Friday, May 25, 2012


It is six months after my mother shed her troubled earthbound body for what even we barely-believing hope is a better place.  It is difficult for me to write about the first seconds, minutes, hours and finally days after she drew her last breath in my arms.  Yes, it is difficult to dwell on that time but even more so because my usually excellent memory is vague.  Perhaps this is a natural defense offered by a generous brain.  It is also because I was standing still, achingly sad while the world was swirling around me.

It seemed that within minutes people began to arrive. A very dear friend was first on the scene.  She instinctively tried to console me and then quietly began making phone calls to my list of family and friends.  These were calls I was unable to make.  It was too soon.  I couldn't begin telling and retelling the news and circumstances of my mother's death.  I called my brother to give him the news.  I called the funeral director to begin arrangements.  The first thing that needed to be done was to have my mother removed from her room, her cocoon.

The house was filling with family and friends.  As I greeted each new face I cried.  Somehow my sister and I kept finding our way back to each other for hugs and tears of mutual grief and strength.  The person who had been most noticeably absent was  Niki, my mother's aide and our housemate.  She had left that morning for a new job.  I had called her to give her the sad news.  Now Niki, my mother's angel, had arrived.  She hugged my sister and me and rushed upstairs to see mom and make her presentable for the funeral director who would be arriving shortly.

Making my mother presentable may sound strange or perhaps even ghoulish but not to anyone who knew my mother.  This was a woman who would never be seen without her hair being perfect and looking perfectly presentable.  I was not going to let her leave the house for her last time any other way.  Niki instinctively knew this.

I was unprepared for the soul-cleansing wail that Niki gave when she went in to see Addie.  My mother had become a second mother to her.  They had an amazing bond. I was relieved that Niki was with mom.  This was a facade of normalcy in a time of chaos.

The busy have no time for tears.

Lord Byron

I had a couple of hours of full-blown, self-indulgent grieving but now there had to be a break because the business of death was at hand.  We three siblings had decisions and plans to make.  We left the house full of loved ones and went to the funeral home to plan.  Somehow having a job to do was comforting.  I am a project oriented person, why should this have been any different?

About a year ago, during one of my mother's hospital stays I had decided that I did not want a traditional funeral home wake for my mother.  Since we had agreed that when the time came mom should be cremated,   I wanted to have a simple gathering of friends and family at our home which would then be followed the next morning with a funeral mass at mom's church followed by burial alongside my father who had predeceased mom by 41 years.  

My brother and sister agreed with my plans and so it would be.  Instead of hours of despair and depression at the funeral home we would celebrate mom's life at home in comfort and familiar surroundings.  This would also give my sister and me yet another project to prepare the house for guests.

The formal gathering at my home was planned for two days after mom's passing.  This gave one full day not only to prepare for guests at the house but to put together the particulars for the funeral mass as well as write an obituary.  I went into full "producer" mode which was my natural default.  I knew if I stopped for too long   the grief would take over and I was scared.  I was sure that if I stopped to think about what we were busy preparing for I would crumble.  "Just keep moving.  Just keep one step ahead of the sorrow" I kept telling myself.  It was working.

My sister and I have always been close.  Although she is eleven years my senior we have been each other's strength through all the years of Adelaide's illness.  We shared a bond with each other and with our mother that no one else can ever know.  Now we were bonding even closer in mom's death.  


brooks atkinson

As I look back the time spent tending to my mother's funeral mass was the most absurd.  I tend to be a man who knows what he wants and how to make it happen.  The church seems to prefer to stand on tradition, conformity and submission.  This is a titanic clash of wills.  I have always been honest and forthright in my writing so I will admit that there has been quite a distance between me and the church of my mother and my youth for many years.  

It is really quite simple.  I see the church as"standing on tradition, conformity and submission" and it sees itself as the sole appointed and anointed direct voice of God.  I'm a producer.  My mother's farewell was to be one of the most important productions of my life.  Do not misinterpret that as meaning garish or showy or disrespectful.  I just wanted her final mass to be personal and jubilant.  She deserved that.  I would see to it.  This should have been a reasonably easy job.

I have a wonderful friend who is a gifted singer.  When she came to visit me she would always go to my mother's room and sing for her.  These shared moments were some of the highlights of my mom's years of illness.  To me, the connection of souls through God's gift of song is a religious experience I am proud to have been witness to.  It went without saying that I wanted dear Linda to sing at the funeral.  

Linda gracefully accepted my request and we agreed upon a couple of traditional songs.  My brother-in-law is also a talented musician and singer and he was also going to sing a very special song for my mother.  I also had a couple of minor requests of the church, one being that I forbad the playing of the church organ. I just do not like the way this particular pipe organ sounds and to me it is forced melancholy.  

