The Strange Experience of Death: My Mother’s Passing
Note: This was written the day after my mother died – Sept. 26th My mother died yesterday. I got a call at 5:30 in the morning telling me that she died in her sleep. Her heart just stopped beating. It was a call I had been expecting for at least the last two years, but I was still surprised and stunned. I wasn’t shocked – we had been told innumerable times that given her medical problems, it was a certainty that her heart would eventually stop. I don’t think there’s any way to reconcile the factual knowledge with the feelings; no way to prepare oneself for the actual news. I sat on the side of our bed, in a kind of fog. I didn’t quite know what to do next, or even how I was feeling. Arleah sat down next to me and held my hand. I tried to remember what the person at the nursing home had said – something about taking our time and that she would be in her room.
When we got to the home, I was very aware of being scared to see her dead. I have dealt a lot with death in my professional life, but not much with dead bodies. When we walked into her room, she was laying in her bed, hands folded over her stomach, covered with a blanket up to her shoulders. Her mouth was wide open, like it usually was when she was asleep. There was no doubt, however, that she was not asleep. A grayish pallor had already consumed her head. The staff at the facility, who were extraordinarily kind and sensitive, asked us to remove things of value from her and her room. I can’t tell you, in words, how strange a feeling it was to be opening drawers and cabinets, going through little boxes of trinkets and costume jewelry; doing all this, two or three feet from her dead body. I opened one drawer to find three unused cans of root beer – winnings from bingo. The cans had been there for at least a year and a half. It’s funny what we value and keep around. At one point, Arleah and I realized that we had been whispering to each other while we were looking through things obviously, afraid of waking her up. I became aware of having regressed back to childhood, watching those primitively done horror films where dead people suddenly popped up from their beds or coffins, scaring the bejeezus out of everyone in the room (and in the audience).
It was particularly weird and disturbing when it came to retrieving her wedding ring. It is a unique and classy ring and my mother always wanted Arleah to have it. It was, however, still on her hand; and it seemed kind of ghoulish to be trying to take her ring off of her lifeless and limp hand. I felt, for a moment, like one of those grave robbers, featured in those “B” movies about Egyptian pyramids. Thankfully, we were rescued by a nurse’s aide who put some lotion on my mother’s hand, and slipped the ring right off. I did a pretty good job of holding myself together until a few staff members, one at a time, came into the room and told us what a pleasure it had been to take care of, and to know my mother. For some reason, that touched me more than anything else that day. I also lost it when the fellow from the funeral home came to take her body away. He was extraordinarily sensitive, but it felt so crass and mechanistic to put her into a bag, zip it up, and cart her out, like some kind of a package. Seeing her head disappear under the zipper, hit me like a rock in the head. It’s over; she’s gone; forever. Later that day, we went over to the funeral home to start the whole process going that would eventually result in a funeral ceremony back in Chicago. If we had thought that we had already experienced some weird feelings, we had underestimated how weird this experience would be. Everything we discussed with the funeral director was necessary to talk about, but felt amazingly incongruous, given the fact that my mother had just died hours ago. We had a protracted discussion about the practical and financial implications of embalmment; the position of the Jewish cemetery (where she is to be buried next to my father) on embalmment and the timing of the burial; the laws in Illinois about embalmment; and the intricacies of transporting her body to Spokane, first, and then Chicago, next.
The absolute weirdest conversation was about packing her body in a material similar to dry ice, if she were not to be embalmed. At that point, I was beginning to feel like we were trapped in an Edward Albee play about the absurdities of American rituals around death. In a strange way, this venture into black humor was a welcome relief from the oppressiveness of dealing with her death. To say that I went through a range of feelings that day, would be an understatement. I was on a veritable emotional roller coaster.
I felt profound grief and sadness; a sense of relief that it was finally over (I had come to feel, these last two years, that we had been on a protracted death watch); and a feeling of regret and remorse over how irritated and angry I would get over her withdrawal, especially this past year, into her very private and non-relational world. I want to remember my mother for the truly extraordinary woman she was. She was a pioneer in her era; a rebel with a very clear cause; and a no-nonsense lady, who took no crap from anyone. She had an early career in the entertainment industry that perhaps a handful of young Jewish girls ever achieved. She was a “career woman” and a housewife way before it was fashionable. And she took no prisoners when she had an opinion that she felt was the right one. She taught me to think on my feet, defend my positions, and to hold my own in any public forum. When people ask me where I learned public speaking, I tell them that I was doing it at the dinner table every night, from five years old, on. She also taught me “class”; to aspire to be the best; never to settle; and to do things the right way, or not at all. She was a beautiful woman, who had an “outfit” for every possible human activity. She weighed the same in her 80’s that she did in her 20’s, and she had a killer figure well into her 70’s. I’m one of the few people I know who has “cheesecake” photos of their mother (from her Hollywood days). She was a fiercely loyal wife, and loved my father more than anything else in the world. She raised her children to be successful, and taught us a value system that has served all of us very well. When my mother went anywhere (especially with my father), everyone noticed her arrival. That’s how I’m going to remember her. Morrie