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JANUARY 28, 2013 2:49AM

Now She's Gone

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I'm feeling discombobulated.  I’d never heard the word until my mother-in-law used it; I thought she made it up. I figured it was one of the strange little colloquialisms I attributed to her farm girl southern Ohio youth.  Along the line of: “Well color me surprised,” something else she said.

Now it’s the only word that describes my state of mind. It’s one of those unique terms where there’s no good translation like je ne sais quois.

Correction:  She's my late mother-in-law.

She died last Monday. It was a protracted death from emphysema.  Even after the hospice nurse said she had only days left, even after the last time I visited her, when she couldn’t speak or open her eyes, I had a strange irrational feeling she might “shake it off.”  All of it, the hospital bed, the constant morphine drip, the oxygen tube, the accumulation of fluids that bloated and distorted her normally pencil-thin frame.

She was a no-nonsense, can-do kind of woman who never felt sorry for herself or wallowed in her feelings.

I was surprised when she told me once she “took to her bed” for two weeks after her first husband left her for another woman.  Then one day her son marched into her room, turned on the lights and said, “Ma, it’s time to get out of bed and get on with your life,” and so she did. Splendidly.

She put her wrecked marriage behind her and remarried, traveled the world, established herself as a highly respected educator in the Columbus area, surrounded herself with family and friends.

Her motto could have been git ‘er done. 

I thought maybe she just needed a break, that at the right time I could tell her, “Kay, it’s time to get out of here and get on with your life.”

Friday night her family and friends gathered at the funeral home for a “celebration of her life.” There was no viewing; she chose cremation. When I was younger I used to think the whole concept of a viewing was grotesque, a freakishly ridiculous custom.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  I feel cheated when there’s no open casket.  Not for any sense of closure though; most of the time the person who died doesn’t seem to be herself.  My mother-in-law didn’t look herself even before she died. 

But without a body, it’s as though the guest of honor backed out of her own awards banquet at the last minute.

I wanted to see her one last time.

At the funeral luncheon the next day, I had my first White Castle.  They’re teeny little hamburger patties on what’s more like an air-filled dinner roll than a bun.  For some reason I always assumed I’d hate them but I don’t remember why.  Sometimes you get an idea in your head and it sticks and when there’s no reason to question it, it becomes truth.

I don’t know if my mother in law - her name was Kay - was fond of White Castles but her niece is married to the company’s top something or other and she arranged to have a bunch sent over for Auntie Kay.  It was a great idea.  

Her stylish niece stood there by the blue and white boxes, wiping her eyes and talking about her memories of Auntie Kay and it sounded strange to my ears.  It was startling, thinking of her as a beloved aunt to this woman. 

The grandkids called her Grammy. 

It’s always helpful to see a person through someone else’s eyes.  Kay’s cousins, talking about growing up together.  The many friends she’d had since college, telling their own stories.  It’s easy to pigeon-hole when all you have is your own perspective.  

Some people, usually young people, say they don’t go to funerals because there’s no point; they don’t want to remember the deceased “like that.”  I used to say the same thing.  But that is the point.  Not the way the person looks in the casket, but remembering them, hearing things about them from others that flesh out the person you thought you knew so well.   

Kay didn’t go to church and she wasn’t religious but her daughters are both devout Catholics.   She was fine with whatever they did as far as a religious service.  It’s for the living of course and they deserved whatever might comfort them.  For the last two months, they’ve taken turns spending the night at the assisted living facility where Kay’s been for the past three years.  Getting up in the middle of the night to request more morphine, listening to her gasp for breath, not being with their families and then going to work in the morning, all because they were waiting for their mother to die, took a toll.  They’ve been running on fumes for a while now.

The Mass was lovely although the priest, who didn’t know her, overdid the whole “woman who walked in faith” thing.  It made her sound churchy and devout when she wasn’t like that at all.  But he got it right when he said she saw herself as part of something bigger, that she was always looking for a way to make a difference. 

Then he had to mess it up by telling a weird story about the difference between heaven and hell, to illustrate her selfless nature I guess.  He said a woman died and God gave her the choice to go to heaven or hell.  First he took her to hell where he showed her an endlessly long table full of delicious food, surrounded by hungry people who were desperate to eat it.  But they couldn’t because they didn’t have elbows. 

