choosing work over food. If I can finish this project, I will have something to eat. Sometimes, I even tell myself that I have to earn the right to eat.

War habits never truly fade, especially when the habits are not one’s own.

Yet, each time I extract another perfectly browned cake or platter of mince pies from the oven, my own addiction to history and my own obsession with memory dims a little more. Pressing the ready-made dough into the bottoms of freshly washed and greased tins and spooning fresh mincemeat into the tiny dimples repairs my ruptured union with the past.

Baking might have guided me through the first year of fresh grief, but redemption itself comes in many forms, especially when it silences the politics of bread for good.

Death is not a cold, lonely end to life

For Ukrainians, both in Ukraine and worldwide, death is not viewed simply as the cold, lonely end to a life. Indeed, life itself is composed of three parts: the living, those ‘departed,’ and those not yet born. The Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko dedicated one of his works “To the dead, the living, and the unborn countrymen of mine, living in and outside of Ukraine, my friendly epistle” (1845).

The Christmas Eve table includes a place setting for the souls of the ancestors. To remove any food on the plate before Christmas morning is considered a sin. When family members sit down to eat the non-dairy, twelve-course meal, each pauses to blow upon and brush their chair if a visiting soul is occupying it.

In the winter of my sophomore year in college, I experienced first Ukrainian Christmas Eve with my father’s friends, Bohdan and Nusia Rozdilsky, and their family in Saskatoon.

Rich geometric patterns of orange, ruby, black, and gold sewed into Ukrainian linen peak through platters of jellied fish, fruit and potato varenyky, and blood-red borscht. In the center of the table, the kolach bread, braided in three strands – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – is swathed in candlelight. One place setting, its knives, and forks, plates, and glasses laid with care, remains empty to remember those souls that have gone before.

The child at the table desperately searches the corner of the room for the hidden sheaf of wheat she has learned hidden each Christmas Eve to bring health, abundance, and good luck to those seated at the table in the coming year. The child loves the movement of light casting shadows in and out of the crystal wine glasses and silver candlesticks. Some think the child’s eyes are green, and others gray, steal a glance at the candle in the window. The steady flame burned all evening to remind the family of Ukrainian soldiers who fought in wars past.

In the near silence, the head of the family recites holy prayers in Ukrainian. The man’s strapping, translucent voice collapses into the incandescent play of the candlelight and consoles the remotest part of this child’s heart, nearly rocking the child into a peaceful sleep.

Long ago, there was another child, one who also loved the twinkling lights of the sacrosanct night. Before this child was a man of thirty, he would learn to fear light in the darkness. He would not remember light as salvation like his daughter but as a remorseless terror when the sweeping columns of search beacons moved across his frozen body in the camps, his heartbeat as if it might explode. The moon that his daughter loves so much frightened him years after he was no longer a prisoner, its rays disrupting his fragile sleep even when his wife’s cool hands reached out to comfort him in the night.

I was the child at this sacred table, enchanted by the light, the sounds, and the tastes of my first Ukrainian Christmas Eve.

Nearly fifteen years later, I flew to Saskatoon for Bohdan’s funeral.

The funeral was held in an ornate Ukrainian church. Behind the altar, a gold screen embedded with saints’ visages glowed in the dim light as the dense smell of incense dissipated. The priest, chanting prayers in Ukrainian, walked around the open casket wreathed in candles, the heat warming the cold face of the man I once called uncle.

Later, by the gravesite, a group of men, graying and fragile, moved towards the closed casket. On their breasts, rows of gold and bronze medals chimed, the ribbons, blue, red, and green, bright against the anemic Canadian winter sky. These men were survivors of the war, members of the Ukrainian National Army, like my father and Bohdan. Their voices, reedy at first, deepening with each octave, told a story about how a man, knowing that he can never be buried in the Ukrainian steppe, prays that his soul will return home one day.

Like the man in the Ukrainian lament, my father never returned to his homeland, nor did he live to see the Berlin Wall crumble, and the Soviet Union disintegrate into fragile republics. This is the tragedy of history: when history we should have witnessed happens without us, both the dead and the living are so far away from it. Maybe Bohdan found my father in the mists of time, and they are wandering the streets of Kyiv with chants of the Orange and Maidan Revolutions on their lips.

The song called, Look There, Brother Mine is actually a poem set to music and is traditionally sung at the end of Ukrainian exiles’ funerals to symbolize sorrow for the homeland.

Look there, brother mine,

Look dear friend of mine,

The cranes are winging south, migrating.

In a long grey line.

