Alone in a Crowded Room

After waiting about ten minutes to ensure that our Hospice nurse’s assessment of my mother was accurate, we dialed 911 and told them of my mother’s death at home.

Everyone else seemed to find something to occupy themselves in the minutes before the paramedics arrived:  my sister started making phone calls, my father started picking up this and that, my uncle and aunt talked quietly with my mother’s girlfriend in the corner about what the last several days were like.  My brother answered the door as several people arrived, too late to say goodbye, including my mother’s boyfriend.

But me?  I couldn’t tear myself away from my mother’s lifeless body, still laying on the sofa as if she was just quietly sleeping there, as she had done for the last month and a half.  I felt crazily, scarily alone surrounded by all of these people.  They all had their own versions of who my mother was to them:  friend, wife, sister, lover, mother.  But none of those descriptions were accurate for me.   She was indeed my mother but she was so much more than that to me.  She was my confidante, my roommate, my co parent.   What would I do without her?

I touched her forehead, looking for evidence that she was really gone.  “She’s still warm,” I whispered to myself, as if somehow I could just turn back the clock a few hours, days, months.  Her eyes were still slightly open.   I squinted my eyes just so, trying to visualize for a second what life would be like if she was just really asleep on the sofa, like when I used to come home late at night and she was babysitting for me.   Just a few minutes ago, she was here.  But as I sat there and the minutes piled on top of each other, the reality set in that she was very, very far away.

My sister came and sat next to me on the floor, her phone calls done.  “Her jewelry,” she said simply. “What should we do?”

My mother didn’t wear much these days, but she still had two tiny diamond earrings in her ears and a bracelet on her wrist.  Wordlessly, I turned my mother’s head slightly and removed one earring and put it in my left ear.  I removed the second, and held it out to my sister.  She put it in her left ear as well and hugged me.  I handed her the bracelet.  “I don’t like wearing  jewelry and you do.  You should have it,” I said quietly.

The paramedics came.   AsI’d seen six months ago when our neighbor had passed away, they carefully and quietly did their work and put my mother’s now cold body into a black, rubber bag.  They allowed us one more goodbye before her face disappeared under the rubber as the zipper closed the bag around my mother’s still form.  I stood at the door as the gurney was slowly guided down our front stairs and into the ambulance without its lights on.  I stood there numbly until my father came up behind me and gently closed the door.

I felt the emptiness crack inside of me with the finality of the closing of the door.  She was really gone.  My mother, who had been there for me through my whole life:  protecting me when my brother’s angry rages left me with broken bones, when I crushed on an impossible to reach rockstar, when my father put his energy into his career and went for months without seeing me, when I fell for a boy who lived two hours away, when I chose to major in music in college even though it was not a safe career choice, when I came home from that same college during my freshman year pregnant, when the boy who had gotten me pregnant disappeared (literally), when my first love came back and asked me to marry him, when that boy too disappeared (literally), when my toddler son needed books or clothes or daycare, when I needed time to study or visit with friends or a night of feeling like a regular 21 year old.  My mother had always been there, always been my champion, my rock, my safety net.

“Who will be there for me now?” I wailed, the words angry, and scared, and primal.   I didn’t care who heard and I wasn’t looking for an answer.  There was no answer, of course.  There could be no one there for me now in the way that my mother had been.   I was alone in a way I couldn’t have even imagined.

My father gathered me in his arms.  “I will,” he soothed.  “I’ll be there for you.”

I didn’t correct him.

Gone

February 13, 1993

My mother shifted under the blankets we had wrapped around her lap and shoulders, a sign that the morphine was wearing off and that she was coming out of that drug induced haze that gave her the only relief from her struggle for air.  I looked over to my sister, who picked up the steno pad notebook on the coffee table next to the sofa.  She nodded; the last entry on the medication list had been at 3:40 am.  Likely now, around 8:30, the meds were wearing off and it would be alright to give her some more.

