My mother died in May 2013 from an intra cranial hemorrhage. It took a week for her heart to stop in the hospital comfort care ward, but she was never conscious or able to communicate with us after being taken for an immediate CAT scan upon arriving at the ER by ambulance. She had said she had a headache and asked my father to get her a cool cloth. My father did and then asked her some questions, which she could answer. However she couldn't raise both her arms, so he called 911 for an ambulance.
Two days before she threw a family dinner party for her sister's 80th birthday, and a week before that we took my girls, her beloved granddaughters, to the Philadelphia Zoo. She was 78 years old, but was in good health and very active and intellectually engaged.
Plans were not in place for a service or funeral home. This was at least partly due to my having been unable to face those discussions (which she tried twice to initiate as I recall). It was known that she wished to be cremated. So, during the week that I, my father, my brother and numerous friends and family spent at her bedside in the hospital, I contacted a recommended local cemetery and funeral home near my parents’ home and made the first arrangements -- that we would like to have them pick up her body upon her death and handle her cremation. They were fine about us waiting to figure out everything else subsequently.
My father and I disagreed about having her ashes placed in a niche in one of the indoor or outdoor (behind granite marker) mausoleum areas at the cemetery. Ultimately we decided to divide the ashes and place about half in an urn that resides behind a granite memorial marker in a niche at the outdoor area of the mausoleum on the cemetery grounds (as my father wished and where his ashes could also be added upon his eventual death) -- with the agreement shared with the cemetery and funeral home that I could elect to remove/relocate the urn and ashes after his death. I currently have the rest of the ashes in two other urns. One is wood -- made from a single tree – and sits on a shelf in my living room. The other is a smaller version of the larger blown glass urn (the one that resides in the mausoleum niche). It holds some ashes which will subsequently be divided between my brother (if he decides that he wants to keep some), a portion to be scattered next Spring at a family hunting cabin that had been in her family a long time and held many fond childhood memories for her, and a small portion that I plan to take one day back to Kauai. She and I had long ago spoken about the idea of scattering some ashes along the coast of Kauai in the area of the Cathedrals -- majestic ridges along the Na Pali coast. It is something I look forward to doing one day when time and money permits.
As this was a cremation and not a traditional burial, our family felt that we could have the service within a few weeks and not have to rush to do it immediately. As it turned out two weeks later was the date of a very important activity for my daughters, and the following week was Memorial Day weekend, so we scheduled the service for early June 2013 at a simple wooden and stone chapel known as the Chapel of Peace located on the grounds of the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd with a lunch to follow at my parents house (where my mom had so often and warmly hosted all sorts of memorable gatherings for friends and family including almost exactly one year prior a 75th birthday party for my dad).
It became very important to me to do things right, I suppose realizing that preparing and holding this service would be the last tangible thing I would do "for her".
I dug through the basement and attic and found boxes and boxes of slides and photos, and made my dad spend hours parsing through them with me. Then I Fed Ex shipped them to a company recommended for scanning services to be digitized and Express shipped back to receive a few days before the service in order to create a slide show for the reception. I was up until midnight the day before the service working on compiling the slideshow which ended up including over 900 images from my mother's life, friends, parties, travels, gatherings in the backyard, my childhood, and her delighting in being a grandma after my daughters were born. It ran continuously throughout the afternoon on an iMac in the corner of the living room and on a large flat TV in the dining room (by Apple TV mirroring). A lot of people sat for a time in one or the other room glimpsing shared moments from this beautiful woman’s well-lived life.
I wrote her obituary and found the photo to run with it in the papers – one that both my father and I had in mind and which captured the big honest smile for which she was so well remembered.
For a memorial card, I selected an old black and white photograph of my mother and a poem (one that I had learned from her and one of a handful that I can recite from memory), “The Folly of Being Comforted” by William Butler Yeats.
I also spent endless hours designing the program for the service. My father and I decided to call it "A Remembrance Service".
