I sometimes make up autobiography titles for people. It beats actual conversation.
Long ago I decided my mom’s autobiography title was, “You’ll Never Believe Who I Sat Next To On The Plane.” Mom didn’t merely befriend people, she absorbed them into her hemisphere. Most conquests were made on planes, trains, in foreign countries, grocery store lines, nail salons, theater audiences or in the ER.
Mom’s last words were to her admitting ICU doctor, who was profoundly pregnant and about to intubate her, since Mom was struggling to breathe. Yet, still Mom had to ask:
MOM: When is your baby due? Is it a boy or a girl?
Hours later, Mom was gone.
Flashback. Last summer, Mom dragged me to a long overdue manicure. For me. Her nails were always immaculate.
I had to take a call. By the time I got off the phone, Mom was punching her number into my manicurist’s phone. Mom explained Tong was moving to New York in a few weeks and Mom vibrated like a tuning fork at the prospect of a new neighbor, especially one with gel nail skills.
Months later we were on the phone. Mom sounded a bit put out.
MOM: You know who I haven’t heard from?
I imagined she was upset with one of my sisters, endless cousins, nieces, nephews, neighbors, a step-kid, or someone from one of her book clubs.
ME: I have zero idea what or who you are talking about.
MOM: From your nail salon. Tong. She was moving to New York. I’m really surprised she didn’t call me. I hope she’s okay.
Considering Mom had that much enthusiasm for people, or essential lack of boundaries, I grew alarmed when call after call came in reporting another distant relative, friend or neighbor’s death. She’d kvell and keen over people who passed on at age 90 or 107. I’d respond by being all YMCA budget yoga-buddha non-attachment.
ME: How can you truly be sad about the passing of a 107-year old who had a brilliant life? On top of that, he had a really, really good run.
MOM: It’s just not going to be the same anymore.
ME: (probably still in my too snug/smug yoga pants) Well, nothing remains the same. Embrace change or fear it. Our physical bodies die, like all organic matter, but our consciousness is an energy that remains behind. My yoga teacher explained it. It’s like physics or something.
MOM: Well, It was an exquisite funeral. I’m forwarding you the eulogy and pictures of the flower arrangements. The readings were perfect. Laughter and tears. It was packed. Standing room only. Many standees.
She’d think nothing of driving seven hours in a blizzard for funerals of close friends. But my sisters and I grew slightly concerned when Mom’s FOMO (fear of missing out), long a charming feature of her eagerness for everything– extended itself to the wake of a former neighbor she hadn’t laid eyes on since 1972.
The Lieblangs lived two houses away, so we became friends if only for convenience’s sake. I was ten when we moved away and I’m 53 now so that’s a lot of time to not see someone you mostly played with based on sheer proximity.
Mom regaled us with how happy the Lieblangs were to see her, when they realized who she was. I silently worried that they wondered if Mom hadn’t had anything better to do than attend the wake of their dad. Yet, according to Mom, the Lieblang crew rushed her like she was Judi Dench pulling a Bill Murray at a stranger’s wedding.
My sisters and I worried about what appeared to be Mom’s growing recreational habit of attending near-strangers’ epic demise. Mom had always been deeply sentimental about everything, including death. I worried she was becoming a death junkie.
Art and drama school was where I learned sentiment is a feeble sugar coating for humanity’s deepest animal fears. We were challenged to find the ugly places where artistic truth resides. Thanks to Beckett and Sarte, I theoretically embraced the concept of life as nothing more than the loud and spectacular opening act for death.
When my mom was taken off life support, hours after going to the hospital for what seemed like aggressive flu symptoms, she was surrounded by children, siblings, nephews, nieces, grandchildren and old friends accompanying her as far as they could until her seriously unexpected and unplanned-for exit.
Meanwhile I was on a plane with my sister, insisting on positive thoughts. I meditated, sending love and healing light to Mom. I was filled with serenity, peace and the utter fact that everything was perfectly what it was supposed to be.
I texted my sister in the ER to ask how Mom was. As the plane took off I warned my sister beside me that Mom might have a lot of rehabilitation ahead of her. I was Googling what life after life support looks like when my East Coast sister texted for me to call her right away.
Our plane was in air, so I couldn’t call but her response puzzled me. Why would we need to talk if everything was perfectly as it was supposed to be? I texted her to just tell us and she did. Mom was gone. I was STUNNED. Not once did it occur to me that Mom dying was a perfectly acceptable option to the universe.
My carefully cultivated coolness about death evaporated in a hailstorm of furious tears on JetBlue’s redeye. All night I wept behind a sleep mask, listening to everyone else around me completely take for granted just how alive they were.
The next morning we were given the option to say good bye to Mom’s body. My sister and I took one dry-eyed second to say no. We were unsentimental enough to know our Mom was no longer there.
We were swept up and comforted by our huge East Coast family. Walking through my step-brother’s house with his wife Lina, I suddenly froze. A cardinal as red as a stop sign was perched on a shrub right outside the front door. I grabbed Lina’s arm.
ME: Lina! That’s Mom’s favorite bird!
Lina, a tall, tough AP biology teacher and no sentimental mush-pot herself, stared at me like I just pooped on her foyer floor.
LINA: Judy was wearing pajamas covered with cardinals in the hospital.
Suddenly I was filled with this gooey warm pudding, a suspended-in-awe feeling that was irresistably comforting– was I dabbling in sentiment?
More stuff happened.
