Just before the funeral director closed the lid of my mother’s casket, she sent everyone but immediate family out of the room, so my siblings and I and our families would have a final chance to say goodbye alone. Then she stepped in front of the casket, and in the monotone voice funeral directors and customer service hotline operators cultivate for difficult conversations, she held up a little red enamel dove. It was like the little pins you got in high school in the eighties for participating on the forensics team or the school literary magazine.
I didn’t hear everything she said about the pin; the gist of it was that doves represent eternal life and this particularly tacky dove would accompany my mother on her journey.
I’m lost in 2004 while the funeral director keeps talking. When one of your parents is dying and the other is sliding into dementia, ordinary moments are moving chords; they never mean just what they mean. It was probably February. My mother and I were standing by the kitchen window on Marvle Valley Drive, looking out into the barren woods. “They aren’t going to bloom this year,” she told me, her gaze taking in all of the trees in the dense woods behind the house.
“What?” I asked her. “What do you mean they aren’t going to bloom?”
“They are dead,” she told me. “All the trees are dead.”
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Easter always made perfect sense. We buried the “Alleluia” on Ash Wednesday, and the world acted out the Lenten season. Dark came early, stark branches spread like gnarled hands across the back yard, and what little light there was turned the sky a milky gray.
Here in 2015, the funeral director is talking about resurrection, bending over the coffin and pinning the tacky red dove to my mother’s pale blue jacket. She doesn’t place it carefully, in the spot where it would look the most pleasing, as my mother would have done, but sort of randomly, in a spot that was easy for her to reach while she kept one eye on us. I want her to stop, but I don’t know how to make that happen.
Growing up in Pittsburgh during those long gray Lents, there would come a day when I’d run home from the bus stop, and the house would be full of pussy willow branches. My mother always spotted the first buds and filled the house with vases full of this soft promise that winter was ending. Then Easter would come, the forsythia would bloom, and you would believe. Every single year, the whole world acted out the resurrection.
I’m thinking about that year when my mother stopped believing in spring when the funeral director turns back to face all of us, a harmless looking little baggie in her hand. “Here,” she tells us, “are pins just like your mother’s for each of you.” She walks around our awkward semi-circle handing them out. She’s saying something else—(it might as well have been “do this in remembrance of me”) –something about wearing them to be connected to our mother forever—and I want her to stop.
There was a point not long before my father died when neither of my parents were eating much of anything. Cancer was making food unappetizing for my father. My father’s cancer was making life unappetizing for my mother. But somehow, for a while, they could both eat at Olive Garden. I was home for a visit and we were eating minestrone and breadsticks at the Olive Garden just behind the Crowne Plaza where my sisters and I would stay when we came home for my mother’s funeral.
“What if none of it is true?” my mother asks. She is sitting by the window and looks even smaller than usual. The moment is too intimate, too raw. These aren’t the kind of feelings we say out loud to each other in my family. I wanted her to stop.
At some point, the woman in the funeral home stops talking. I drop the little dove in the change purse of my wallet. I don’t notice what my siblings do with theirs. We process in cars with little black flags on their hoods to St. Louise where I went to grade school and where Uncle Larry says the funeral mass. Then we process to the cemetery, and then back to St. Louise where strangers serve us chicken and potato salad and cookies. I wish I could say it was raining, but it is sunny and clear, and there is a tiny woman standing outside the church watching us leave. I do not know who she is, but I can feel that she is blessing us.
Back home in Albuquerque, I don’t know what to do with the dove. For a few weeks, I leave it sitting on the dresser. I’m angry about it. I feel like the funeral director bound us in a sacrament of her own creating. “Really?” I keep asking myself. She thought she could bind us to our mother in her grave with a cheap pin the funeral home probably buys in a pack of a hundred?
I haven’t talked to my siblings about the dove, so I have no idea what they think about it. Perhaps they found it moving, and by writing I am ruining it for them. Maybe we checked yes by some box and asked the funeral home to perform this final service. Maybe my parents requested it in their preplanning. “For an additional $12.95,” the director is saying, back in those easy days before death crept over the horizon. I can even imagine my parents’ conversation. “No, I don’t think we should do that for my funeral,” my dad is saying, “but you might like that, Cathy.” And I can imagine my mother being rather noncommittal, thinking that if my father thought it was a good idea she had no problem going along with it. She was, I imagine, pragmatic about how she’d feel about tacky baubles once she was no longer alive.
I tell the story of the dove to a friend who suggests I throw it away. “It’s nothing to you,” she says. She’s right, of course, except that what she suggests is impossible.
It sat on my dresser for a few weeks, and then I decided to put it back in the little change purse on the side of my wallet. I look at it when I am trying to find a nickel and two dimes and three pennies so I don’t have to break a bill. Maybe someday it will fall out and I will or will not notice. Maybe one day I’ll wonder where it is and get out of bed to search for it in the middle of the night.
The months since my mother’s funeral have been fraught with a series of health emergencies for my siblings. I admit to having a moment when I wondered if the funeral director had cast her spell too literally; perhaps it’s dangerous business to talk about binding people to other people in their graves. For some reason, I can imagine my father finding this hilarious, in an Oscar Wilde sort of way, if we all were reunited too soon on the other side.
The evening of the funeral since we’re all still in town, we throw a surprise birthday party for my sister back at the hotel. We get Danny’s hoagies and Bethel Bakery cake and a bunch of bottles of wine and share them outside on the patio. Later, when the rain finally comes, we fly into the hotel. We’ve been moving as a flock through these last few days, and this final night is no different. The great love between our parents was the central fact of our childhoods. Maybe, as my Uncle Larry is certain, my parents were somewhere else that night in some bodily form, celebrating their long-awaited reunion. It’s hard to wrap your head around. I like to think they were right there with us on the patio, binding us together in the sacrament of birthday cake and wine.
I was having trouble finishing this essay. There’s too much unsaid—how our relationships with our mothers are always fraught. How we miss the mothers we had as well as the mothers we never had. How the person who fed you and taught you to find faces in clouds and mountains is the same person who told you “You have the wrong ideas about everything,” and said, quoting her mother, “What do you want, that the camera should lie?”
Then my friend Mary brought her mother to choir practice last night. We were singing “Take up your cross” when the tears came and kept coming. I came home from practice and still didn’t finish the essay.
Then just now, Fred and I watched last night’s Late Show. Stephen Colbert is interviewing Joe Biden, who sounds a whole lot like my Uncle Don as he talks about his faith and the loss of his son.
We were never a family to say hard things out loud. We weren’t a family who said I love you, or hugged, or shared our problems with each other. But somehow, that didn’t keep us from forming a net, a web with points in Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Steven Colbert told Joe Biden that his mother used to say, “What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know that life is gonna break your heart?”
My family never said that out loud, but we lived it. And we lived a corollary Stephen Colbert didn’t mention. When the heart break comes, all you can do is hold on. And maybe find a reason to throw a party.