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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.