How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 9


Chris speaking …

When the kids were small, that’s when I really missed my mother. “I hate this kid right now.” I always wished I could say that. I couldn’t say it to anyone, but I could have said it to my mother.

She always had oneupsmanship on stories. When she was pregnant with Joe and she was ironing away, stomach touching the ironing board, one of the aunts asked, “Margaret, what will you name this one?” She put the iron down firmly on the board and said, “Enough!” No more questions. My mother was very subtle. She had decorum. I have sarcasm.

A month before she died, I’d found a lump in my breast. My grandmother had died of breast cancer. My mother had had benign cysts. I remember we were finally getting ready to move onto our land. We’d been transient. Tom was moving the trailer down from Lee. He had to pull it out of the mud in the yard up into the field. I remember going out to my mother. I had her feel my breast. She was calm. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but I’d have it checked.”

I’d need to have it biopsied. My mother spent the day with me. I woke up. “Am I okay?” “Yes.” Euphoria. I remember coming into my room and my mother was there. I remember her looking at magazines and just being there.

I remember Mom was doing dishes and we were out there visiting. She had a mental checklist of four or five things. She said, “There. I have this gall bladder surgery at the bottom of the list, and when that’s done, that’s it.” Something shot through me. Why did you say that, I thought.

She had gone in for gall bladder surgery. I called from work at the vet’s to see how she was doing. I’d stop to see her on the way home. She had the surgery on Wednesday, was due home on Saturday, and she looked great. We had conversations about feelings, things we’d never discussed before. I was just so grateful I could talk to her, honest heart-felt talks.

“I babied Joe too much, but he was sick, and he was my baby, so there.” She mentioned JoAnn. She was concerned about her. JoAnn was in Harrisburg, PA, and she couldn’t wait til JoAnn came home. Joe was with the carnival. I feared for him at that time. When I look back on it, she was wishing she could get everyone together in a safe place, especially Joe and JoAnn. They were the most unstable physically at either end of the family.

I was stopping in every night. Friday I called again and asked, “Is Mom okay?” One of the aunts said, Well, she’s had a setback.” As soon as my father had stepped into her room, she had gone into shock. Called Mike. Joe was in Skowhegan and JoAnn was back. Exploratory surgery. Where was the bleeding from? They were all there. Found nothing. Saturday, Sunday, she was recovering just as she had done before.

“What was it like, Mom?” I asked. She sat back, just kind of settling back, and she said, “I’ve got to wait til I get home and sort this all out.”

Joe was getting ready to take off. JoAnn had settled in Whitefield. Joe and I were visiting at Fran’s house and having nice close conversation, and then I had to go to work. Quandary: I wanted some blue jeans at Slosberg’s. I had time to either get the stupid pants or see my mother. I got the pants, which I’ve since given away, and went to work. I was at the animal hospital alone. (During one of these days, I remember walking back to the car and suddenly her obituary flashed in my head. It just snapped in front of me.)

The phone rang. It was Joe. “I have some bad news for you. Mom died.”

“Joe, you’re kidding.”

“Chris, I wouldn’t kid about this.” I said I’d be right home. I called the vet who lived right around the corner.

“My mother died.” Silence on the other end. “”I’ll lock the hospital up and go home.”

“Are you all right?”

Peaceful ride home. I didn’t cry. I guess it was the numb feeling people talk about. Nobody else was at the hospital. Dad was the only one there when she died.

I went to Fran’s. My cousin Rose and my sister were there. I can’t be with people who are weepy. Dr. S. called. “Chris, it’s for you.” He wanted to check to make sure I got home okay.

We went to Dad’s. He wasn’t crying or anything. Even the aunts were pretty good. With Gertie, if someone came up and hugged her, she’d fall apart. Then she pulled herself together.

I deal with things by myself. I went out behind the barn. She’d gotten into kites in midlife. She’d been out behind the barn flying her kite within the month. I have to go there to connect with her. It’s up high and wide open. There are no hindrances. We buy two kites now every spring.