She was groggy but clearly awake as we sponged the dried spittle that had accumulated in the corners of her mouth during the night.  We spoke to her calmly about her brother’s impending arrival; he should be landing at the airport within the hour, renting a car and making the forty five minute trek northeast to our home after that.

I lifted up the blanket on my mother’s lap to put her slipper socks on her feet; the air near the floor was cooler on this February morning.  I gasped, gazing down at the dusky purple/blue color I saw on my mother’s toes.  I pressed my thumb into the bloated skin at her ankles; the impression lasted four seconds, not the flash of an instant that I was used to.

“What?” my sister asked, glancing over from her task of tidying the remnants of our long night:  blankets, tissues, half drunk plastic cups of water.

“Look at her feet,” I said.  “That’s what the nurse said to look for.  They always check her feet and ankles for swelling.”

“I’ll make the call,” my sister said, already walking out of the room in the direction of the kitchen phone.  I could hear her as I furiously rubbed at my mother’s feet, trying to remove the purple color there.  I massaged them carefully between my warm hands, hoping to do the work that I knew her heart was no longer able to.

The worried tones of my sister’s voice carried over the quiet voices of my brother and mother’s friend talking in the kitchen.  She wasn’t just calling the nurse.  As I quietly whispered encouragement to my mother, calmer after I’d administered a few drops of liquid morphine on her tongue, I heard my sister phone my father, my mother’s girlfriends and my sister’s husband.

The sun rose higher in the cold, February sky, and with its rise, people arrived.  My mother’s breathing grew louder and more irregular.  My father strode in and I saw him crumble as he looked at my mother’s blanketed figure on the corner of the sofa.  My sister and I stepped back as he took one of her hands in his and started to whisper quiet words to her.   He cried and her face moved enough to show him that she heard what he was telling her.  He kissed her forehead and walked silently into our kitchen to compose himself.

It was truly a full circle moment from the days of detente after their divorce sixteen years prior.

The nurse arrived to examine my mother.  As she lifted the blanket draped across my mother’s shoulders, she could see that my mother’s hands now were the color of red grapes, and cool to the touch.   Her feet too were back to the dark color I’d spotted there before.  “It’s happening,” the nurse told the group of family and friends in the room.  “It won’t be much longer.” The room was quiet.  My sister, brother and I formed a semi circle around my mother and began trying to warm her extremities.  My mother would breathe in long and loudly, painstakingly slowly, and then exhale.  Each one was a herculean effort, but still she continued on.

Finally, we heard a car outside. It was my aunt and uncle’s rental car. I spoke to my mother in excited tones: “He’s here! Wake up! I can see them walking up the drive! I don’t think he has a bat for you this time!”

She looked up, clearly remembering the childhood prank she’d told us all about.  When they were kids, my uncle had put a dead bat under her pillow from their attic.  Her mouth moved slightly, acknowledging that she’d heard and been amused by my joke.  She kept her eyes on the door until he and my aunt entered. She caught his eyes for a few seconds; it might have been one second, it might have been five.

And then, she leaned back on the pillows, her eyes unfocused. Her breathing became scarily regular, and loud, like a machine.  The nurse took a place beside my mother and listened carefully with her stethoscope.  She was unresponsive to any of the nurse’s commands.  We all knew it before the nurse put it into words.  My mother was no longer conscious.  She’d waited for him. She’d given him his chance to say goodbye, and she was exhausted.  The nurse told us that she was still alive, but in a coma.

During the next twenty or so minutes, her breathing was steady and regular, moreso than it had been for the previous two days. But it grew quieter. And quieter. And finally, the nurse told us, “There’s just a few heartbeats left. It’s time to say goodbye.”

My sister and brother and I all gathered around her in a semi circle. My father stood just to the outside of our grouping.  My uncle and aunt stood just outside the circle, along with the nurse and my mother’s girlfriends.

I took my mother’s hand and squeezed it. I thanked her for everything she had given me over my twenty two years with her. I told her how lucky I was to have had her for a mother. My brother, sister and father all said similar things.

