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.