God then took her to heaven where they saw the same identical table, people and food.  The people also didn’t have elbows.  But they were feasting away because they were feeding each other.  The people in heaven had figured out they could all eat if they helped one another.

I had to pinch myself to keep from laughing.  I could hear Kay saying, in her loud, southern Ohio twang, “Now couldn’t he have come up with something better than that?  Why wouldn’t they have elbows in heaven?  I’ve fed enough people here on earth.  I don’t want to do it over there.  And I want elbows.”  Amen.

It was kind of cool to have White Castle burgers along with the usual cold cuts and potato salad and brownies. I had three; a plain, a cheeseburger and a jalapeno-flavored.  And color me surprised, I liked them all.  

She was like that.  Good at mixing up the traditional with a little bit of the offbeat. 

I should have visited her more often.  There were things I wish I’d told her that I assumed she knew.  There were things I wished I’d asked her too.  It ws a painfully slow death but it went by too quickly.   

I always expected to see her smoke again. Get a manicure again.  Neat and meticulous about her appearance, she was still talking about getting her nails done at Christmas.  It didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility while she was still alive, that she might hop out of bed one day, looking just like I’ll always remember her, in a one-piece strapless blue swimsuit as she ruthlessly tanned by the side of her pool.  Or broiled on the beach in North Carolina.  And smoked and drank coffee and made plans.  She was a planner.  She liked having something to look forward to.

Thinking about why I’d expect an 80-year-old woman to soak up the sun again makes me feel off balance.  Not that I really expected her to recover.  But while she was alive, because of her attitude I could imagine anything.  Now she’s gone and so is that hope. 

The luncheon was like a party.  Lots of people, everyone telling stories, laughter.  That’s how she wanted it.  She loved parties, loved being surrounded by people.  It’s funny how similar it felt to a wedding reception except in between talking to people I hadn’t seen since the last funeral or party at her house, I found myself looking around thinking, “Who’s next.” 

Nothing should feel much different than it did before she died but already it does.  I came home and took one of those naps where you sleep like the dead and wake up not knowing what day or time it is or how long you were out. 

It wasn’t a refreshing sleep though; it was more like being knocked out after a conk on the head then coming to in a cyclone, like Dorothy in the The Wizard of Oz. For a moment after I woke, I felt like I was watching people I know fly past the window in my mind.  People living and dead, sailing by one after the other, and I couldn’t get them to stop.



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"Who's next?" When you reach my age, the line ahead gets much shorter. Sorry about your mother-in-law. She sounds like a good soul. R
You write so well. I could totally relate to this - I never believed that someone I knew so well could actually die. I always thought there would be a loophole where we were concerned. And every time I lose someone, I am stunned.
First, I'm very sorry. I've lost my parents in the past 2 years and the in-laws are knockin' on death's door.

Second, these words "It was a protracted death from emphysema ... I’ll always remember her ... broiled on the beach in North Carolina. And smok(ing) ... " are scary. Please consider quitting the poison-stick habit.

Third, did she call you Peggy?
I am sorry for your loss and I know all this feelings, we always want one more minute, question, hug and we just don't get it.
What you have said here is beautiful and touching giving me a wonderful veiw of your mother-in-law and just how special she was...the elbow thing, how very bizzarre is that, I bet she smiled :)
Great writing. Thank you for these memories and tying it all together.
I'm sorry for whom and what you have lost and that loss's effect on you.

You write about it really, really well.
It's so hard to wrap our arms around death. Or to find the words to describe our feelings. You've done it well. I'm sorry for your loss.

Of course she has and she was ready to go; even looking forward to it The woman loved to travel. She was tired of this journey and ready for the next one.


She was a that, a very good soul who touched a lot of people's lives. And yes, that line is getting shorter all the time.


I wonder why that's true. Death and also birth are so boringly commonplace, around since human beings have been around, and yet - they're still the most profoundly affecting things. You'd think after all this time, the shock factor would have been bred out of us and when someone dies or has a baby, the reaction would be "whatever."


Thank you. I'm sorry about your parents and in-laws. Now mine are all that I've got left although my father has Alzheimers and in a way it's as though he's already gone. I look at my mother and think, "Stay. Stay just the way you are for a long long time."

Consider quitting? I'm always considering it. My daughter and her boyfriend even quit; now I'm the last fool standing.