I watched my tears drop on her cold hands. Hands that I had held over the last few months while she coughed, hands that had held me while I stumbled and fell over and over in my life.

And then simply, quietly, without fanfare…she was gone.

The Will To Live

The look on Paul’s face said everything that I knew but had not allowed myself to think about over the last three days.

Paul, the husband of my friend Jewel, was standing at my front door.  It was Friday evening, the darkness spreading early in the cold February night.  My house was loud and bright; there were people in the kitchen speaking loudly and a nurse in the front room with my mother.  Friends had brought over dinner and it was being heartily eaten by the five or six people huddled standing around the table. They were loudly talking, laughing and generally trying to forget the reason they were all gathered here.  If you didn’t look over to the sofa, you would never have known what was transpiring that evening.

But Paul did look.  Paul looked over to my mother on the sofa, with her oxygen tubes snaking out from under blankets, her gray pallor and breathing so loud he could hear it before he even knocked on the door.  The horror on his face said everything about what was really going on at my house that night.  We were on a death watch, and my mother was dangerously close to the end.

“Thank you so much for coming over, Paul,” I said, businesslike, trying to draw his attention away from the spectacle that was unfolding.  “I really appreciate you coming to pick up Zach.  I have all of his things together for overnight.  His toothbrush, his pajamas, his blanket, everything you’ll need.”  I paused.  “Thank you,” I said.  “I don’t even know where to start.  Thank you.”

Paul’s eyes slid from the figure on the sofa to me.  Warm sympathy took over the frozen stare as he composed himself.  “Of course,” he soothed calmly.  “As long as you need us to have him, we’re happy to do it.  Just give us a call tomorrow and let us know how it’s going.”

“I will,” I promised.  “I’m sure we’ll know by midday where we’re at.”

“I’m so sorry.”  Paul gathered me into his arms for a warm hug.  I had heard the words so many times in the last few days that they hardly seemed real anymore.  “I wish there was something more I could do.”

I pulled away from Paul and touched his sleeve.  “I can’t thank you enough for helping me out with Zach.  This is obviously not a good place for him to be right now.  I don’t want him to see any more of….this.”   I turned slightly, seeing the hospital bed, the table full of pills, the portable commode in the center of our living room.

I went to retrieve Zach from the crowd in the kitchen and told him excitedly about his nighttime adventure over Uncle Paul’s apartment.  He smiled at me as I zipped up his warm winter coat, oblivious to the fact that this was the last time he would see his grandmother alive.

The nurse on the sofa beckoned me over as I closed the door.  “I honestly don’t really know how she’s still here,” she told me in between my mother’s bursts of loud, mucous filled breathing.  “She is having a lot of episodes of apnea, she’s not eating or drinking anything and she’s barely responsive.   Is there something she could be waiting for?”

“She keeps asking when her brother is arriving.  Every time the morphine wears off, she asks if he is here yet.”  We’d all been wringing our hands for days over the fact that my uncle had waited so long to get on a plane.  He lived in Los Angeles, and we’d called him two days ago with the word that my mother had taken a significant turn for the worse.  Finally, earlier today the word came that he had been able to get a seat on a red eye flight overnight tonight.  He and my aunt would be arriving at some point late tomorrow morning.

“Ah ha.  That must be it,” the nurse nodded at me.  “I have seen it before.  Patients will themselves to live for a person to arrive or an event to happen or something specific, something tangible.  It sounds crazy, but the will to live is a powerful force.  I would say it’s pretty clear she’s waiting to see her brother.  When’s he going to arrive?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I answered.

“I’ll be by the phone.  It could happen tonight, or she could make it until he gets here, I just can’t say.  But you know the drill, right?”

“Call you first.  Don’t call the police until after she’s passed.”  This was Hospice protocol.  Even with an Advance Directive for no heroic measures, Hospice recommended that families wait to notify the authorities until after the death.

My sister came in from the kitchen.  “Everything OK?”

I laughed aloud.  Everything was about as far away from OK as I’d ever seen them.

