Friday, October 27, 2006

My mother-in-law died Sunday, October 15, 2006, at the age of 89. Alzheimer's had stolen little bits of her mind over the last three years until, finally, there were gaping spaces where so many memories used to be. At the end she rarely recognized the four children she raised to adulthood, or her beloved grandchildren and great-grandchildren; even her husband was a stranger who scared her when he helped her into bed at night .

The Tuesday before she slipped away, I cleaned, trimmed, and painted her fingernails. She didn't know me; instead, she thought she was back in her beauty shop in St. Louis, having her hands tended to by an employee. She asked me about Karley Bee and Lexie Lee: did they still live over where they used to? I pretended: "Oh no, they moved a long time ago." I blew on her nails to dry the pale pink polish, and then I held her hands and worked some moisturizing cream into her skin. I planned to cut her hair when I finished with her hands, but she nodded off before I reached that point. I had a fleeting thought of cutting only the hair on one side of her head and finishing the job the following Tuesday. All that saved her from being buried with a seriously botched version of the lop-sided Sassoon cut of the '60s was my being drenched with sweat from sitting in her sweltering living room for an hour. The absurd image of her lying in her camouflage casket with my interrupted tonsorial efforts is what got me through the savage days ahead.

Yes, you read that right. She was interred in a RealTree casket selected by her husband and daughter. I am almost certain that neither understood that it was actually marketed as camouflage; they probably focused on the nature theme. Her three sons would have known better, but they didn't bother to look at the selections - a casket is a casket, right? I understand that it is against state law for an undertaker to attempt to steer a client toward or away from a particular casket, but I do think this was carried to a ludicrous consequence. He could have at least asked, "Oh, did your mother like to hunt?"!

I couldn't bring myself to take a picture at the funeral, but I found a similar casket on the internet.
Befitting the mighty hunter Volene might have been, hers was crafted of the strongest oak, instead of the more delicate cherry wood pictured above. I am happy to say that hers didn't have a liner with an embroidered turkey; nor did it have the optional hidden gun sleeve. Sheesh!

That was but one of the quirks. I opted out of the funeral planning; she wasn't MY mother, after all (though I'd have been honored to help if I'd been asked). My sister-in-law decided there should be calling hours, even though her father insisted that they not be publicized because of "all those people who go around to funerals." (Say what?!) So, the cost of the funeral included two hours of visitation in five beautiful downstairs rooms of an 1879 Victorian house cum funeral home. Because it was by invitation only, only about 25 people showed up, including family members. (On the plus side, this afforded me the opportunity to admire the marvelous craftsmanship of the home: intricate scrollwork over doorways, stained glass windows, delicate moldings, curved plaster walls, amazing bookcases, fabulous antiques.) My father-in-law stayed home because he claimed he was never informed of the arrangements and didn't have time to prepare. My sister-in-law prepared a photo board representing her mother's life. There were 5 or 6 pictures, none of which included the sons or husband. One of the pictures was of Mom and an elderly woman who not only wasn't a big part of her life, but was actively disliked by her! Bizarre.

Also bizarre: Karen requested to do her mother's hair for the viewing "because Mom did her mother's hair when she died." I guess it didn't occur to her that the reason she did her own mother's hair was because it was her profession! I don't know, maybe it's not so weird. She did a wonderful job. But I can't help wondering: Would she have offered to do the embalming if her mother had been an undertaker? [Incidentally, the nail polish I had lovingly applied on Tuesday had been scoured off. I didn't ask who did it or why, but it made me sad.]

Volene's passing should have been a peaceable, loving event, but it was fraught with anger at my intransigent, paranoid father-in-law who, for reasons known but to him and his imaginary friend, refused to allow his wife to be buried in the beautifully treed old cemetery on the hill overlooking their home. Out of his butt he suddenly produced great-grandparents who were some variety of Quaker in Pennsylvania; this was offered as reason for her to sleep for all eternity in the Quaker cemetery a few miles away, where she had specifically and emphatically said she did not want to be buried! I was so angry with him that I couldn't sleep, couldn't look at him during the funeral, didn't approach him at her burial, didn't contact him for days afterward.

Then Molly died and put my anger in perspective.

Molly was my 15-year-old niece. Exactly a week after her grandmother died, Molly chose to end her life by hanging herself in her bedroom closet. (How do kids learn how to do things like this?!?) We were not close -- her family spent the last two years living in California and moved back to Rochester only two months ago -- but being close is not a prerequisite for caring for a tender young life. We sat across from each other at lunch following Mom's funeral, and I was taken with her vivacity; I admired her sarcastic sense of humor. She would have been so much fun to know as she grew up. There was no clue that she was unhappy, never mind desperate. We will grapple with the enormity of her loss for a long time. My heart breaks for her parents, her brother and sister, but, most of all, for Molly.

May 9, 1991 - October 22, 2006

To Molly

I wish I had known.
I would have held you
and whispered, "Everything will be all right,
just take it one day at a time,
and call me if you are afraid."
I wish I had known.
I would tell you
how beautiful you are, how bright,
that the whole, wide world is
waiting to know you and be known.
I wish I had known.
I would have cried: Wait!
Just wait 'til you have loved
and lost, and loved again --
to learn that the dark is deep,
but dawn will come again.
I wish I had known.


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