No she didn't call me Peggy; for some reason she called me "Margie" with a hard "g". I don't remember why but I always liked it.


I know you can relate; Kay also buried her only son (my husband) and her husband, who suffered terribly from a brain tumor. She kept him at home for the 3 years he was sick, until the very end; I don't know how she did it but it was bad and I never heard her complain once.

As for the elbow thing - even my daughter poked me and said "Can you hear Grammy laughing like I can?" Overall he did a wonderful job, especially since he didn't know her, but the story was quite bizarre.


Well thank you and also for mentioning tying it all together. Not sure I was able to do that, being discombobulated and all.


Thank you; I was just trying to capture the strange off-balance feeling. Just the nature of the death of someone you love, I guess.


The words are hard to come by, aren't they? Different for everyone and yet the same. I'm going to miss her so very much.


"One last time." That's what everyone wants but even if we got it wouldn't be enough. She wasn't like that though. She never lingered on the path or said "if only." She was a woman firmly planted in the present with one eye on the future. I admired her for that and wished I could be the same.
Can't say it any better than koshersalaami did.

Beautifully done.
"the difference between heaven and hell"
I just got back from a funeral and the Anglican minister told a similar story. Maybe they went to a special course for funerals.. one with extra credits for stories like that?

I do not want to have IT go on like she did and my family . I bet she did rally around in her thoughts and it was a never ending dream like you had.

But she moved on and now we have to and sometimes it just sucks
Death is truly the only thing in life that is absolutely final. That's very hard for us to wrap our mortal brains around, at least it is for me. I am still coming to terms with the death of a loved one who died 41 years ago. You've captured all that in another piece of fine, fine writing.

I'm sorry for your loss, and appreciate your eloquence about your mother-in-law and waking from your nap. You'll settle into the discombobulation - eventually it becomes something else, something more even.
Margaret...You have written so clear-eyed and so...bewildered too. That seems to me the beauty of this piece..from the White Castles to the people sailing by you in the tornado. I feel like I was there, maybe a friend of a friend.

I'm so sorry she's gone, Margaret. R for everything.
Sounds like you had a pretty good insight of what made her tick Margaret. I agree it adds something finding out what others who knew the deceased in a different context thought of them. It rounds out one's own perspective. We part company on the open casket though. It makes me feel creeped out and doesn't add any sense of finality or closure of whatever others get out of it. Nice portrait.
I have yet to write about my dad's very recent passing. This is a great tribute to Kay, and shared what she meant to you and others. Inspirational read Margeret.

I haven't decided if I'll try eulogizing my dad. I'm sure it's cathartic - a selfish thought, but I can't see why else I might write about him if not to make myself feel better or more settled in some way. I've always been very clear on the love between us and he passed on in love, carried onward by the enormous cloud of well wishes beneath him. There was nothing left unsaid or undone... he passed quietly in our presence. I'm still thinking about it, but this was encouraging.
**oops, typo! Margaret.

So good to see you again and - thank you.


I've actually heard that elbows story before too; maybe it's a stock pastor/minister/priest story. Yes, moving on - we all have to don't we. Sometimes though, I think about if I'd like reliving some pleasant event in my life over and over again similar to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Sometimes that has appeal.


Yes, it's so final. It sounds like stating the obvious yet it's funny how surprising it can feel to think about it, even when you knew it was coming and had plenty of time to prepare. Glad you liked it.


Losing a part of yourself...yes it is like that when someone you love dies. What a strange feeling it is, knowing they're gone yet still hoping you'll find them somewhere. It's such an unsatisfying feeling, like being so hungry and eating everything you can get your hands on yet never feeling full.

I'm sorry for your loss as well.


Bewildered also sums it up. I am that right now; glad it came through in the writing. The funniest thing is, I didn't expect to feel this way. And, thank you for your kind words.


I think I knew her pretty well. And I had a good relationship with her too; I count my blessings since a lot of women don't get along with their m-i-l's. Fun fact: She and I were the only Democrats in the sea of her conservative Republican family. She was so relieved when I came along!

As far as the open casket thing - strangely enough, I find it comforting, not creepy. No, it does nothing for closure but for me anyway, it gives a sense that the person who died is still involved somehow. I never felt that way until my grandmother died; she was adamant about not wanting an open casket so there it was, up by the altar but closed. And I was surprised by how angry I felt; all I could think was how selfish of her - and my grandmother was the least selfish person you'd ever hope to meet. For her, it was modesty; she didn't want anyone crying over her dead body. For me, I felt cheated. I know not everyone feels that way though.