Signs

Febraury 12, 1993

It was the middle of the night.

My mother was seated semi upright on the sofa. She couldn’t lay flat any more without the fluids in her lungs overwhelming her into a coughing fit. She sounded asleep; her breathing was now quieter, and more regular than it had been earlier. Her eyes were closed.

My sister, brother and I were scattered about the room, in various stages of consciousness on the floor or chairs. A girlfriend of my mother’s was here with us too; she had driven the two hour drive from her home in Lansing as soon as we had called her the afternoon before. My son was asleep upstairs, oblivious to the goings on below.

The room was dimly lit by a digital clock and the lowest setting on a three way lamp.  It was warm; we’d cranked up the thermostat to keep my mother comfortable.  I could see that my mother’s friend was in the kitchen getting something to nibble on.  Outside, the streetlamps glowed, keeping watch over our vigil.  I grabbed my felt tip pen and journal notebook and wrote the following:

“How does it feel to sit and wait for your mother to die?  My mother is in the last stages before death, where her meds have got her so doped up, she remembers almost nothing.  Her speech is slurred, she’s very weak, and her entire body shakes with the effort of each breath.  Or at least, it used to.  Now she’s quieter.  She was rattling quite loudly from the mucous before, and now her breathing is slower.  This either means the meds are working or she’s very close to death.

This is exactly what I dreaded, remembering her in this terrible state; her mind is so messed up and she can’t do anything for herself any more.  Everyone is coming out to say goodbye; I expect it to happen this weekend.  It is 3:00am on Friday morning.

How do I feel?  I alternate between numbness and tears.  That I am losing someone I’ve taken for granted my entire life.  Something so basic…this is my mom.  And soon I won’t have one.  I can’t believe it’s already here.  It sounds so cliche, but I wish I had more time.  Not like now, of course, but before.  Talking about life, and her parents, and me, and family.  Now she’s so far gone, there’s no chance to say any of it.

I can’t believe it is finally happening.  I knew it would, but it came so fast; really, in the last two days.  At least I was able to take care of her and make a difference at the end.  I wish I could think of words for all of my thoughts, but right now it is easier to let them swirl around my head…”

I stopped writing, hearing  my mother stirring quietly in her place. One by one, each head popped up from where each of us was half asleep, watching my mother.

“Mom?” she asked into into the air, with her eyes closed. We all looked around at each other, wide eyed.  My mother’s mom had died in 1974, when I was four years old. Her father had died nine years before that, in 1965.  There were more words coming from my mother’s mouth, but they were impossible to understand.  I thought I caught the word “coming” and possibly the word “soon”.

“Do you think she sees her?” My sister asked my mother’s friend.

“I think she does, yes” she said.

“It’s on the list,” I whispered. “The list of symptoms that Hospice gave us. The ones that show that they’re getting…close. ‘Discussions with people who have already passed on’ is right on the list.”

“Yes, I see her,” answered my mother, with her eyes still closed.

“She isn’t asleep,” my mother’s friend said, stating the obvious. “She can hear us.”

“She is asking me to come with her,” my mother said. “She said that they are waiting.”  I assumed the “they” meant both of her parents.  I would have never in a million years believed that my mother spoke to her parents if I hadn’t witnessed it myself.  It was the kind of thing that I always thought was a good story, the kind that people tell when they are feeling maudlin or sentimental about those who have passed on.   But it was clear to me that my mother was indeed having a conversation, not a dream.

I sat there in the warm, dark room and tried to hold the moment in my head, knowing that it would be all too soon when this awe I was feeling would be replaced by something much, much worse.

We Just…Knew

February 11, 1993

I went to work the next day, a Thursday, when my mother had slept through the night uneventfully.  She’d been in good spirits considering the addition of the hospital bed and table and commode. I went to school and waited for the phone call that never came.

