The text from my brother was there when I woke up. “Mother’s gone.” I rolled over in bed and laid there for a minute.
Gone. Mother was gone. The space she never really seemed to fill up completely, or well, was officially empty.
I texted my children. “Grandmother’s gone. I’ll keep you posted on details. Love you madly.” Heart heart.
I got up, peed, and called Bob.
“She passed quietly, when Karen was out of the room. It happened early this morning … about 2:30.”
“Any idea what the plan is?”
“No plan yet. The funeral home has been there, and Karen has gone to breakfast with Cornelius.” Cornelius is Karen’s grown son.
“Okay. Just keep me posted.”
Bob. My brother. I was the oldest, he was next in line. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. We grew up, drifted apart, then back together. He and I, in our separate lives, had sought all the good counsel we could find, determined — each of us — to land on our feet as the people we were put here to be. And for the most part we succeeded. Our lives had been shaped by our childhoods, as most lives are; we were determined that our choices as adults were not defined by them. We’re now in our senior years, and we’ve never been closer.
The funeral arrangements lunged and looped like a Chinese fire drill. Ten grandchildren were all over the world, we six children were spread across the country … and schedules were impossible to coordinate.
“Karen said the funeral director told her he could oil mother down if we need to wait a few weeks till everyone could be there.” My stomach turned, but before I could respond, he continued … “and she said no, she’s not going to leave mother in an icebox that long. We’ll schedule around when we siblings can be there, and hopefully the grandchildren can make it. But we gotta move on this.”
So we gathered, we hugged, we rosaried, we viewed mother’s body in a box. We attended the funeral Mass where the young priest talked, in personal terms, about life, and death, and the fact that the circle of life, while it can be painful, is also beautiful.
We drove to the cemetery and sat facing the box. The deacon read a passage, we all bowed our heads. We watched in silence as the swarthy worker removed his hat, adjusted the pulleys, and lowered the box into the ground. When he was done, he gave a quick nod, put on his hat, and walked away.
After a couple of minutes we began to rise and drift into small groups; we chatted in hushed tones, and headed to our cars. It was a sizable group, I guess. Mother’s six children, some of her grandchildren, a couple of great grandchildren, nieces and nephews … each person knew a ‘piece’ of Ruth. And now, she was gone. Her story is gone with her, except for those pieces she left with each of us.
No two pieces were exactly the same, and I couldn’t help wondering … if we put them all together, would they make the whole of who she was? There was no way to know. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be, after all.
My daughter Michelle was heartbroken that her schedule prevented her from coming.
“I can’t be there then.”
“Go, my darling, and live your life. Grandmother is not in that box. She’s up above the clouds, young and healthy, dancing the jitterbug with Granddad.”
Lately I’ve been wondering how much of me is left. I mean, when I think back, it seems like there have been at least a couple of incarnations in this one lifetime. I was someone’s kid in the first lifetime, and a sister. In the second lifetime I was someone’s wife, and mother. How much of me did that use up? By the time I became a wife, did I remember who that girl was? Was I still that person? Today I’m someone’s mother, someone’s mother in law, and someone’s grandmother. What about that kid? Is she still here? Does she know how old we are? Is she observing the relationship challenges, the unreached horizons that float in the mist, just ahead of wherever it is I am? Or is she the one driving me forward?
It’s funny. These days there’s a familiar authenticity inside my skin; is this what she felt then? Or is that dementia? Is that old age? I don’t know. But I can tell you this: I feel more on purpose than I’ve felt since I was five. Since I was the kid on that swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion, crying because I couldn’t write a song like the ones on the radio. I don’t cry about that now. Today I’m grown up, and I write songs for a living. Does she know?
When I work on the various projects that keep my passions fired, I feel her here. She sits across the table, smiling at me, her chin resting on one dimpled hand.
I also feel her tears. When my Daddy — OUR Daddy — died earlier this year, she is the one who cried into my pillow. She’s also the one who took my sister’s face in her hands at the funeral home and told her everything was okay. In many ways I felt like I was watching her do that. I was the observer. Looking back at that weekend, I realize the girl of me led us through it with her broken heart wide open, loving everybody as big as she could.
Since then, she and I have hit a rough patch. One where healing and grief keep getting locked in hand to hand combat. It leaves me bone weary, and she’s trying to make sense of it all.
When I lie down and rest my head in the dark, I feel her there. She keeps watch through the night. Sometimes in that space between awake and asleep, I hear her whisper, “Daddy always believed in us.” The adult of we never thought so. The girl of we always knew.
There are those who would call me daft for seeing us as two separate people. Shrinks might tell me to “integrate.” I reject that clinical diagnosis. The adult mind lives on the surface where life appears steady, things are kept in tidy lines, and all rules apply. But the child mind is boundless; it explores below the surface. There are times I need to get hopelessly lost in her world of unseen wonder, secret caverns, mighty whirlwinds, and fragments of dreams unlived. This is where the thrill of excitement rides in on a sunbeam, where fragile hearts dive deep, shatter and heal, only to dive deep again.
Not breaking through the surface with her would pose a far greater risk to my Spirit. I cannot bear the thought of skimming the top, and never living the we of me at all.
If Daddy can see us, we know he’s proud.