Life is a series of losses until you lose that too. I can’t remember the date she died. The year, the month, a general sense of what week, but not the date. For me to share that with you I would have to put my hands on the funeral program and I move that around so it’s hard to find whenever I think I need to know the exact date, which is rarely. I am positive that by the time of her funeral I had already forgotten the date–the one detail that eludes me. Her headstone, shared with my stepfather (another date that I can’t remember), is carved with her birthday (June 25, 1916) and her death date (May __, 1982), her name, and that’s it. There is no ‘In the arms of God at Last’, ‘Peace be with Jer’, ‘Cherished Mother and Wife’, ‘Our Angel’, ‘Beloved’. I’m relieved.
She proudly told me in a phone conversation after the diagnosis that she and Roy had purchased a funeral plot and ordered a gravestone and that she didn’t want any religious nonsense added to it after she died. (We didn’t use ‘passed on’ in our family. you died. that is all.) And I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask my stepfather what her last words were, and if I did and if he told me, I promptly forgot them. I don’t believe there were last words, the pain too excruciating, the very act of breathing would have taken all of her concentration let alone try and come up with some witty or profound or even inane series of words that at some point in the future, I’d say “just before she died, she said…”
And besides, I would have selfishly wanted her last words to have been, “I love you, son,” or “be a good boy and get your mother her cigarettes,” or even “what a day I’ve had.” we avoided the big emotional topics, death and love, at our house. You could love someone, but we never discussed what that love might mean in the greater world. And until grandparents started dying in the 1970s, the topic of death rarely made it to the dinner table, let alone a conversation between mother and son held quietly in the living room on a Saturday afternoon. I, of course, as a good Christian boy repeated nightly the prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep…” which touches on death, but as a child that touch is so light, a feather against your spine, that it carries no meaning, only the slightest unease floats alongside it.
My mother would be 96 now. I’ve known some 90 year olds who have recently died and I wonder what 90 would have looked like on her and how I at __ would have responded to her death had we had another lifetime together–one long uninterrupted life–lived on the phone with occasional visits, letters of course, although I see her embracing today’s technology with a certain vigor–mommy blogging, for sure–but what I don’t see is anything other than her dates and name on her headstone, perhaps a rose carved into the granite or some other stonemason’s flourish, the scroll of an open bible, an ionic column, acacia leaves, morning glory, but no, no words of compensation, bereavement, all soporific letters without meaning, drugs for forgetting, poppies and wormwood.
How best to memorialize a life for future generations? A headstone has its limitations–like Twitter, reduced to less than 140 characters–a haiku possibly, but western society is prone to misunderstanding the ephemeral nature of symbols. not famous enough for a biography that sits on a shelf in the university library with the dust that comes with the ignorance of the living, no best-seller list, so many lives, all of them worthy in some way of a few final words; left for a mother and her son, having pulled off the highway to explore an old graveyard, a cemetery of other people’s memories, to imagine what their lives must have been.