Death brings out the worst and the best in people, especially in families, and I have seen my share of death, trying unsuccessfully to keep my distance. Death finds us all in the end.
All the unresolved issues, arguments, and missed opportunities come back with vengeful force, and so it is with my family. My mother died last night.
Beanie called me last night to tell me Mom was dead. Through hysterical tears and heightened emotions (good thing Dan was driving), she told me the news. My first impulse was to tell her the joke was in poor taste; I squelched it. When I couldn't grasp the facts quickly she began screaming at me. "She's dead. Mom's dead. Don't you get it?" Yes, I got it.
I called my brother, The Mushroom, because he keeps a cool head in situations like this, and I often wonder if it is because he doesn't feel anything deeply or that he covers his emotions so well. It's a big change from the usual weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth that grips the rest of the family. Dad was like that, too, a duck whose feathers shrugged off the storms, water gushing over the oily feathers without touching the down and heart beneath.
The Mushroom gave me the facts. I'm good with facts. They provide a calm center in the worst of family hurricanes and cyclones, providing a touchstone of calm in an otherwise turbulent background.
Hoity-Toity came home from work and found Mom lying face down on the sofa, her heart having stopped at the moment she walked to the sofa and taking her down in an instant. I doubt she felt much pain; the pain is left for her family. Hoity-Toity, through her tears and guilt, called the important people: cousin Laura, the Mushroom, and Beanie, all of whom rushed from different parts of the compass to be there. The sheriff pulled up as the Mushroom pulled into the driveway at Hoity-Toity's house while he was talking to me.
As I called more of the family, Aunt Anne, my children, and Uncle Bob and Aunt Lois, more of the story emerged. Laura had called Uncle Bob and Aunt Lois and the news spread along the family network like wildfire in a dry and desiccated forest. Only my children and Aunt Anne were surprised by the news that yet another of our clan was gone and chaos had descended.
Mom would have loved the stir as a faithful disciple and spreader of chaos, even more so because she was once again at the center, only marginally pushed aside by Hoity-Toity, hysterical in her grief and guilt at Mom having died alone. Probably the only marginally funny moment to come out of this first storm of grief was Laura's suggestion we hire a helicopter and spread her ashes over Lazarus where Mom spent most of her free time and all her and Dad's money when she was alive. Lazarus should at least put up a prominent platinum plaque in her honor; they have lasted this long because of Mom's faithful patronage.
Yes, Mom is being cremated, as Dad was five years ago, and after railing and trying to guilt me out of my desire to be cremated. She was so invested in monuments and graves and places to go on Memorial Day to place flowers and parade her grief. How could I even consider being cremated? It was a slap in the family's face, but I was adamant, and remain adamant, that I will be cremated. I think Mom came around to the idea when The Mushroom told her he wanted to be cremated. I was always the trail breaker, the first to step out against tradition, but nothing ever caught on until one of my younger siblings took a step in the same direction as if they were the first. Mom will be cremated but not without her parade of grief and show of friends and family.
Family you can pretty much count on when someone dies, many of whom will come to make sure it's not an elaborate and costly joke. They want to see the body in its coffin to be sure the person is dead. Oftentimes, funerals remains one of the few times that family still come together, burying old feuds and disagreements to follow the funeral cortege in mourning black. The intricate to-and-fro dance of renewing old ties and catching up on the years of silence continues the tradition of public mourning. Some traditions are bred in the bone and sinew and funerals and mourning (or assuring oneself of) the dead is one of them.
I forget who said or wrote it, but funerals are supposed to be a sign of sentient intelligence. Coming together to mark a passing is proof we have climbed out of the mindless muck and become aware of the gravity and importance of life and death. I wonder how many funerals whoever that was had attended.
Mom told me that she knew she would not be mourned the way Dad was and continues to be mourned. I didn't agree or disagree, but I was curious to know why she thought that, so I asked. "Everyone loved your father and he made friends easily. I am more difficult, not lovable."
How right she was -- and is. She was difficult. No one knew how difficult better than I do.
Mom was vain, selfish, jealous, controlling, manipulative, greedy, and self-centered. She could also be generous and kind -- and she reminded you of how generous and kind at every opportunity, not so much to remind you she had been kind, but to let you know you owed her for her generosity and kindness. To strangers she seemed a kind woman, but even acquaintances soon lost the rosy tint in their glasses. She was implacable and unrelenting in her anger, only softening with age as her memory failed, but even then she clung to the edited version of her life and actions that proved she was an exemplary human being. She wasn't. She was vicious, vindictive, and full of venom, but in that moment when she told me she knew we wouldn't miss her and mourn her as we did Dad, she knew.
There are more than five decades of anger and hurt I could write about (and I will eventually) Mom, but there is really no need right now. Whatever harm she caused, whatever grief and bitterness she left behind, she was a big part of our lives and now she's gone. She died alone hours before she was found face down on the couch, getting her 5-year wish to join Dad. She finally made it. She died.
She leaves behind 4 children, 10 grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren, 9 of the great grandchildren belonging to my boys. She leaves her brother, the sole remnant of her branch of the vast May clan, and his five children and numerous grandchildren.
As Mom looks down and sees the chaos left in her wake, she is smiling. She would have loved the theater of it all. She died as she lived, a disciple and proponent of chaos.