Thursday, December 29, 2016

Plastic Lilacs

Plastic Lilacs

It rained the night before my mother’s funeral. I had both seen and met Lindsey Stirling for the second time that night. That’s another story—one that included a mention of my mother by Sister Stirling, while in concert. She dedicated the song Take Flight to her memory that night, for which I’m greatly touched. I recalled that it rained the previous time I saw Lindsey. But this time I was escorted by the first of many viceroy butterflies. They would follow me for the rest of the summer—whether in America, or across the pond. They seemed to guide and comfort me. I’ve written about them before, yet they continue to mystify me.
    Melanie, a friend from university, came to pick me up that morning. She had one of her children with her—the youngest boy, about a year old. He looked at me, as we sat in the funeral home parking lot. I had been all nerves on the way over, and now young Segin was only person who could calm me down. He didn’t say much. Instead, he just smiled at me as I stroked his hair and his cheeks.
     “They say that it’s good to bring a baby to a funeral.” Melanie 
said. “It helps you to know life continues.”
       “I wrote about that in the eulogy.” I said.

        I took a few deep breathes. Melanie held my wrist for a 
second, and then asked if I was okay.

           “I think I’m going to throw up.” I said.

            “No, don’t throw up. Just take a minute.”

            I felt a cold shiver inside of me. I spread from my chest, and into my arms and legs. It had been with me that morning, and wouldn’t go away. Even though the weather was mild that morning, it was to heat up by the afternoon. Still, I couldn’t shake that cold shudder.

            I thought to myself, “My mother hated hot weather, though she died in summer.”

            When I was ready, I stepped out of the car.

            I walked slowly, and felt like I had no strength in my legs. Yet there was something that propelled me forward. I knew that I had to see my mother one last time. I had my conversation with her in the hospital after she’d died. But I had to see her one last time, before my sisters reduced her to a pile of cinders.

            It wasn’t what Mom had wanted, but I didn’t hold it against my sisters. They assembled the cheapest funeral they could get. I felt a bit sick about it, until I thought, “David Bowie, Prince, John Lennon, Douglas Adams, and the ancient Celts were all laid to rest in a similar manner. So was Darth Vader and Qui Gon Jin.” I took some comfort in that. Perhaps she was being given the funeral of a warrior, or a bard? This is one of the sillier things I’ve thought to comfort myself in a painful time. It helped a little, but it wasn’t until weeks later that I’d be at peace with it. That was when I had the dream about the yew tree.

            My aunt Glenda, my mother’s last surviving sister greeted me. Her sons, my cousins were there, as were my half-sisters. Some of Mom’s work friends were there as well—people she’d known from her time at the security desk at the mall.

            One of them, Carol, said to me, “I was the lucky one. Your mother was my friend.”

            I said to her, “I wish Mom had gotten out more. I wanted her to, but she just wasn’t as active anymore.”

            We stood in front of these poster boards that Nicolle (one of my sisters) had made. It featured family photos, most which I’d not seen in decades.

            Melanie asked, “Which one is little you?”
          I pointed out a photo of me as a teenager, one in which I had long hair and glasses. I looked like reject in a John Lennon look-a-like contest, which was the look I went for in my teens. I could never sing like him, or play guitar as well. It didn’t stop me from trying. 

         I noticed that few the photos featured me with my mother, which didn’t surprise me. I’m not very close with my blood-relations. We’ve seldom seen each other since I returned from California.

            When my sisters and cousins saw me with Melanie, they assumed we were a couple. To which I replied, “No, Melanie is married, but not to me.”

            “Segin isn’t Riley’s kid.” Melanie added, with a laugh. 

            That was a huge relief, too. I don't do dirty nappy duty. Unless I have a kid, the rule stays in place.  

            As soon as she was out of earshot, Danielle made some remark to Nicolle about Melanie nursing Segin. It was the usual judgement Danielle would dish out. Melanie was discreet about it. She’s a mom, and we were honoring my mother that day. What else would be more appropriate?

            Finally, I approached the casket.

            Mom was laid out in the dress she wore to my half-brother’s wedding. It was this vanilla-colored dress with flowers on it. She looked like a president’s wife in that dress. It still fit her. Her hair and makeup were done as she’d always done them—tweezed eyebrows, bright red lipstick, rouge, and teased hair.

