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This never felt so true as when I found myself standing on the edge of life at the then-age of forty-one, staring into the porcelain features of the woman I call mother as she lay in her coffin. For some strange reason I felt the compulsion to bring a camera to the event of her "viewing" and her funeral, not caring how it appeared to the rest of my family.
I wanted the occasion to be remembered, to know her face even in this context, and to put it in its proper perspective along with the moments I had recorded in my memory since the day I was born. Much as members of my family wanted this day to go by quickly and try to forget why we were all here, I didn't want that for myself. I wanted every aspect of this day to stick like glue, to know the sights, smells, and textures so that I could later recall the pain and the loss. Without the feeling of total loss, I didn't think I could remember each granule of joy I had experienced with my mother.
One might think I was fixated on the ceremony itself the way I angled amongst the other members of the family, insinuating myself between the casket and the living as if I was the host at Death's party. To be certain, this was the first--and most horrific--occasion that any of us had had with the specter of it. In the past, death was always something that happened in other people's families, not ours. Death was a number reported on the TV news. It was a statistic collected during a national holiday. Now, to be this close to it, it seemed to me that we overcame the immunity to it, that now we could look to God saying "I thought we could be like thisforever" and He'd simply shrug his shoulders in response.
Only a short while before our family all met at the funeral chapel I spent some time reflecting on a scrap of paper that my father had shown me. It was a clipping from the newspaper taken two days after my mother died. Of course, having seen something in the newspaper made it real to everyone, but I still had difficulty accepting the finality of the message it contained. Bad news traveled fast, or so the headlines made us believe. But the sad irony was that death--the reality of it--arrived to my eyes two days later, and this was about the worst news anyone could have ever delivered to me.
It was a piece of paper about two inches long and about an inch wide. It read "de Sousa" at the top, followed with a paragraph of a few dozen words. Below that, the name of the mortuary handling the funeral arrangements was prominently displayed. Their name stood out boldly amongst the relatively inconsequential blip of history that was my mother's life.
My father handed it to me and I stared at it for quite a long period of time. I was taken aback by our collective epitaph once we depart this planet. Was this the sum total of one's existence, this one-by-two-inch scrap of paper?
To be totally fair to my father, it was by his hand that the brief history I was nervously clutching had reached my eyes or anyone else's eyes. It seemed that the Death Industry was fairly adept at handling the affairs surrounding death, all the way from the moment the event took place to the moment of making it official by marking it in the newspaper for all to see. It was my contention that if we spent way too little attention on obituaries, we spent even less time celebrating people's lives when they were alive. I also often thought that we read more about death these days than we read about life. Faced with a system steeped in such tradition, I had to applaud my father for so succinctly summoning the proper words that neatly squeezed inside the black-and-white confines of a weekday column such as the obituaries.
Folded about my mother's obituary were the other obituaries of the last day or two around the community. I unfolded the remainder of the page and studied it almost as carefully as I did my mother's listing. In there were army men, other such "homemakers" as my mother, a grocer, as well as some people whose "death resume" read like a novelette. By comparison, my mother's obituary seemed rather paltry, but only because she didn't have any of those fancy organization titles: names and honors reaped upon her by her peers, lauding her accomplishments in service to her community.
Still not wanting to minimize the effort my father had made in condensing my mother's essence, I was distraught that there was not some sort of tribute to her that could be listed, such as the accolades I read beside some of her fellow "death mates." I kept my feelings to myself for the time being, but they continued to well up often, leaving the sour taste of mental bile one just couldn't seem to digest. Occasionally, I would want to stick my head out an open window and shout, "She lived!" to the world outside, just to remind everyone... including myself.
It was a long trip--both in body and spirit--from the moment I first learned of my mother's death until the moment I saw her laying so peacefully in her coffin. I stood transfixed before her, trying to piece it all back together, as if the whole week had been torn into a million shreds and I had to reassemble it, just to keep my focus on the Big Picture of life.
I never knew my mother as anything other than one simple syllable: Ma. A long time had passed since I was a toddler before I could even get my mind around the fact that she could have a name. That name was Margarette, and I remember keenly honing in on the fact that it had to end with an 'ette,' as if to make it special, more unique than any other name on the planet. To me, she already was special; she didn't need a specially written name to convey that to me. Or was an "ette" symbolic of a "little one," something like being "daddy's little girl?" No, on second thought there was nothing small or delicate about Ma. She was as big a woman as ever I had known.