Then it was picking out the coffin and doing the obituary. We had to make sure all the names were spelled right, taking care of business. The coffin? We walked in and there it was. We all agreed on it. We came home.

There was no question about what she would wear. She’d picked out a black plaid Pendleton suit. She thought it was the be-all, end-all. The strap was broken on her slip. JoAnn said, “Here’s a pin, Chris. I don’t think anyone would notice.” “Mum would.” I remember sitting there on the couch just because I would be gosh-darned if we buried Mom with a safety pin holding her together. We got her put together.

When I first saw her, seeing her from normal to funeral parlor, she looked the same. When I kissed her forehead, it was so cold. Well, I coulda done without that. She had said that the first thing she wanted when she got home was an orange or orange juice. I wanted to put an orange in the casket with her.

The most gratifying thing for me was all the good things I heard about my mother. “She was such a lady,” in a day when nobody was dressing like ladies.

I remember the first place I really broke down, going to the funeral home before the funeral to have the procession out. “I’m never going to see your face again.” I remember going by and kissing her and then going out the door. Mike was crying, and when he turned and I saw him, I just lost it. We muckled on to each other. It lasted 30 seconds. It was like a steam release.

I used to think funerals were a bunch of bullshit. Tom and I had both thought we would be cremated, but after the funeral Tom said, “I think I could change my mind about this.” It’s like a step between death and life. It’s like an easing out. Tom mentioned Mike. He wouldn’t have been able to see her again in the casket. The first cremation funeral I’d been to I thought, you’re focusing on this? This little urn in the center of the floor? I said to Tom, “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” If I were cremated, I’d want to be put in the manure spreader and spread around, not stuck in a little urn.

The day of the funeral was a gorgeous day. It was like breaking down at the funeral. “Okay, everybody. Stand up straight. No slouching.”

Mike, “Huh?”

“You remember Mom didn’t like slouchers.” It was an attempt at levity. Humor has always been a strong line in our family, and we draw on it. That bothered my mother sometimes. I don’t know when to shut my mouth, but she had tact. I was finding it hard, so I had to keep things light. I stood next to Dad. I remember his weeping, and holding on to his hand.

At the burial, at that point, I remember I’d lost my pal. I wasn’t going to see her or laugh with her anymore. I don’t connect with her at he grave. I’ve been down there maybe twice. Walking outside is where I remember her.

After the burial you go back and get the flowers. Mike said to me, “Why don’t we go back to the car and let Dad be alone.” But Dad said, “You can’t keep doing this stuff or it will drive you crazy.”

My father adored my mother. I don’t remember any knock-down-drag-outs. He thought she had nice legs. He liked to hear her play the piano. He bragged about her biscuits. He was proud of her. I don’t remember saying to my father or my aunts, “Love ya,” until after Mom died. If you mean it, say it. Something that was so tactile after Mom died, that we said, I love you.

To me it’s like, why did this death happen? I chastise myself for being too pessimistic, but it didn’t surprise me when Joe called and said she’d died. If there was a reason for her death, it was the close bond that’s developed between JoAnn and Joe and their father. JoAnn has let her guard down and is closer with all of us. She spends a lot of time with me and we’re extremely close. It’s like we’re the same age. That’s another good thing that has evolved out of it.

It bothered me that everyone said I looked like my mother. It was endearing, but I thought I’m not as good as my mother. I swear like a pirate, I’m materialistic, etcetera. Mom was always a lady, no matter what she wore. When I’m bad, I’m bad. Being a lady is an act for me. I don’t want them to personify me as my Mum, and don’t make me be feeling guilty if I don’t act like her.

It also bothered me that I couldn’t remember her voice immediately after her death. One day I laughed and it sounded just like my mother. Gertie will say, “You sounded just like Margaret when you said that.”

When I was pregnant with Kelly, picking out girls’ and boys’ names, I knew I should have Margaret in the name somewhere. I felt in a quandary. I could hear Mom’s voice in my head saying, “If you don’t want to use the name Margaret, don’t!”

Chris was 26 when her mother died and 35 at the time of this interview.

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