I was at High West Distillery when The Call came, which seems fitting on many levels. After more than a year of hospice care for my mother (and five years in a facility for dementia) there had been many, many, many long distance calls about her "taking a turn for the worse." But this was The Call. The One, my friend the cancer doctor says, "always draped in crepe."
When I saw the familiar number pop up on my cell, I took the call outside to answer. The formulaic sentence started "I regret to inform you...." It wasn't a surprise, exactly, but the power of those words hit me physically and I had to sit down. The hospice nurse assured me the end was peaceful, having learned, I suspect, that is what long-distance relatives want/need to hear.
I gathered myself up and headed back inside where my young friend with the old soul was waiting. She ordered me a second whisky and talked softly about the space I had been holding all these years in my body that represented my mother and not to be surprised by the physical shift that would take place. I think I nodded. Then I took my leave. I needed/wanted to be alone and quiet. Very, very quiet.
About two hours after that initial call, another came from the same number and I answered. It was a different hospice nurse who wanted to inform me that my mother's condition had "taken a dramatic turn" and I smiled. If anyone was capable of a Lazarus act it would be Jean. "Is this a more dramatic turn than the call I received two hours ago telling me she had died?" I inquired. The very embarrassed nurse confessed she was behind on her calls for the day and meant to call hours ago. She checked and yes, my mother was indeed, still dead. I called my adult children, who had known for some time this day was coming but they were en route to their father's wedding du jour in Tahoe. I assured them they should continue on and we would have a service in due time.
I took the next day off from work and was surprised how flattened I was, how heavy the air felt, how hard it was to move or make simple decisions. My close friend was back east attending to last days with her mother and we texted back and forth little notes to keep us sane amid the wackiness. Her mother passed and she held her service and returned to Park City. We delayed ours until now. Until Sunday afternoon on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean (and a few miles up the road from Neil Young's ranch) where she will be buried.
I have this thing about services honoring those who have passed the focus should be on the person. Not a god of damnation or a service where the dearly departed is hardly mentioned. It should be a celebration of a life lived, told in some honest detail. Enough to remind you of the character of the character who passed this way.
Between the ages of 14 and 16, five of the people closest to me died. Both my mother's parents, a great uncle, my father and his father. I only attended the funeral of my father's father who had been a Major League Baseball player when the sport was just starting. Part of Connie Mack's infield for the Philadelphia Athletics. Later he would move back to his home state of California and be the first baseball coach at Stanford University and also a part of the Sacramento Senators and the San Francisco Seals. When he retired to Calistoga he would take the train into The City and meet his friend, the fire chief from the old neighborhood, who would pick up Grandpa Bill and drive him to the ballpark where he would throw out the first pitch of the season. That fire-engine-red car showed up to honor Bill at the huge service at the giant cathedral in San Francisco. As the only surviving member of the Orr family, I was required to attend the wake the night before and to follow, alone, behind the casket into the church and be the main mourner. For someone who was not only not Catholic, but who almost never attended any church, it was scarring.
I spent most of my life avoiding funerals. Sending flowers and notes and baskets of food but not showing up. Until the last five years, when staying away became more difficult. And so it shifted and I found myself helping officiate at services for my friends who were not deeply religious and whose families wanted a celebration of life and not a meaningless chanting of incantations memorized but not internalized.
Which brings me to Sunday. There will less than ten of us. My adult kids sans their families and some of my deceased sister's adult children and their adult children. My mother had selected the spot and paid for the plot decades ago. We will read a few poems she wanted read. Share some remembrances. And just before they lower the casket, I have arranged a surprise... for everyone... a Dixieland Band will come out, like a second-line parade in New Orleans. It was where my mother attended a Republican convention years ago as a delegate from California and fell in love with the customs there. I remember her saying, "wouldn't it be something to have that really happen at a funeral? All that music and crazy joy at the end. Now that would be a send-off!"
When The Saints Go Marching In... who doesn't want to be in that number?
Thank you dear readers for traveling on this journey with me for the past five years. It has been an honor to hear your own stories of caregiving and messy families and burdens shared. Years ago, my dear friend Nick told me after his mother died in her late nineties Nick was about 70 at the time you are never fully an adult until both your parents have died. I will return home grateful for simple Sundays in the Park, forever more, an adult...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.