Friday, August 23, 2013

A Message From Beyond the Grave

     I’m still getting my head around my mother’s death. I’m a little rocked, and that surprises me. It’s not like I wasn’t prepared. She was 96 years old, sharp and thriving up until the end and then she went to bed to die. Her choice. As usual. It was a relief for her and for the rest of us. We didn’t want to see her suffer; she didn’t, and that was good. It’s not the end of a life; it’s the end of an era.

     I heard the news from my sister on Friday, August 9. Chris called and told me that mom had died at 8:04 a.m. A rosary was planned for Monday evening and the funeral would be Tuesday morning followed by burial at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in San Rafael. I flew in from New Mexico on Saturday, befuddled by unique, once-in-a-lifetime feelings. I settled at the Embassy Suites, set up my computer, watched a few episodes of Family Guy, then went to my sister’s home where the rest of the immediate family was sorting through photographs and memorabilia of our mother. Momorabilia. There were lots of ancient photos of long gone relatives, letters, souvenirs, and holy cards she’d picked up at the many funerals she’d attended over the years. It was sad, sometimes absurd and we laughed a bit. We found a box of cheap costume jewelry and my brothers and I put on my mother’s gaudy earrings, wore them around the house for a while, deadpanned, pretending at seriousness.
     Sunday I met with some old friends, went to lunch in Tiburon, drove to the coast; I was trying to make an abnormal situation ordinary. I couldn’t do it. I was engaged in conversation, joking, listening, but there was something happening in my throat that restricted my breath.

     Monday night I parked in front of The Chapel of The Hills for the rosary and a bit of reminiscence with family and friends. My mother planned all this years ago; she was prepared. Unfortunately, the priest who mom had contracted to perform the prayers, her friend Father S, had been hospitalized that day and we had a substitute, a stand-in who didn’t know mom. The guy was dressed like a priest, but I heard him mention his “wife”. He was a deacon, I think. Apparently, they get to do all the priest stuff without the celibacy. But, wait, don’t priests already, um, have relations, arrested, molesting with the sex and the…? Never mind. Too complicated and confusing to get into right now. This man was licensed by the State of California and The Catholic Church to have legitimate, marital sex. Things are different since I quit religion.
     I was struck by a wave of grief during the procedures so I leaned against the pew and tried to check out and to keep a blank, unemotional demeanor. I snapped out of my trance when I heard the almost-priest mention that Jesus Christ had created the world, which was news to me, and my mom was with Him, looking down on us, very much strolling the clouds with God and enjoying her ample rewards. Shit. Here it comes. The waves of magic and mystery and myth that nearly drove me nuts as a kid. The only part that made sense was that mom was probably looking down on us. She was exasperating in her conviction that she was “right” about God, the church, her beliefs, her afterlife.
     After the prayers and the free form, inaccurate and slightly embarrassing religious oration by Deacon Strange, I visited with the attendees, slipped away and bought a burrito on the way back to the hotel. I watched some horror videos, became depressed and switched to Michael Connelly’s latest until I hit the hay.