And, my father, my brother and I went through her phone/address book and attempted to contact everyone in there (even those of whom we had no knowledge and no idea of what connection they had with my mother). We divided up the names and numbers for which we had no known connection and each called our lists in the weeks before her service. Naturally there were out of service numbers, and several who had predeceased her. But there were also quite a number (among the names unknown or unrecognized by us) that expressed how sad they were to hear the news of her death and also how glad they were that we had contacted them. Several had such a feeling of connection with my mother and recalled her so fondly and specifically from their interactions with her in various organizations and capacities over the years. Several of them attended the service. One, a woman I'd estimate to be in her 30s, had been a student of my mother (a Philadelphia public school teacher). My brother reached her by phone and left a message. She returned his call and told him that my mother had done more for her than her own mother or anyone she could call her actual family. She wished to come to the service and asked if it would be possible for her to speak about my mother. She did. She shared that she came from a home with a drug addicted mother, that she had suffered both abuse and neglect, and had lived in a dangerous neighborhood, noting that my mother had put herself at risk to drive there. She recounted how my mother would stand and bang on that door to get her to come out of that house and to get her to school. She joked that she would love to now tell us all how she went on to Harvard, etc. That, alas, was not quite the case. However, she did re-enroll and complete her high school (or equivalency). She shared that she had been most fond of English and reading --the subjects my mom taught-- and that she felt she would not have become the well-spoken, well employed, confident person standing and speaking to us on that day were it not for the effort, interest and intensity of my late mother.
At the service, my father spoke about his wife, I recited the poem “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth and I spoke about my mother, and my uncle spoke about his sister. A dear family friend played selected piano pieces and introduced one particular piece she had selected sharing what it meant to her and how it coordinated with her feelings about my mother. My uncle had selected a hymn for us to sing (for which we included the words in the program) which he recalled my mother had particularly liked. Anyone else wishing to share was invited as part of the program. Others who spoke included two brothers-in-law, a cousin of mine, a colleague, family friends, and a childhood friend of my mothers who asked that I read what she had prepared as she was too distraught. We did not have an officiant. My father near the end of the program invited the 150 or so gathered in the chapel of various religions or non-religious beliefs to join in a moment of prayer, recollection, and love for my mom.
There was a wooden table at the front of the chapel on which we displayed the blown glass urn, a miniature palm sized wooden urn, and a wooden carving of a tree that I had been drawn to and purchased in the days after my mother’s death (it sits on a shelf above me now as I type). Alongside these items were two colorful country-ish and very un-funerally flower arrangements in wide glass vases that we brought back for the luncheon gathering. Beside the table on standing easels, I displayed three framed photo collages which I had printed by a local photo printing and photography shop who were kind to prepare them for me on such a short deadline. One collage was of her as a grandma (full of memories for my girls), one was photos from a favorite vacation in Kauai, and one was a collage of collected older photos -- from her childhood, from their wedding, from before I was born, her as a young mom and my brother and I mere toddlers, and one holding my hand in the surf on Long Beach Island.
I did not prepare my remarks fully, but had scribbled a number of notes as things popped into my mind in the weeks between her death and the service amidst the seemingly unending tears. I wish I knew exactly what I said (that I'd had a recording or transcription) but I was told that I both captured a lot of what was special, intimate and funny about my mother; and also that in knowing and sharing how truly exceptional this woman was, that my absolute raw and acute loss was laid bare with great eloquence and love.
This was the simple, beautiful and tragic reality. This woman, whom we all treasured, had been my very own mother from the first day of my life. So blessed was I with that gift – something that all could glimpse. Having to now go on and live the balance of my life on this earth without her is the painful price.
I had requested in the obituary that in lieu of flowers, interested persons might contribute to a specified garden center for the future purchase of several trees to be planted in her memory. Late in the fall of 2013, my father and I selected four trees, and they were planted on the grounds near the chapel and mausoleum at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. They are two coral bark maples, a paperbark maple, and a sweetgum. My father was present for the planting and placed a spoonful of my mother’s ashes in the hole as it was dug for each tree. I like the idea that they will be there growing and changing with the passing of time and seasons for so many years to come as people come and go, as the world around continues to change, and as mourners and visitors of all ages contemplate their own loved ones.