One image I have stuck in my head is of a 7-year-old girl who was trying to set the record for the youngest person to fly a small plane. She’s wearing a pink T-shirt that says “Women Fly”, about to take off, and behind her the sky is ominously steel-grey with storm clouds. She must’ve been going for a speed record too, because the conditions did not look good for flying. She crashed, taking her Dad and flight instructor with her.
Her Mom told the press that the girl died “in a state of joy.” This is not how I think of a small plane crash, but the idea has stuck with me. Considering the alternatives, it would be nice to die doing something you love.
My Mom, the consummate hostess, was at home, finally, after months in the hospital, a bone marrow transplant and endless complications. She was about to serve strawberry rhubarb pie to my Dad and brother. Did she choose the moment? I like to think she did.
Nobody knows how to do this, and neither did we. But my brother David saw a “60 Minutes” episode about corporate funeral homes up-selling death and he found one of the three funeral homes that was independently owned in Northern Virginia, Advent. There was a young woman named Valerie assigned to us and she was gracious and gentle and compassionate and patient, truly an old soul. We had to ID my Mom before she was cremated, and at the last minute I thought of bringing one of her lipsticks, Revlon “Love That Red.” Valerie put the lipstick on Mom before we saw her so she looked like herself.
Death presents immediate logistical and financial obstacles, so it is worth having the conversation beforehand. My Mom was OK with cremation and we picked out a beautiful green cloisonne urn that was perfect.
The last thing my mom asked me to do was to bake her some pumpkin bread. It was a hot week in Seattle and I didn’t feel like baking, but I did. The loaves looked great, but I realized I had forgotten to add the eggs. I fed the bread to guests, as science. It was OK, but dry. Then I made the bread again, correctly. On Thursday she called me to say that she’d gotten it and it was delicious. Eggs are important. On Saturday she died.
My Mom was never one for metaphysical woo-woo, yet she always swore that her friend Ann is psychic. So I wasn’t surprised when Ann said she had been gardening and felt my Mom. “I was digging potatoes,” Ann said, “and Pat said ‘no, no, do it this way!'”
Ann had her kids at the same time, and they got into children’s literature together. Ann said my brother David liked Drummer Hoff Fired It Off, while my favorite was Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice, which she began to quote:
“Going once, going twice. Slipping on the sliding ice.” (I’ve looked it up since, and her version is not quite right, but, for my purposes, it is better.)
My mom had many excellent women friends. Anyone would be proud to have a tribe like this. “We both loved travel and books and movies and politics, plus good food,” Mom’s friend Emma wrote me. “She was quite a good cook, as I’m sure you know. But most of all she was a generous friend and a brave woman. Even in her darkest hours she was going ‘upward and onward.’ “
That’s how my Mom would sign off, in cards and emails. “Upward and onward, Mother.”
One of the talents of the Italian woman is the ability to yell across the house. She’d be trying to hustle us into the car to go somewhere, to “get the show on the road,” and the countdown would begin: “FIFTEEN MINUTES TO DEPARTURE!” and so on, until she would yell, “ALL ABOARD!”
The things that used to drive me crazy I would do anything to hear now. And, so, we were getting ready to go to her memorial service, and it was 5:30, and we had to be there at 6, and we hadn’t left yet, and there would be traffic. Where was Dad? He was held up in Wardrobe.
“Gotta get a sincere tie,” Dad said. He was holding a green and blue striped one.
“All aboard,” I said.
When my Grammy died, David and I played a jazz funeral duet. I asked David, “Should we play for Mom?” and he said, “Yeah, let’s cut her loose.” Our family friend Bob Vigoda joined us on piano and lifted us up to the next level.
Imagine the jazz, where she is now.
New grey hairs sprout from my head, Beethoven-sideways, daily it seems. There are times when I think I can handle this. There are things of which I’m proud, like the eggs and the bone marrow and the jazz. But grief is sneaky, a covert operative. I’ll open a drawer and see something she gave me and get brained.
My Mom loved bunnies, collected ceramic ones, metal ones, all kinds. One of the last things David and I did was to build a shrine in her garden. When I got back to Seattle, at the first opportunity I packed up my cat, Hugo Montenegro, and drove to Washaway Beach. Waiting for us, in the middle of the yard, was a big grey bunny.
“Mom?” He ran off, like an apparition, but then came back around, like a real bunny. A velvety plush bunny. A neighbor confirmed he was the latest adopt-and-release project of some other neighbors. I began to have bunny fantasies, except they seemed like a plan.
As I fed him my organic carrots, it seemed that if I could save this bunny, I could save my Mom. I would name him Mongo Santamaria, adding to my fleet of grey furry animals named after Latin jazz musicians. Hugo Montenegro glared at him for awhile, then they touched noses. Mongo hung out all day long, into the evening.
The next day the bunny was gone. I figured he went back to his owners and was recaptured. I went to broker his adoption, but he wasn’t there either. They were thrilled I wanted him, gave me a net, like an oversize butterfly net, to catch him, and wished me luck. But I never saw him again. Why didn’t I capture him, while he was around? He didn’t seem to need capturing. He was hanging out.
And then things started to seem very, very sad and real, in his absence. Like this is how the dead will appear: as apparitions, in dreams, a face in the crowd you can’t catch up to. You can never move fast enough. You feel them, too much, yet they elude capture.
Going once, going twice. Slipping on the sliding ice.