My old choir teacher (now my colleague) was in line behind me for the copy machine when she asked: “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” And I told her that I just didn’t think it was appropriate or professional to talk about my mother’s cancer at work. Half of the people I was currently working with had been teachers when I had attended this school as a student ten years prior. If anything was going to get them to see me as a grown up and a professional, it wasn’t going to be me talking sadly about my personal troubles. She said she understood, and in a caring voice told me to let her know if I needed anything going forward.

I thought that was nice.

My mind wasn’t really on my work that day, fortunately it was a light day in Life Skills; no cooking. The students were researching food borne pathogens, so it was quiet. I let my mind wander during class, and decided that I would go home for my long lunch break. I lived literally around the corner from the school, and knew that I’d have plenty of time to check in, reassure myself and come back to school with my mind more at ease.

When I pulled into our town house parking lot, I saw some cars I recognized. My sister was supposed to be there, of course, it was the middle of the day. But I recognized a few other cars of my mother’s friends. How odd, I thought. I supposed my sister wanted some company or support for my mom’s mood today;  the hospital bed was something we’d always talked about as a big milestone.

I opened up the door and froze. There was my mother on the sofa, as always, but she was still in her pajamas.   Pajamas.  I knew that meant something was very, very wrong.   It was one of the things that my mother prided herself on; no matter what, she dressed herself, every day.  I had argued with her about this, that she was home anyway, why didn’t she stay comfortable?   She pointed out that being in daytime clothes made her feel that she was just hanging out at home, not a sick person who didn’t have a choice about being there.

Two steps inside the front door and I could see that my mother was having trouble breathing. I could tell by the expression on her face as she looked up at me. A few of her friends were there, and I think someone she worked with at her last job downtown.

In that moment, I knew. I knew the moment I looked at her, before the door even could shut behind me, that we were here. We were there. We were at the end.  This was it.

“Have you called the nurse?” I asked my sister.  She said yes, that the Hospice nurse was going to be by later that afternoon with some new medications to help my mother.  We’d just talked to them last night of course, during another seemingly endless coughing fit.  It was clear we’d turned some sort of corner.  “Let me go back to work and tell them that it is time.”  I forced myself to walk calmly to the door to not alarm my mother, whose desperate eyes I could not shake.  But once out the door, I ran.  I bolted for the car, and sped fifty miles an hour around the corner back to my school.

My former band teacher opened the door for me as I ran up to the front of the school; “Is something wrong?” he asked. I must have looked like a crazy person. “Yes,” I responded too loudly and ran past him, still holding the door, looking bewildered.

I went to my assistant principal and told her that I was going to have to leave my position, effective immediately. I apologized for leaving her in a lurch, but my mother’s illness had progressed to a critical level. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to work until after she passed away, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. The teacher I was replacing was due to be back in a week anyway, and by the time I might return, the position would be over with anyway. My AP was very understanding and sent me along, without argument.

By the time I returned home, the Hospice nurse was at the house.  She confirmed my suspicions;  we were, she told us slowly, at the end. She told us what to watch for: cold hands and feet, swelling in the ankles and calves. She told us we would start to hear my mother’s breathing become more pronounced: ‘They call it the ‘death rattle’ for a reason,” she said. She gave us a bottle of liquid morphine and instructions on how to administer it.

After the crowd left that day, I curled up next to my mother on the sofa and put my head on her shoulder as she slept.  The tears that had taken so long to find me flowed freely.  I felt my mother’s body stir.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice thick with mucous and medication.

I picked up my head from her now wet sleeve.  I couldn’t lie.  I couldn’t be strong in this moment.  “I don’t want you to go,” I said simply, between sobs.

She gently pushed my head back down on her arm and stroked my hair.  “I don’t want to go either,” she responded.

We both knew, though, that she didn’t have a choice.

Downhill

February 10, 1993

It was four or five in the morning. Dark. Quiet except for the whirr of the oxygen machine in the corner. All of a sudden, I heard my mother rustling on the sofa across the room. She was trying to get up.

I popped off of the loveseat where I’d been half asleep and switched on the lamp. “I have to get to the bathroom,” she said, her words thick with sleep and dryness.