While we're on the subject - years ago I met a hairdresser who also worked for a funeral home, doing hair & makeup for the dead. Like most people, I thought that would be creepy but she said not at all; she loved making the deceased look as good as possible for the last time their loved ones would see them, esp. if they'd been ravaged by a terrible disease or looked bad at the end. She said it was a privilege for her to do that. I think that's kind of cool.
My sincere condolences. Your no nonsense style renders this humane piece amazing. Yet, the greatest compliment of all came to me after I finished reading: you have changed my worldview on funerals. What a post! R
You've given us a true sense of a remarkable woman. I have a feeling you just gave her the loving, spirited, heartfelt eulogy she would have loved the most. I hope you can find some comfort and peace in that.
I get the sense Kay was a lot like you, Margaret. In your reflective, yet straightforward, clear-eyed writing I see an older version of the woman Keith picked as his life partner. My condolences on your loss.

In Milwaukee we called White Castles "sliders". Wal-Mart has them in the frozen foods section, and I buy a six-pack now and again for the memories.
You convey the feeling of discombobulation well. Despite lots of time to prepare for the inevitable, I was still shocked when my father finally died. I suspect, no matter how prepared we think we are, the loss is always a shock that leaves us at least discombobulated. I'm so sorry for your the loss of your mother-in-law, Margaret. I first heard the parable the minister shared as an Asian parable involving meter long chopsticks - makes a lot more sense then having no elbows.
Forgot to comment on the White Castle. They had those in New York. I grew up on them, just the plain ones, we'd bring bags full of them, each in their little open-ended cardboard box, up to my grandparents'. As chains go, they're kind of backward: almost everything in the place is really greasy except for the burgers.
Gabby Abby,

I don't know why you'd feel selfish for writing about your father as an affirmation of your love for him; I can't think of a better reason to put it down in words. And I've found writing about another forces you to focus intensely on that person, in ways you don't when you're just reliving moments in your memory. Sometimes I've even felt like I've learned something new about my subject. I hope you do write about him and it would be wonderful if you shared it here but even if you only did it for yourself, it can only make you feel closer to him.

I'm sorry about your father's passing but I can't think of a better way to leave this world than by being "carried onward by the enormous cloud of well wishes beneath him." What a beautiful way to put it and what a blessed man.


What a wonderful thing to say; thank you. I had no intention of changing anyone's worldview of funerals but if I changed your worldview, I hope it was in a positive way.


Catherine Eileen Morter Noble - Kay - truly was a remarkable woman. Every New Years Eve while the grandkids were little, she and my father-in-law would babysit them all so the parents could go out. She'd have a big party for them complete with party hats and noisemakers and pretend champagne and she'd keep them all overnight too - sometimes as many nine - yeah, 9 - at a time. That's what she was like and one of the things that made her remarkable to me.


Thank you very much. She and I did think a lot alike although she was far more organized and pragmatic than I am. More even-tempered too. And she loved - LOVED - to iron. If Keith thought I possessed some of the qualities he liked most in his mother, it was only because he was wearing rose-colored contacts while we dated.

As for those sliders - that's what they're called here too.


Chopsticks! That's hilarious. Maybe every culture has some version of the learn-to-feed-one-another fable. It is definitely hard to orient yourself after a death whether it's sudden or not. I helped clean out her room tonight and we divided up her things. That only added to the "discombobulation" - if that's even a word.


I hear the coffee there is pretty good. I don't know what else they make but you're right, those little burgers aren't too greasy. But they're too little. I like a burger I have to hold with both hands. Those itty bitty things are like appetizers. Even a tomato slice is bigger than the patty.
Well, as was said in a different food context:

Nobody can eat just one.

So we just bought them in batches.
I think alcohol must also increase the need for "whitey one-bites" as a college roommate of mine called them. I always know when my son's been drinking by checking the front seat of his car. Empty little blue & white boxes all over the seat & floor.
You captured her, and the finality of death. I felt the whole thing in the details. Good eye.
Sorry for your loss, but glad to know that she was in your life.

Thank you; I consider myself very fortunate to have a mother-in-law I both admired and truly enjoyed spending time with.