     Tuesday morning we held the funeral at Nazareth House, where my mother had spent the last ten years of her life, and, of course, my mother requested a catholic mass, with an incredible amount of hymns. A woman with a serviceable voice and wide-eyed, intimidating facial expressions warbled the sacred songs. I felt guilty just looking at her. It had been a long time since I’d been in a church for any kind of ceremony.
     I was asked to write and read a eulogy. Half way through the service I stood, walked to the pulpit and delivered it in a faltering voice, which caught me unawares. I tried to make the eulogy appropriate and positive and respectfully left out any personal thoughts or statements. It was about mom’s life, not my feelings. I have to say, it worked. I stood in front of the mourners and lobbed little grenades of sadness into the crowd, explosions of emotion that went off like clockwork; bursts of tears, hands clutching, backs patted, the sound of sobbing.
      The mass has changed, too, since I’ve stopped caring. Everyone plays a part. It’s “inclusive”, which means that everyone is almost equal and, I guess, no altar boys are assaulted during the preparations. There were three priests on the altar, which was a lot, in my opinion. The time for Communion, the sacrament of the Eucharist, rolled around and everyone, and I mean everyone, queued up to receive the little round slip of unleavened bread. I sat in the front pew and most of the faithful averted their eyes as they passed me. My brothers, my sister, my nieces and nephews, strangers and at least two homeless guys lined up to partake. In the old days, as a youngster, I had been severely threatened and corporeally indoctrinated into Roman Catholicism, the host, the bread, Jesus’ body and blood in one package was considered highly sacred, a living, breathing, radioactive representation of Him. The priest was the only human designated to touch the Host and, in the old days, it couldn’t touch your teeth, it had to dissolve in you mouth and you had to pray like a bastard while it existed, melting and dissolving in the middle of the tongue. Lots to think about, many distractions, hard work.
     Nowadays, the celebrants hold out their cupped hands like they’re begging for real food, and the priest drops it in. They then pick it up and put it in their mouths and CHEW it and swallow it. Like it tastes good, yummy, like medicine, like dessert. They munch it; you can see everyone’s jaw muscles contracting and their teeth grinding.
One older woman, her hands shaking, dropped hers on the ground. ON THE GROUND. What the fuck? I thought they’d send in the goons to sweep her away, drag her off to be tortured, flayed and burned. Nope. She bent and picked it up (spry for her age), plopped it in her mouth and gulped it down. Wow. Much different than when I was a frightened, intimidated youngster.
     My mother made sure that we were brought up in the Old Catholic Church, the one where women were slaves, priests were kings and anyone who wasn’t of our faith was condemned. The Church’s product was fear and we were not even allowed to enter another denomination’s building. So it was sort of disorienting to see all of this modern behavior. Touching, talking, chewing. I hope it’s my last time, ever, in a church.
     Mom’s grave is nicely situated under a spreading oak tree on a grassy hill. She’s at rest next to my father with a couple of aunts and uncles nearby.
     At graveside, we listened, watched, some mumbled familiar prayers and then we got into our cars and headed out to enjoy a postmortem fest in my sister’s nice back yard. Good Italian meats, cheeses, wines, and sodas, fresh fruit, cheesecake and cookies. Great food. As I was biting into my first Mortadella sandwich my sister handed me an envelope.
     “Here you go, Joe. This is a letter from mom. She wanted me to give it to you after the funeral.”
     WHAT! WHAT! Fuck. Goddamn it. Not cool. Unfair. Totally unfair. A voice from the grave? A message from beyond? Wow. I was wiped out. Not only had I suffered with the rest of the family through mom’s last days, her death, the frigging rosary and mass and religious oddities, not only did I weep and write a great eulogy, leaving out all the bad stuff, all the negatives, not only was I alone and confused and considering, of course, my own impending certain death. Now there was this little bonus, a surprise, an Easter egg at the end of the day. A letter from mom from the aftergoddamnlife.
     I put the envelope in my pocket, finished my sandwich, had another, finished off with two pieces of cheesecake. On the way back to the hotel room I stopped off first to buy some potato chips, what the hell, gonna die, have to read a message from beyond, might as well distract myself with food, make myself sick, eating my way past the grave. Better than a quart of tequila or a couple grams of coke. Like the church, I’ve changed, too.  I’m better, healthier, looking forward to a long life. Just as long as there are no mystical, horrifying afterlife memos from mom in heaven.
     What will it say?
     Will there be revelations?
     How will I feel after I’ve read her letter?
     Should I throw it away and continue my mourning?
     Why did I stop drinking tequila?
     So, I read the letter.
     The first thing I noticed is that it was a Xerox copy. I didn’t even have the original; it was a copy. Apparently, she made sure that others had received this important document. My brothers and sister must have copies, strangers and friends, too. Is this going to turn into some episode from “LOST”? It damn well better, because there aren’t a lot of legitimate explanations for delivering a letter to loved ones and family, requesting that it be opened and read after the writer’s death. I can only think of three reasons:

1.     A treasure map. That would make me happy. My mother knew of a buried treasure, a secret closet, a hidden account that is designated for me alone and now I am wealthy beyond my dreams and all will be easy and luxurious from here on. Gee, how I love my mom.

2.     She wanted to tell me that I was her favorite child. I had given her great joy and she is sorry for anything she had ever done to upset, hurt, confuse or anger me. She regrets not giving me more attention and guidance. Well, that’s very nice, very mature.

3.     She had written this letter to inform me that she always hated me, thought I was a tool, needy and weak. She acted as though she cared about my little triumphs and she tried to empathize with my misery, but she just didn’t like me very much. In her eyes, I am a failure. Shit. Well, it’s not a treasure map, but at least it’s honest.

     The actual letter is much different than any of that. It is sensitive and stilted, with an undertone of fear and at the same time an attempt to convince the reader of mom’s spiritual evolution and deep devotion to the church, God, all of it. All of it. I wish she hadn’t written the letter, and I wish I hadn’t gotten a copy. But I could never influence or control my mother. She was stubborn and opinionated and amazing and infuriating. Death comes, life ends, people should do what they want and not hurt each other. 
     I do know this: If you have something to say, say it while you’re alive. Do not try to communicate from the hereafter. Life isn’t a movie. Avoid mysticism and spiritual confusion. Just tell them. Make it easy and don’t sweat it. Just say it and move on. There may be consequences but speak up and say what you have to say. Tell everyone.
     Unless you have a treasure map.

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