She always did her makeup like a woman from the 1940’s, because that’s who she was. When we’d watch Agent Carter together, half of her comments were about how women dressed during that era, and the make-up they wore. The world had changed so much since then. She was a baby boomer—a generation that is now aging out, and growing old. Odd to still call them baby boomers. I sometimes wonder what’ll happen when Generation X becomes elderly, and alternative rock becomes oldies music. God help us.

The one thing I didn’t like was the frown on Mom’s face. She never frowned. My paternal grandfather had this goofy smile on his face when he was laid out. Still, my mother’s face looked joyless. The muscles had lost their tension, and so her high cheeks had begun to sag.

In her hands were plastic lilacs. They were her favorite flower, but since they were out of season, we had to use fake ones. On her lapel was a pin shaped like a tea kettle, for obvious reasons. Mom loved tea, and passed that thankful addiction onto me.

“Can those go with her?” The Funeral Director asked.

“Yes,” my sisters said.

They stepped away, and went to the chapel, where the minister was about to speak. I stood there, with mom, after everyone else had left.

On the final viewing, I said, “Mom.”

I began to cry.

I was the last person to see her before the lid was closed.

A few moments later, I joined everyone in the chapel. I sat up front, next to my Aunt Glenda, and the Minister’s podium. The casket was wheeled in soon after, with the lid closed. It was a reusable one, which had a paint smudge on one of the handles. That was appropriate, since Mom had ceramic studio when I was a kid. It was in the basement of our house. My mother taught painting classes, and my father would pour the molds, and fire the kiln. She was always covered in paint.

The Minister began his service, of which I only remember fragments. He talked a little bit about my mother, though he didn’t know her. All the info he spoke was secondhand, given to him by my half-sisters. I recall that there’s some Jewish tradition that if the rabbi doesn’t know the deceased, they will call on mourners to talk about them. We aren’t Jewish, so that tradition didn’t play into this. Mom was Irish, and yet we didn’t even have a proper wake. I have yet to do the, “Before the Devil knows you’re dead,” toast. No one lifted a glass to her memory. I was the only one to give her a eulogy.

I’m not bashing the Minister’s performance that day. He did fine. It’s just that it felt odd that a stranger should talk about my mother. The part about her gag gifts was true, as was her habit of feeding any stray animal. Still, it wasn’t enough.

I gave my eulogy, and found that I did something I could never do before—I made my relatives laugh. I also made them think. I was surprised at how well did. I’m good at public speaking, but had to learn it from school, as an adult. I couldn’t have done this as a teen or a twenty something. Mom used to say that as we get older, we get chutzpah. May she was Jewish, and just forgot to tell us? It would explain her penchant for latkes. She was right, we do gain courage as we get grow. I had bigger cajones now than I did as a child. Well, obviously. I mean, I’d hope so.

You can read the contents of the eulogy in a previous blog entry, which I’ll link here.

I returned to my seat after the eulogy. My Aunt Glenda thanked me for it, as did other relatives. As I was leaving the chapel, I saw Megan and Thomas at the back. She gave me a massive bear hug, and then both followed us out.

Melanie had asked if we were going to the cemetery. To which I replied, “No. we’re not.”

My family had already left by this point, as they headed to lunch. It was just me, Melanie, Segin, Thomas, and Megan. We talked about my search for an apartment. We talked about my upcoming trip to England. I told them that I was meeting Eleanor and Justine in person for the first time. I mentioned The Eagle and Child—Tolkien and C.S. Lewis old pub, and how I wanted to visit it.

The conversation drifted to other things, and we were approached by the Funeral Director.

“You don’t have to leave, but we have a tight schedule.” He said.

I saw them bring in the marquee with my mother’s name on it. I figured we’d better leave, or I may see them wheeling out the casket. The Funeral Director said we could talk in the front parlor, but I decided to go. I walked by myself to the large wooden doors of the funeral home, and then opened then with one hand. I felt a sense like I was marching off to something, or confronting something. I still can’t explain it.

Melanie, Segin, Ashley, and Rigel (her three youngest children) headed to lunch after that. I don’t think I could have sat with my blood-relatives, and had lunch with them. I just needed to get away. I felt it was best to sit with a friend and her family. We talked about random things, none of which was related to death. However, one thing did come up on the way to pick up her youngest son and daughter.

