My mother died in October of 2016, which on some days feels so far away, and on others, it just happened 15 minutes ago. The last true image I have of her is after she was embalmed. Not everyone thought she looked like herself, but I did. She had that look on her face that she got when she was so asleep she didn’t care who saw her, or when she was concentrating so hard on a piano passage that she scrunched up her face in a certain way. If there is anything for which I am truly grateful, it’s that the embalmer did not try to create a faker-than-fake smile. Growing up as a preacher’s kid, I’ve spent more time in funeral homes than the average person…. and I have seen my fair share of terrible jobs. Not every embalmer graduates at the top of their class………………..
I remember that the first few times I went with my dad to visit families in grief, I would stare wide-eyed at the corpse, because I was just sure they were about to roll over. I wasn’t scared (okay, maybe a little). It’s just that most people sleep on their sides, and I’m not sure I had a good idea of how permanent death really is. As I got older (maybe eight or nine), it was more clear to me that they were truly gone, because in every case, their expressions weren’t quite right. They didn’t look like themselves. The only thing that ever looked normal was their clothes, because the family had picked them out…. but their bodies weren’t the same. It wasn’t just their faces- their necks and hands were different as well (the part of the body that’s visible).
Over time, I went with my dad more and more, because while I wasn’t all that crazy about visitations, I loved funerals- although some more than others. I didn’t like it when they were all sad- no funny stories about the decedent. Death is 50% anesthesia for families… some are able to combat it and talk about the person in real terms. Others completely dissociate and act as if their loved one was an absolute saint who had “gone on to be in a better place.” Truly somber affairs that the dead would have probably hated because there was no sense of who they really were.
In my own eulogy, I had two laugh lines, and the congregation roared because they were just so true. I manuscripted for two days before the funeral, and there was nothing I wrote down that I actually used…. except for the first line. If you are just joining us, my mother was a church musician her entire life, so the opening was “this is the only funeral Carolyn Baker’s ever been to where she wasn’t working.” The other laugh line is that I wore a Tommy Hilfiger suit to the funeral, and I did an impression of me showing it to my mom:
Leslie: Look, mom. When you turn the collar up, it’s all plaid.
Carolyn: Well! I didn’t even notice that!
And, of course, it was pitch perfect in her Texas drawl.
Speaking of my suit, I wore white sneakers with it that were a size and a half too big, and I know they looked kind of stupid… but here’s the thing. It was important to me to stand in her shoes. I keep them around because they come in handy during the winter when I wear three pairs of socks.
If I’d had Converse All-Stars, I could have pulled off a David Tennant/David Letterman look… I mean, REALLY pulled it off. In fact, I know I could do it now, but I don’t have a desire to wear that suit again. I should get over it. It was Tommy, therefore it was expensive.
I’ll need to take it to the dry cleaner- it’s crumpled up angrily in the back of my closet, hidden so that I don’t see it on a daily basis. At the funeral, I wore a button-down shirt and jewelry that would definitely have been mom-approved, but it would look even better with a white t-shirt. For a suit, it’s both dress up and dress down. The kind you could wear to church or on a date with the sleeves pulled up.
These are all the things that appeared in my dreams last Sunday. I’d stayed up all night on Saturday building a database, and I lasted until 2:30 PM (even though I was bagged, I still wanted to go to church). My body now hates staying up all night, so I laid down for a nap and forgot to set an alarm. I woke up at 6:00 AM, then went back to bed and slept until almost 11:00.
Did I need that much sleep? No. I was processing grief. I was releasing a thunderstorm. I was meticulously going through every event that led to my mother’s death, the phone call I got when it happened, the rush to the airport, the visitation in which an Oprah level of extroversion was covering up a Leslie level of introversion. I was scared as hell- I hardly knew anyone there and they all wanted to hug me. I felt so awkward, being touched and loved on by people I’d never met in my life.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, but that was not going to happen. My friend Wendy’s words echoed in my head, though they were regarding another difficult situation…. you don’t have to love it, Leslie. You just have to live it. However, I had a clear vision of what I wanted. Keep it together, no matter what, until you’re at home in your own bed.
The funeral was different in that two of my best friends from high school came, and my actual high school best friend, James, came as my support person, which meant that he sat with me in the family section of both the funeral and the graveside service. It was yet another thing that kept me on an even keel as I navigated a foreign world- strange for two reasons.
The first is that I’d never imagined a world in which I was alive and my mother was dead. I am certain that I would have started as I aged, but she was 65. I’d only imagined her death of old age. Anything other than that was beyond my comprehension.
The second is that I’d been to so many visitations, funerals, and graveside services, but this was my first time experiencing it all from the other side. The business of death is exhausting, but it was nice picking out what we thought she would have wanted. Her casket is navy blue and silver with a white lining, complete with navy blue birds printed on the inside. It’s not like she’ll ever see them, but we did.
There was also another aspect of death that I did not comprehend, which I suppose can be chalked up to fear. People I expected would show up didn’t, and people I thought wouldn’t absolutely did. It is my own theory that who shows up for you when someone close to you has died is dependent on their own views of death… whether they can stand being reminded that it will happen to them one day. It shouldn’t be scary, because it is the most universal thing that can happen to a person. Some children lose their parents early, some on time, but it is the natural order. It is how life works, and there is no alternative.
The only thing that really disturbs my grief now is Mother’s Day, and most of it is due to the newspaper and social media. At least a month before, the ads start. I don’t see them as cute or funny. The newspaper gets a pass, because it isn’t personalized. Facebook is the only platform I really use, and they absolutely know my mother is dead, so I feel like they should know how to give me a break…. especially because some of the ads insinuate that you are a bad child if you don’t send them this or that. I have never gotten a response, but I wrote to Sheryl Sandberg about it, thinking she’d be the most empathetic.
I’m sure that she gets at least a million Facebook messages a week, possibly even in a day, so I wasn’t sitting by the computer waiting. Perhaps I’ll reach out through the Option B web site instead. I wish I could put my finger on why Mother’s Day feels worse than any other holiday. You would think it would be something about which I had more memories. I’ve lived away from Texas for so many years that I can’t remember the last time I was in town when it rolled around…. and by that, I mean I can point to specific years I was there, but not what happened. I don’t have any memorable Mother’s Day brunches or whatever. I do remember that the last gift I sent her was a pair of earrings with real flowers encased in clear resin. Had I known it was our last Mother’s Day, I obviously would have done things much differently. But that’s the thing about death- you never know what’s the last anything.
I thought we’d have so many more years to get closer- 10 is the most conservative estimate. We never spent any time estranged, but our relationship was different before and after I came out, so even though we’d spent the last several years getting closer, we still had more work to do, the construction site abandoned…. at least on her end. I talk to her all the time, because it has never mattered to me whether or not she could answer…. or if answers come to me in dreams, they’re always the ones I want because I’m creating both sides of the conversation.
For instance, she’s really proud that I go to church now. She told me when I laid down for a nap after.