I reached under her arm to help her up.  All of the sudden, she moaned.

She didn’t make it.

“It’s OK Mom. Don’t sit down, just stay there and I’ll get some clean clothes and we’ll get you all cleaned up. Stay calm, you don’t want to lose your breath.”

She looked at me with pleading eyes. “This is ridiculous,” she said. “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry you have to do this for me. You shouldn’t have to do this for me.”

I looked at her with my sternest teacher eyes. “Mom, I’m happy to be able to do this for you. And right now, you need to stop freaking out about letting me. I’m here, and I’m glad I am. OK?”

She met my eyes again. “OK,” she said simply, because there was nothing else to say.

As I rushed to get her clean clothes and a bucket with warm, soapy water, I did the mental calculations in my head. It was a good while before I could call my sister to come over and stay with her. Maybe I needed to stay home with her today. But how could I stay home from the teaching job that I was the substitute for? Call a sub for the sub? Did they even do that? I didn’t want to ruin my chances of getting a job at this school. It was perfect; it was close to home, and it was the school I’d attended myself. I loved that idea.

But there was no way I could leave my mother home alone for the usual 7-10 am time frame that I normally did on my work days. We’d set up a schedule of friends and family to come every day, but I didn’t want to ask them to come earlier than ten. And we hadn’t really needed them to; our system had worked well. My mother slept most of that time frame anyway. The friends stayed till about two or three, and I got home at about 3:30 every day after I retrieved Z from day care.

Plus, I didn’t want to ask a friend to deal with a possible day of loose bowels and humiliation on the part of my mother. She would not let anyone else save a family member deal with this for her, and she was having a hard enough time with that. I had to call my sister.

At about 5:45, I picked up the phone. She had a toddler daughter, my niece Samantha, and I hated to do it. It wasn’t easy for her to come over and hang out with my mom; Sammie wanted to grab the long tube for the oxygen and needed to be kept entertained and out of trouble. My sister already took two of the day shifts during the week, and it was hard to ask her for more. She had a house and a husband and all of the things that went along with that.

But I felt like i had no choice. After some tense words between the two of us, my sister agreed to come over at 6:45, in time for me to leave for work on time. I had a time block at lunch where I could come home to check in, and if she was better by then my sister could leave.

I went to work, but my head was at home. I couldn’t help but think that we were at a crossroads with my mother’s illness. This was new on her long list of symptoms. The Hospice gave us a book, with a list of symptoms in it. As you checked off more and more on the list, that meant your patient was closer and closer to the end. I knew I was going to have to say something soon to my school.

I asked my co teacher for my first hour class if I could go speak to the principal. He wasn’t available, but the assistant principal was. I closed the door and told her that I was caring for my sick mother, and that I expected that a phone call could come today or one of the days soon at work, and if that call came, I would have to leave on very short notice. I explained the nature of the illness and briefly that I was the primary caregiver.

My AP gave me the rest of the day off. She told me to go home, to take care of my mother today, and that she would make contingency plans should I be called out of work in the coming days.

So I went home, leaving Z in daycare for the rest of the day in case there were messy things to clean up or hard things to handle that I didn’t want him to see.

But my mom was better when I got home. She was in good spirits and there was no repeat performance of the bout of trouble that had woken us both up this morning. But she knew too, where we were headed. She told me to pick up the phone and call the number in the Hospice book for the medical supply company.

The hospital bed, bedside table on rollers, and the portable commode arrived that evening. The hospital bed that my mother had refused repeatedly because she was afraid that once she got in the bed, she would never get out of it.

I tucked her in that evening, with my good friend B by my side, and knew that we were going downhill much more quickly than I was ready for.

Calla Lilies

“It’s morbid and I really, really don’t want to talk about this,” my brother stated from his perch on the floor of our living room.

The Hospice social worker and counselor had both come to our house this evening to meet with my mother and all three of us kids with one goal in mind:  to plan my mother’s funeral.