We stayed at the house we grew up in. My mother had turned my old room into her closet. Since mom’s life was seriously interrupted by death, my old room, where Grace was going to sleep, was a mess of Mom-stuff. Before Grace arrived, I shoved piles of Mom’s clothes and shoes into the closet. I stood there a long time, sobbing into a faceful of Talbots Petites pants and sweater sets, inhaling what was left of Mom. But being a Virgo, I eventually got it all hidden away.
Grace’s first morning in my old bed she hollered for me. Walking in, I stopped in my tracks. Beside Grace’s bed sat my mom’s blue rubber clogs–as if someone had been watching Grace sleep then tiptoed out, leaving their shoes behind. They were not there the night before. They might have slid out from under the bed, or rolled from the still closed closet, but… it was a full-on warm, magical moment that I was terrified to share with anyone, on account of being considered a loon.
Later, driving into Brooklyn, Grace pointed out the front windshield, proclaiming,
GRACE: I see Granny!
A wooden pause emanated from the three silent sad adults in the car.
ME: UMMMM. OK. What is Granny doing?
GRACE: Granddad is picking her up.
ME: Um. In his arms or in a car?
GRACE: In a car.
ME: Huh. OK. Is Granny saying anything?
GRACE: She says she’s been missing him a long time now.
Lonnnngggg wooden pause from stunned adults in car resumed.
Later, after packing up Mom’s life with my sister and her daughter, we went to Warby Parker in the city–partly as a distraction from sorrow, and partly because my niece Molly needed glasses. It was almost fun. We did the photo booth.
Later, fortified/mollified by a Pinot Big Gulp, I side-eyed the Devil’s Peak of paper Mom called her desk. I knew I had to go through it, because I’m a Virgo control freak and didn’t want to miss anything that would only matter to me–but after a day of packing, I was tired, sad and drunk-adjacent. Ever the Virgo I promised myself, while simultaneously knowing I was lying.
ME: Just one drawer.
Impulsively, I opened a tiny drawer I had never really noticed before. All that fit in it was a 2″ x 4″ notebook. On the first page, in Mom’s unmistakable cursive was “Warby Parker.” Followed by an appointment and the address of the location that we had just been at hours before. The warm bath of tapioca pudding-creme brulee-sentimental-soothiness filled me again. Yet it stung fiercely because Mom would have done anything to be there with us.
SENTIMENTAL ME: Maybe Mom was with us…? Maybe she guided us there?
Even just typing that makes me embarrassed for myself. I know it’s corny, magical thinking (thanks, Joan Didion and Drew Barrymore for ruining the word ‘magical’ for the rest of us) but even if it was a lovely steaming pile of sentiment-scented poo, I enjoyed it and I told others, numerous times, about each sweet coincidence.
I became so goopy I grew paranoid about grossing out Andrew, my sisters, family and friends by my sudden conversion to not just a fundamentalist Sentimentalist, but a Westboro Baptist Church-sized Sentimentalist- sentiment radicalized.
I must have been contagious. 2 days later, at our childhood home, organizing stuff while shock kept us productive, my husband gasped from the dining room.
HUBS: OMG. A cardinal!
Sure enough–perched on a branch with audacious crimson feathers showing off on a grey November day– like a stripper working a nun party– was a cardinal chewing on a cold berry.
I texted Lina.
ME: Staring at a cardinal.
Lina texted back almost immediately- from her house 20 miles away.
LINA: Me too.
Emboldened, I pulled a seven second séance in my mom’s office- a tiny room packed full of decades of future projects, Christmas presents for us all and enough paper, greeting cards and used Christmas cards to shingle a Martha’s Vineyard mansion.
Following a quiet impulse, I reached up on a high shelf and found 5 photos of my mom as a young girl that I had never seen before. The warm tapioca pudding of sentiment returned, puddling me. Clearly, Mom was enjoying watching me become a menopausal melting pot, who would, from now on, cry at Beaches, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Josh Groban.
Mom kept winning. At the funeral home, while choosing between holy or sunset illustrations for the prayer card ( we went with ocean sunset) our undertaker mentioned that she was cousins with the Lieblang family and they were beyond moved that Mom paid her respects at the patriarch’s wake.
Mom would have adored her funeral. From the flowers, readings, hymns, final outfit, to the amount of standees, we did her proud. She would have emailed me her eulogy. In fact, when writing it, I was just taking dictation. From her. Not God.
Days after returning back home, my East Coast sister (no Sentimentalist either) texted me.
DEIRDRE: Looking at a cardinal.
It filled me with a warm something. Comfort. Order. The hint of design. Perhaps, even a God who, while forcing us to attain grace through loss, allows us to find mercy in little red birds or old rubber clogs.
Two months has evaporated. Grief 2.0 has set in. Accepting her non-negotiable gone-ness is a more mature, seasoned grief. No cardinals, no coincidences, no comfort. Just the sad resumption of life as if it were acceptable to be motherless.
My lingering death snob sneers at the comfort in coincidences– seeing cardinals is nature merely being nature- it is their season, after all. But seeing them helps keep me from fully curling inwards, ignoring life to hate death.
When Grace does anything remotely charming, I get heartsick at how much Mom would want to see it. If I really was a Sentimentalist, I’d believe she does.
Then I wonder if this is what my discount yoga teacher meant. The consciousness or energy that doesn’t die–IS that what I’m feeling? The magical tension of an outside intelligence pressing gently back– is it sentiment or science?
Who the fuck knows. What difference does it make. But I do know this.
My mom didn’t go to funerals because she was a death junkie. She went to funerals to show families that their lost beloved was someone who mattered to more than just them.
She wasn’t a death junkie.
She was a life junkie. A corny, unapologetically sentimental life junkie.