Cru! Cru! Cru! They cry,

Far from home, I’ll die,

Crossing o’er the sea’s wide waters,

Weary wings I’ll ply,

Weary wings I’ll ply,

Dazzling to the eyes,

Endless in the skies,

Fading, fading in grey clouds

The cranes’ trail dies.

Maybe their deaths will only be a long sleep.

Maybe these old friends are finally home.

A segregation of mourning

In last week’s blog post, I wrote that perhaps death was the great equalizer. Yet, class and gender once segregated the commonality of death between rich and poor, men and women.

The Victorian Age, marked by good manners, industrial and technological advancements, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and that pesky ‘woman question’ wrote its own chapter in the book of mourning etiquette, too.

A complex set of rules, guided by one’s station in life, dictated appropriate mourning behavior and rituals. In the house, clocks would be stopped and reset to the deceased’s exact time of death. Mirrors covered with black crepe prevented the deceased spirit from being trapped in the glass. To prevent the devil’s possession of anyone still living, photographs were turned over.

Superstition may have guided a household; mourning between the genders was segregated by fashion and behavior. A woman’s funereal clobber, comprised of black clothing meant to conceal a body’s shape and a veil of black crepe, became known as ‘widow’s weeds.’ Mourning jewelry rose to prominence in the upper class. People often wore a cameo brooch or a locket designed to hold a lock of the deceased hair.

The dictates of appropriate mourning behavior did not end with the content of one’s wardrobe, however. Widows were expected to not only wear their mourning ensemble for at least two years and up to four years and were discouraged from entering society for twelve months. During a widow’s mourning period, clothing restrictions were relaxed at six or nine-month increments, effectively ensuring the grieving woman lived as a hostage to her grief.

Money and status plays have always been central to how a passing is marked and a person recognized. Anyone who has had to plan a funeral for a loved one understands that death is a business. Caskets and urns, florists, and stationary are not contemporary choices of the grieving. Indeed, the Victorians may have originated the entire industry!

However, fashion, behavior, and money may not be the preeminent influence on one’s approach to mourning. The Victorians may have been Christians, but deep in the cultural bloodstream beats a Pagan’s heart, too.

Indeed, superstition weighed heavily on behavior as much if not more than social mores. I leave you with a handful of superstitions to ponder courtesy of the Victorian age!

Never wear anything to a funeral, especially shoes.

Stop the clock in a death room, or you will have bad luck.

If you don’t hold your breath when going by a graveyard, you will not be buried.

The great equalizer

Perhaps death is the great equalizer. More so than money or raising a family, more so than love or sex. It can bring those left behind closer together or drive a seemingly permanent wedge between family, friends, and lovers alike. It can coax some to examine a flawed life more closely or be falsely called upon to justify any behavior, good or bad.

Death can turn the coward into the courageous and brave into the charlatan. Certainly, few are prepared for death, and even fewer prepared for the lies others tell in its aftermath.

To learn that your second cherished brother has died without warning devastated my father’s sister without question, but to later receive a letter stating that my mother no longer wanted to maintain contact with his family surely broke her fragile heart.

The letter’s content, written less than a week after my father’s death, was a lie penned by a woman who had claimed to be both a friend to him and his family—a woman called Gloria.

Though I mistakenly assumed that the third party, a woman named Gloria, was a person my father had met via the medical community, in fact, the person, my father trusted was one he had known for decades. Gloria, too, hailed from the village my father had once called home.

My father trusted Gloria. She, too, had emigrated to the United States after the war, lost family and friends, and struggled to stay in contact with those who had survived. Gloria, unlike my father, visited Ukraine during the treacherous years of Soviet rule.

Gloria volunteered to transport and deliver warm winter clothing, money, and gifts to Olga — all purchased by my parents. Along with material items, my mother painstakingly organized and labeled photos of my father at the hospital, photos of me through the years, even photos of our family dog. In letters from my father, Olga took comfort in knowing that her older surviving brother would always support her daughters.

Within hours after my father’s death, however, before my mother and I had returned to an apartment reeking with loss, Gloria showed her truest self to both my father’s family and my own. Going behind my mother’s back, Gloria phoned the hospital where my father had worked for years to ascertain the cause of his death. How did Gloria learn that my father had died? Why was she hunting for the cause of my father’s death? The hospital staff stonewalled the woman no one knew, refusing to release any information to her.

Instead, Gloria confronted my mother on the telephone days after our return. Rather than being a voice of solace, Gloria grilled her and demanded to know how my father died, when he died, the reasons why he died. Beaten by jet lag and grief, my mother sobbed to the woman she had never met, besieging her to understand that she was devastated, her daughter was shattered. Gloria hung up the telephone.