The only other name I ever heard Ma referred to was "Muncie," a name my father invented well before I was born, to which none of us children were given the secret as to its origin. I think we all concluded that this was the special affectation to which a husband was afforded his bride; it deserved no explanation and children never asked about. Hearing it when they were in each other's presence was as natural to me as hearing the term "honey" or "sweetheart." I never questioned its origins.
As I stood before Ma's coffin, it seemed to me that I knew relatively little of the woman who gave birth to me.
My sister Deanna walked up behind me and said something seemingly inconsequential.
"She looks good."
Good? Good for a dead person? Surely, that was true and pretty darned good for being freshly dead. The mortician practiced his art well. But this was not my mother. "Good" doesn't describe the cold marble texture of once warm and rosy cheeks, fashioned into a smile that was to be worn for all eternity. "Good" doesn't describe the unnatural folding of arms across one's stomach, pinned together with Crazy Glue and steel wire, the hands clasped in perpetual prayer. "Good" didn't wear this much makeup in life, nor did it wear a dress I'd never seen in my life. Yes, Ma looked pretty "good" for a dead person, but she looked pretty bad for a living person, and I wanted so badly to think of her as still alive. "Good" was a plastic sheen lacquered over her features and presented too dolled up to look lifelike, but it was only a "good likeness." I wanted to see her eyes open and scream bloody murder that somebody had shined her up like an apple and propped her up on a crappy pillow with no neck support. Then she'd crawl out of the coffin, smear that cap off of her face, and holler, "Let's go home! Now!"
It wasn't at all "good," but I nodded my head to Deanna's statement, keeping my pain from turning into anger and aimed at no particular foe. Is this what happened to us at the end of it all? Where was the statement of one's life? Who was this individual that got boxed and shipped out of Life's doorway like a factory model reject? Where was Ma? And when I looked at my father's long face, I'm sure he asked himself, "Where is Muncie?"
The name "Muncie" sort of drove home that point to me. That she could have had a life outside of raising a family was something I had not considered. But when I remembered the words written in her obituary--"a gifted pianist," "paralegal," "lover of travel"--I could think only of the sacrifices in her life, the things she gave up for us, instead of becoming that person who could have traveled the world as a concert pianist or a legal wonder. Was her life made less important because she chose to raise us?
The dimensions of that sacrifice expanded with each minute I stood staring at the painted smile on her face. I began to realize that I may have traveled a thousand miles to get here for her funeral, but I had actually stepped across a lifetime. I could not ignore that like I ignored the landscape rushing underneath me while seated in a plane. I needed to stop and inspect this.
Upon hearing of her death, I had spent the remainder of that week just physically transporting myself to the place where I now stood in that chapel.
The moment of knowing came as an incongruous electronic beep over my pager that my wife, Sally, made to me as I started the third new day of a new job. It was about nine o'clock in the morning. My hip buzzed with the electric tickle of something I would likely find annoying, and I called her to talk to her about her message. She knew little at the time, and merely asked that I call my sister, Deanna, in Nevada. Another phone call later to Deanna, and I was being asked by her to call my father in Colorado. The whole bucket brigade of phone calls and disjointed messages led me to believe that something was out of the ordinary. I just don't get that many personal calls.
When I called my father in Colorado Springs, he proceeded to relate to me a series of events that sounded as though Ma had had a serious accident of some sort. It began with "I know you're busy but..." which was my father's way of setting me up for something big. Had I known what he was about to say, I don't know if I could have come up with a better prologue had the roles been reversed.
Knowing that my mother had been housebound for the last fifteen years put the notion out of my head that it was an automobile accident. I know that she had been in uncertain health, but that was only because she had recently been diagnosed as Type II diabetic, and she was being feisty about "taking the cure." She hated doctors and, worse than that, she hated getting outside the house to actually visit a doctor. She was fighting my father as well as the doctor every step of her treatment, being totally belligerent about watching her diet, and feeling like a total invalid even when she insisted that she was as strong as an ox.
As he spoke to me, my father's voice revealed the details of the morning, as if some strange, slow-motion play of cause-and-effect were taking place, relating a timetable of events to me. It began with her waking up in an "okay mood," and proceeded to the instant she was in the hospital fighting for her life.
Then, as if to say..."and then one thing led to another... and she... didn't make it..." my father caught me off guard with a style totally unlike what I was used to hearing from him: he was blunt. I spent the last minute listening to this garish orchestration of carefully chosen words, waiting for him to make some kind of point, and then it hit me. I stopped nervously dog-earing a textbook as I sat there looking at my new desk, and choked back the words that seemed the only obvious conclusion.
"You mean... she's... dead?"