The social worker and counselor told my  mother that it could be very comforting for those left behind to see all of the details in place exactly as the person who had passed away had wanted them.  It was also a comfort for the dying person, to know that they had relieved their survivors of having to make the decisions.  They would know where to have donations sent, which funeral home to use, whether or not a casket should be open or not.

“This is exactly the conversation I never got to have with my mother when she died,” my mother explained to my brother, who was clearly not interested in this conversation.  “And that led to arguments between me and my brother and your father.  They all wanted an open casket, but I knew my mother wanted a closed one.  But because we never had the conversation, they didn’t know that was what she wanted.  I want you all to know what I want, and that way that will be one less worry you all have after.”

After.  The word hung in the air, no one wanting to acknowledge it.

I finally broke the silence.  “I get it.  I remember our grandmother’s open casket.  It is, in fact, my first memory.  My first memory is of her funeral.”

My mother blinked.  “Really?  I never knew that.”

“It’s true.  I remember our father picking me up so I could see her.  He told me to tell her goodbye.  I remember thinking, if I never tell her goodbye, maybe she’ll come back to life.  So I never did.”

“I can’t believe you remember all of that,” my sister put in.  “You were so little.”

“It was just before my fourth birthday.”  I paused.  I had been about to say that my young son was even younger than that, but I didn’t want to remind my mother that it was quite likely my son, her sweet firstborn grandchild that she loved so dearly, would likely never have a memory of her.

“OK let’s get back on track,” the counselor broke in.  “Now we understand that you may not like doing this, but your mother would like to have the conversation, and I know that you all want to honor her wishes, right?”

My brother reluctantly nodded.

And so the conversation began.  We discussed every bit of the process.  My mother asked to be cremated; both of her parents were cremated and she thought that made sense.

“But where will we bury your ashes?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be buried,” my mother said.  “I don’t want anyone standing around a cemetery feeling sad.  I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to go ‘visit me’.  I won’t be there.  I want you all to take my ashes up to my favorite beach up north, right outside of my favorite restaurant, and I want you to sprinkle my ashes there.  If there is anything to this ‘final resting place’ business, I want to be able to have a good meal and a drink while I watch sunsets and sunrises over the water.”

The social worker chuckled.  “I think that sounds lovely,” she responded.  I took quiet notes.  My sister’s face grew red and I knew she was trying not to cry.

“What about the service?” the counselor asked.  “We know you’re not a religious person.”

“No church service,” she responded.  “I’ve never been very religious.  I think a memorial service at the funeral home is more appropriate.  But I would be very honored if you would officiate at my memorial.”  She nodded to the counselor, who was also a Catholic nun.

“I would be happy to do that for you,” the Sister responded.  “I’m touched that you feel that I would be able to celebrate your life in the way that you lived it.  Even if I am a nun.”

We all chuckled.  We all felt better knowing the Sister would be there to help us through that difficult day.

My mother went on to request that there be no visitation on the days leading up to her service.  “Those visitation days are hard for the family.  Everyone wants you to accept their sadness while you’re so busy trying to not drown in your own.  I don’t want hours and hours spent like that for you guys.”

“I think that’s very considerate,” the social worker chimed in.

“That works for me,” my brother said glumly.

We went on to decide who would eulogize my mother (her brother and my father, which I thought was a bold move), where donations would be sent, what restaurant we would all eat at afterwards, and which funeral home to use.  It was all very tidy, the notes I took, of what to do and when and how.  My mother agreed to write her own obituary in the coming days, so that we would have that ready to go as well.   There was just one question left.

“What kind of flowers?”  My sister asked this.  For someone who planned a wedding, I wasn’t surprised she thought of that.  It would have never occurred to me.

“Well I know how this goes.  You always say donate to a cause instead of flowers, but people always do it,” she laughed.  She thought quietly for a minute.  “The only flowers I want there are calla lilies.  Just a few, standing up elegantly in a clear vase with water in it.  That’s all I want there.”

I wrote it down:  calla lilies.

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