Unbeknownst to my mother, Gloria unleashed her fury in a letter to Olga.

In the letter Gloria penned less than a week after my father’s death, she wrote that my mother had abandoned my father and had taken his precious daughter away for good. Claiming that my mother had had no intention of returning to the United States, Gloria painted a picture of my father’s distraught psyche. She intimated that my mother’s selfish decision caused his heart attack and subsequent death.

Discontent with the first string of lies she had written, Gloria piled on more falsehoods declaring that my mother wanted to sever all contact with Olga and her family.

Olga died many years later carrying the lie she had been told to the grave.

A life interrupted

I did not need CT results to view a life interrupted. The evidence met me when I turned the key in my mother’s apartment’s lock for thirty years and entered.

A handwritten grocery list for the week hung from a magnet on the refrigerator. In my adolescent bedroom, wrapped presents without name tags but labeled with tiny yellow post-it notes instead lined the floor. Addressed but unwritten Christmas cards to friends and family remained where she had left them in neatly stacked piles next to sheets of international stamps on the dining room table.

A lavender scent lingered on her pillows. Tucked under the one closest to her bedroom door, a book she was reading at the time of her stroke suggested a life still being lived. The dust ruffle, unmoved since the last morning she made the bed, gathered in all the right places along the floor. A change of clothes, neatly piled on the chair by her desk, would never be worn again. Organization, not disarray, resonated with each list, in the stillness of each object, in each room.

Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.

As evening hours ticked into another day, I frantically culled and filed, sorted, and discarded objects, letters, and magazines often over ‘dinners’ of sherry and bowls of nuts and crackers that remained uneaten. Most nights, I wandered through the apartment, absently entering and exiting each room and mentally sifted through my mother’s belongings to save and pack, which to give away or discard. I silently categorized the paintings on the wall she had collected with care, the china figurines of a nurse and a woman dressed in hunt attire that had sat on the bookshelves since I was in high school, the paperweights on the piano that was never played, and assorted mementos from my grandmother’s house in England that my mother cleared and sold when I was in college.

Once upon a time, my mother’s job was to sort through her own family’s belongings. The candlesticks from the front room mantelpiece, the silver hairbrush, comb, and dimpled mirror engraved with my grandmother’s initials, the brass turtle and maiden handbell, an original watercolor of Westminster Abbey, painted from the Dean’s Yard, a couple of pins belonging to her Aunt Stella, Shetland wool throws, the hand-carved mahogany bellows from the front hall and a small collection of books by the Bronte sisters. Diligently she sorted linens and china from bustles and pearls, emptying each drawer and wardrobe of cardigans, cotton nightgowns, handkerchiefs, and blouses. There were blankets and comforters, cast iron pots, and crystal vases to sort through. In an old cedar trunk, she found brand new sweaters from a woolen shop in Scotland, still sealed in the original plastic bags.

Sixteen years later, these hints of her family home blended into my mother’s apartment. The hand-carved wooden bellows hung in her hallway, retired from duty, silent and breathless. The mahogany chest of drawers stored her winter sweaters and the local telephone book. My grandmother’s silver hairbrush, comb, and mirror laid on the dresser, unused.

I don’t live in the past, yet, I was still trying to measure the beauty of lost articles, too.

From room to room, I wandered plucking random objects infused with invisible memory my mother and I both understood, hers perhaps more indelible like a scar, mine skating on the surface like a blemish. Objects I lived with through high school and college, and still, others that my mother added after I left home, I recognized. Others appeared during the years when I tried to put my own life in order are ones in which no memory resonated for me. No perception of security echoed in my fingertips when I held an unfamiliar vase or a silver salt savor. Instead, my hand stroked objects like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of impending loss away from my mind.

With a routine, I savagely carved through a maze of sleep deprivation and grief; slowly, I dismantled my mother’s life. My mother never returned to her apartment to live, the four walls she once called home.

Mounds of paper I handled with aplomb, but the thought of stripping the walls bare and folding and stacking sweaters still smelling of her hair and perfume crippled me. I moved without focus, hunting through one drawer – boxes and garbage bags beside me – before leaving the room and starting another unfocused search for what I did not know in another room.

One night, I shuffled into my mother’s bedroom and surveyed the contents on her bed’s surface. Decades of annuity and investment records, brown-edged deeds to overseas properties, crisp cream bank statements, tax filings dating back to my father’s death thirty years ago crowded the corners of the floral duvet. A colony of her American and British passports, my father’s too, as well as my own, jumbled our collective web of identity. To sleep in my mother’s bedroom seemed sacrilegious, but to clear her past seemed like I defiled my mother’s waning life, too.

Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.