The Bereavement Party
Five years ago, my mother died. Cancer is an evil foe. Fortunately for Mom, he was relatively swift one; it was less than four months from her diagnosis to the day she died.
The morning after, we were a bit shell-shocked. Though there was no real reason to do so, my sisters, brother and I all got together for coffee at Panera. "Got together" makes it sound so casual -- we live miles apart from one another. But we'd been doing the bedside vigil at the hospital for the last few days, so it felt natural to get together again -- all of us feeling both lighter and heavier at the same time.
We were exhausted and on emotional overload. Mom's suffering was mercifully over and we grieved together, the only way we knew how...the way Mom would have done it. With black humor.
We noticed that no one in Panera seemed to be treating us properly -- they really needed to be nicer to us, because you know, our MOM just died. We imagined approaching the woman behind the counter, "Could I have one of those way expensive chocolatey goodies, please? Free. You know, cuz my Mom just died."
We joked about the fact that while people acknowledge all of life's milestones with gifts, generally you don't get a gift when you lose a parent. First birthday? Marriage? Baby? Graduation? All gift-giving opps. Death of a parent? Silence on the swag front.
As we sat pondering this inequity over our steaming mugs, napkins clutched in our fists (a Mom-ism that can be spotted from 20 paces) and making completely inappropriate remarks considering our new status as mourners, the plan was hatched.
We were going to throw a bereavement party. Just for us. She raised us to sometimes be irreverent and to always appreciate humor. But she also raised us to be there for each other. And if no one else was throwing us a party and giving us gifts now that we had crossed over into the world of Adult Children without Mothers, we'd throw it our own damn selves!
Fifteen months later, we threw that Bereavement Party.
Spouses took over the home fronts, save for mine -- my hub cleared out with the kids and left us to celebrate at our house. We toasted Mom with chilled champagne. We smoked Virginia Slims Lights 100's in her honor. We drank red wine, ate three delicious courses followed by a selection of fancy chocolates, and we laughed. Oh, how we laughed.
One of my sisters recounted the day, the week before Mom passed away, when she and I went to the funeral home to make the final arrangements. The place where everything is serene and somber. The place where we couldn't stop laughing whenever we imagined what Mom would have to say about the "tasteful" furnishings and the typical funeral home atmosphere. The poor funeral director -- dealing with a couple of nuts who told him what Mom had repeatedly insisted over the years, when considering her funeral: Keep it Simple. And cheap. We didn't need a coffin, we told him. He paused and explained the requirements.
Turns out, there are laws that dictate the transport of the deceased from the hospital morgue to the funeral home (all of two miles). The remains must be in an approved container. The basic was made of cardboard. The director seemed a bit uncomfortable telling us this. I think he expected us to recoil at the notion of putting Mom in what amounted to an over-sized cereal box.
Instead he heard, "Cardboard it is!" Mom would have been proud of us, and how easily we made that decision. The director then left us to peruse a catalog of urns. Again, we looked for the low-end deal. The memorial garden where her ashes would be buried specifically prohibited urns -- ashes are poured directly into the earth and buried.
After he had left us to make our selection, we looked through the offerings. Many were lovely, and could be chosen to reflect the personality of the dearly departed. We went through that pamphlet a couple of times, making snide comments about some of the more eclectic options and came up empty.
When he returned we asked, "Do you have anything in an attractive cardboard?" and burst into giggles. The director didn't know what to make of us. But he was able to assure us that he would prepare the ashes for transport, no urn required. We could pick them up prior to the Memorial Service.
Now, Mom wasn't cheap. She had excellent, sophisticated taste. But she was also incredibly practical. She had specifically told us not to spend money on a bunch of crap that would wind up buried in the ground. "I'll be dead," she would tell us, "I'm not going to give a shit." We refrained from sharing that quote with the director. He'd had enough of us, I'm sure.
As we continued to chuckle together, and sometimes weep, over the remnants of our meal, empty wine bottles littered the table. We retired to the living room to open our gifts. Individually, we had taken different approaches to the exchange, but each of us captured a little bit of Mom in so doing. More laughter. More tears. As we celebrated the life of our mother -- and it was a true celebration -- it was evident to each of us that the off-the-cuff plan hatched that June day at Panera was exactly the right thing to do.
We all had a good glow on at that point. Another of my sisters, upon seeing a housefly buzzing about the room, commented that it was odd to see one indoors in November. She went on to tell us that she saw one in her own house earlier that day, and thought at the time how out of place it was. Knowing that, this tiny buzzing insect seemed just a little less random.
We concluded that it was Mom, taking the proverbial to the literal. You see, we were having all the fun without her. We were cracking wise, remembering together both the good times and the bad. We had all been moving on with our lives...it had been almost a year and a half since she died...but in reconnecting with each other as we did, a fitting tribute was made to the amazing and courageous woman that was our Mom. When the rubber meets the road, we're there for each other, just as she taught us. Just as she always was for us.
Besides, she would have been pissed if we'd had the party and she wasn't included.
~Margaret Maurhoff Barney, aka Just Margaret, is a freelance writer and and blogger in New Hampshire ~