  I conveyed my plans to the funeral director who immediately said that there "might be some problem with the church" and then added "you know you have to pay the organist and the regular funeral singer even if you don't use them."  This immediately brought to mind the Broadway musicians' union dictating how many orchestra musicians a show was required to employ.  I expressed my disdain at the church having "a problem" and that I didn't care who we had to pay.  I would rather pay the organist not to play than to play. I also requested that my brother-in-law's cousin give one of the readings at the mass.  "A woman?" the funeral director exclaimed.  "Yes that 'woman' happens to be a nun".

Later in the day when I was on my fourth phone call from either the priest or the "musical director of the church" I was forced to play my producer's trump card.  I calmly informed the priest that I had not expected to spend the day after my mother died producing her funeral and negotiating with the church.  I also explained quite simply that since my mother had been cremated I felt no urgency to follow through with her funeral mass in his church.  "Although my mother was uniquely devoted to your parish I do not feel the same bond.  I am perfectly willing to postpone her funeral while I find a more welcoming congregation of some other more 'Christian' faith".  

The priest acquiesced but asked that the nun present credentials before the service?!  

Day two was finally over.  My friends were taking turns staying with me, wonderfully concerned friends were afraid to leave me alone.  I welcomed the company.  I was somehow functioning but the pain of grief was profound.  I had twenty years to prepare for my mother's death but I do not know how one actually accomplishes that.  In one breath I had lost my mother, my best friend, my mentor, my job, my identity, my raison d'etre and soon my home.  My world could never possibly be the same again. Sometimes a little self-pity is justified.

There are few human emotions as warm, comforting, and enveloping as self-pity. And nothing is more corrosive and destructive. There is only one answer; turn away from it and move on.
dr. megan reik

That evening is when I discovered something new and odd and awful.  I discovered that the shower was the most painful place to be.  From that night and for the next couple of weeks I could not stand in the shower without breaking down and sobbing.  It was the only place I was truly alone.  I was alone with my sorrow and my pain and it was easy to let all of my emotions out even after I had learned to mostly tuck them away in front of people.  

The evening of the "open house" was here and friends and family were arriving.  It was amazing.  People showed up that I hadn't seen since I was in high school.  Teachers that my mother taught with thirty years ago and that had taught me were in my living room.  It was a full house.  It was a house filled with love and tears and laughter.  We shared Adelaide stories.  Old friends reunited.  I met some of my sister's friends who I had only heard stories about for many years.  So many people approached me to tell me what a wonderful job I had done taking care of my mother for all these years.  I was actually embarrassed.

Frequently throughout the evening my sister and I would find one another to express how happy we were that we had decided to honor mom in this most natural of ways, borrowed from the Jewish tradition of shiva and made just a little Italian.  I kept repeating that "mommy would have loved this".  She would have.  Adelaide loved nothing more that to have friends and family filling our home with love.

The day of the funeral arrived.  Another of my friends came to house sit.  She tried hard to convince me to take a tranquilizer that I had for just such a time but declined. I decided that I wanted to experience the day to its' fullest.  Another of my friends chided me that I was a "typical writer" for that.  [I love my friends]

The funeral service began with the organist playing the processional hymn on the organ.  The first couple of notes bellowed from the pipes and my brother-in-law sprang to his feet in fear that I was going to cause a scene and "bring down the curtain".  He grabbed the funeral director who bolted up the the organ loft pretty swiftly for a dignified gentleman.  The organ was silenced for the remainder of the service.  Linda sang like Beverly Sills and Maria Callas had taken her over.  The priest gave a wonderfully personal eulogy capturing the very essence of my mother.  Sister, having presented her credentials, read a lovely verse.  Brother-in-law performed his song which brought me easily to tears. Then in a final act of love, the elder monsignor who had been a very close friend of my parents stood and gave a second eulogy and spoke beautifully of both of my parents.

The funeral was beautiful.  It was tear-filled but it was a joyous celebration of my mother's exemplary life. I was proud of myself for this most important "production".  I am so thankful for having such talented and generous friends.

 Six months have passed.  Most of the tears have stopped, at least the public ones.  Most of the time I remember Adelaide as a healthy vibrant woman now.  My friends continue to surround me and watch out for me.  My sister will forever be my rock and my inspiration.


  1. There really aren't any words I can type... except thank you.

  2. i've read your latest posting in your blog; such marvelous piece of sharing and narration! reading it brought tears to my eyes (considering that we don't know each other) & had me recalling the passing on of my father in 2006 back in the Philippines. and i guess i can relate more, mainly because i do caregiving works from time to time (mostly to relieve friends who do the job full time). thank you.