This weekend I travelled to New York to bury my mother’s ashes. Decades ago she purchased a plot in a cemetery in the town where I was born, and it was my mom’s last wishes that she be cremated and buried there. She was so practical about it all — she insisted that I find the cheapest cremation available, that I didn’t spend too much on an urn, and that she have a bare-bones burial. She didn’t want a funeral or memorial, but instead left some money in her estate for our immediate family to have dinner at her favorite restaurant. (Which we will do eventually — everyone’s just not quite ready yet.) So one week after her passing, just my grandmother and I flew to Syracuse with her ashes to fulfill her final instructions, where my parents’ best friends joined us.
My mother didn’t want anything resembling a funeral, but my grandmother asked that I say something as we placed her ashes in the ground. I granted her request mostly because of everyone she is grieving perhaps the most; I cannot imagine making it to 90 years old and then having to say goodbye to your only child. I think my mom would’ve understood.
Because my mother’s illness was dire from the start, I had written her a letter in August telling her all those final things you would want to say to someone before they pass away. I was fortunate enough to read it to her in the hospital the night she died, and so I wasn’t sure what to say at her burial. I didn’t want to repeat myself, and because this wasn’t a formal event, I didn’t want to speak directly to the audience. Instead I decided to tell my mother in simple narrative what she didn’t get to witness herself — her granddaughter’s reaction to her death…
Mom, I can’t believe that you’re gone. This all happened so fast, we’ve barely had a chance to process it. But here we are today — your mother, your daughter and your best friends, reluctant to say goodbye.
The past few months have been such a roller coaster, but I’m so thankful that in the midst of all of the chaos of your being sick that you got to spend a few days at home with your granddaughters. I know that’s what you really wanted before you passed away.
What you didn’t get to see was that after you left, I had to tell E.V. that you were gone. The day you passed away, I pulled E.V. into her room to speak to her alone. I asked her if she remembered why you’d come our house in the first place, and she did. I had told her that in the hospital you were very sad and that you were coming to visit us so that we could make you happy. She took that job very seriously, and I will always remember that the only time I saw you smile throughout all of your illness was when you were with her.
When you returned to the hospital in the middle of the night, I had to explain to her why your bed was empty in the morning when she ran in to see you. So I told E.V. that she had done her job and made you happy, so your visit was over. She was so proud of herself. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that you had gone back to the hospital. The day you passed, I reminded her that she had been the source of your joy when you were sad.
I then continued your story by telling her that shortly after you had left our house, Jesus had asked you to come to heaven. I asked her if she remembered what we’re to do when Jesus asks us to do something, and she nodded — we are to listen and obey. So I told her that you had listen and obeyed and had gone to heaven with Jesus. Her reaction was so innocent. She smiled and celebrated, dancing around on her bed, at the thought of you in heaven with Jesus, happy and free of sickness. It was beautiful and I envied her so much. I know with time we will all feel the same. For now, though, Mom we can’t help but miss you.
I know that you were ready and at peace with your decision to pass, and now we are all trying to come to terms with it, too. Mom, who knows if even 40 more years on this earth would have been enough to satisfy us, but we do know that 68 years were definitely not enough. We all love you so much and wish you were still here.
I know that if you are watching now, you’re probably rolling your eyes. You didn’t want any pomp and circumstance, and you didn’t want anybody to suffer or to be sad. But we are, Mom. We wish your story had ended differently and we are all trying our hardest to remember and celebrate while we mourn and grieve.
For now, we are focused these words:
There is no night without a dawning
No winter without a spring
And beyond the dark horizon
Our hearts will once more sing
For those who leave us for a while
Have only gone away
Out of a restless, care-worn world
Into a brighter day.
Helen Steiner Rice
We are so thankful that you have entered into a brighter day, Mom, and we look forward to seeing you again. I love you. We love you.
And then her friend, Jeff Meltzer, read the passage my father read to her the night she passed, the 23rd Psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
I’ve never been to a funeral, and I am thankful to my mother for her odd request to not have one. Yes, there were tears, but the tears have been here all along. Yes, there was celebration, but that has been here, too, in its own way. I’m thankful that my mother is resting where she wished and that eventually we’ll be able to truly honor her with a dinner filled with memories and her favorite Italian food.
On the strangely bright side of this weekend’s trip, this was the first time I’ve been back to Syracuse and Manlius since we moved 30 years ago. My parents’ best friends, the Meltzers, hosted my grandmother and me, and it was so good to hear stories of my family from decades ago. Although my own memories are limited, I was actually a pretty observant child and do remember a bit of our life on Candy Lane. (That’s part of the reason I’m so careful with my kids even though they’re young — they may have inherited my memory, haha!) Plus, even if I don’t remember certain things, my brothers will hopefully enjoy the pictures I took. What a kind family and charming village!