“My sisters aren’t burying Mom. It upsets me a little. It’s like every trace of her is being removed.”

“You’ll just have the ashes?” Melanie asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You can think of them as her remains.”

Nearly a month later, I had a strange dream about that. I dreamed that I had taken a boat to Ireland, to plant my mother’s ashes in the ground. I did so, and a large yew tree sprang up where I’d interred them. A golden arc of sunlight surrounded the tree, just as the sun was setting. I woke soon after.

Though I’ve written about this dream before, it still feels important to me. I’ve interpreted it many ways—one of which may yet come to pass. My sisters and I are in a disagreement on what to do with the ashes. I know the ashes aren’t my mother, just what was left of her body. Still, I had an idea of what I’d like to do. Still, my sisters are divided on whether to bury them, or place them in a columbarium. I want to scatter them, but Danielle isn’t keen on the idea. So, as of writing, they sit in her house in a box.

My half-brother did not attend the funeral. He’d moved to Florida a month before, and didn’t tell my mother. Though he didn’t say much when called about my mother’s death, we assume he didn’t feel much either. I don’t want to speak for him, but T.J. was never the sentimental type. He’s a direct contrast to me. I doubt I’ll see him again.

That night, I strung up Christmas lights, so that the apartment wouldn’t be so gloomy. I sang She Moved Through the Fair, a song that both my mother and I loved. So much so, she had lyrics to it printed out and framed.

While the Christmas lights were on, I lit a candle—a lilac scented one. I then had one more conversation with Mom. I won’t repeat what I said here, because it’s between Mom and myself.  I told her everything that had been on my mind, both loving and painful. I said things to her that I’d not said during her life, but wished I had. Time seemed to stop in that moment. Even the sunset seemed frozen. Eventually, I stopped talking, and then sat down to write. The blood stains were still in the carpet, and though covered with a sheet, that only made them more visible. Still, I wrote, and felt as if her presence was there.

In time, I would learn to forgive my mother for all the times she wasn’t there for me. I forgave her for arguments, insults, misunderstandings, and times when she could be calloused. But I also remembered times when she was funny, loving, and supportive. I’ve come to realize that no mother is perfect. Every mother I know, young and old, have made mistakes. Some parents in general are better than others. Some instill values, and other instill nothing. Regardless, we’re all sort of in the dark on how to be parents, and just making it up as we go along. All parents hope they don’t raise the next Hitler (though some come close) and that their kid grows up to be a decent human being. I may never know that first hand, but you never know.

Two weeks after the funeral, I was let go from the job I had at the time. It was through no fault of my own. I was angry, but at the same time, as Eleanor pointed out, “It’s probably best you’re not working in that toxic environment.” She was right, though at the time I needed the money. I wasn’t sure where I’d live, or what I’d do. All I knew then was that I was going to England for a week, and nothing would stop me.

That’s another tale, for another time. Some of those stories have already appeared here. There are many other stories to tell about England, and the U.K. in its entirety. There will be many more in the future.

My life since my mother’s death has been an unsettled one. I didn’t realize that my mother was the center of my world, until that center had been removed. Though my relationship with her was complicated, I never gave up on her. In the subsequent months, I came to realize that perhaps my mother had given up—not on me, but on life. I think she refused an ambulance the first time because she wanted to go. The second time she was in hospital she fought the doctors and nurses. The third time, she just wanted to go, and did. I wasn’t ready to let go of her. One can’t make decisions like that when one is loved. I tried to get her to therapy, and tried to make her realize that life was still worth living. I failed in that, but it may have not been my mission to save her. I can’t say what my mission was, or still is.

All I know is this…

You don’t fight that hard for someone unless you love them. You don’t fight that hard to stay alive unless there is a reason to live. You also don’t give up because someone needs to live to tell the story.

I’ve survived one hell of a year.

I have a talent for survival, as I’ve learned over the past decade. With 2017 approaching, and my eyes toward the future, I’m preparing myself for the next big thing.

But first…

Would anyone like some tea?

Mom would have loved some.  

Copyright Riley Joyce 2016

Author's Note: I also wore a purple striped tie, lilac colored, to mom's funeral. I've seldom worn it since then. Though I took it with me to England, just in case I had to dress up. Since then, I've seen it as something of a good luck charm. 



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