My mother’s death coming about five months after my father’s led my nephews and me to believe this second time would be better informed than the first. But we were wrong.
Issues such as power of attorney and of course money took turns we didn’t know about, one of which included my sister and I had to sign for my mother’s cremation. I arrived at the mortuary the morning after her death and completed a barrage of paperwork.
Grandparents’ names gave me pause, but I knew everything—or so I thought.
When the obituary appeared online, my sister challenged what I had offered as my mother’s town of birth: Lumberton, NC.
I immediately texted my mother’s oldest sister who shared the story I knew: My mother being born in her grandparents’ house—but that was Lexington, NC, my aunt explained, and the family moved to Lumberton many years later.
I knew about my mother’s childhood in Lexington; we were told stories of her bicycling down steep hills many times as children. But I still feel like she spoke of Lumberton as where she was born.
And then my middle nephew had reached out to my mother’s only brother, who shared the same story but added the home was in Linwood, NC.
I was sitting in the floor of my bedroom about to stretch when the flurry of texts exposed my error about my mother’s birth—and the obituary set to be in print in a couple of days.
I thought of how this is what we come to, after almost 8 decades of life—four brief paragraphs in a newspaper and loved ones who have your town of birth narrowed down to a town that starts with “L” in NC.
While I am not certain this is universal, I have struggled through many layers of guilt during the deaths of my parents. My entire adulthood as their son has been a constant wave of guilt for not being a better son (my feelings; not theirs), and then as they both slipped at the end, I cannot shake the sense of being powerless in their dying.
Having been a mama’s boy, the angst and guilt that accompanied my struggles with being by her side and maintaining my life along with my not being there the night she died have been exponential when compared to my father’s death.
And so, as literary person, I have been haunted by one of the most notable (and jumbled) opening lines of a novel dealing with a mother’s death—Albert Camus’s The Stranger:
The novel’s main character, Meursault, embodies a dramatization of existentialism as expressed by Camus—and the reader witnesses Meursault’s eventual execution by the State, which appears to ground his guilt in his antisocial nature and negligence as a son (by social standards) as much as in his actual crime.
Like Meursault, I too have felt the tensions between my nature and the expectations of society—two contexts that for me are mostly out of kilter.
The hyperawareness and insecurity that accompany not being religious becomes amplified during dying and death since virtually everyone approaches both through their faith.
Ministers darted into her room at the hospital, one touching and praying loudly over her before I could even speak.
For those of us who view death as biological and chemical—not spiritual—we risk appearing to be cold and harsh. But we still cry, and ache, and catch ourself worrying about people who are now dead and need no longer for us to worry.
Last night I came home to a card of condolence and a framed picture of my granddaughter sitting on the bed at the feet of my mother when she was in assisted living. I cried so hard I had to rush by my granddaughter—who I was eager to see—to sit in the bathroom behind a closed door until the wave of sorrow passed.
But I am also emotionally and psychologically drained. The living must continue living.
I know my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Mize and my maternal grandfather—who went by Tu-Daddy and Slick—was named Harold Graham. But somehow the details of my mother’s birth had become jumbled in my mind.
As I wrestle with setting aside the urge to call my parents, no longer at the other end of any phone, I sense that fumbling my mother’s obituary will linger as well—this woman who gave me life and was born, we think, in a town that starts with “L” in NC.
This post was scheduled for 13 December, my mother’s birthday. She was often celebrating her birth on Friday the 13th, an omen to her, I think, that fed her anxiety.
Today, I will visit the mortuary for her ashes, which I will leave on the counter in her home.
Ashes to ashes …