Is there ever a good mourning? Recently my mother passed away followed the next month by my mother-in-law. Two very different, loving women whose nine decades were filled to the brim with what mattered most to each of them, and family was right up there.
The Covid19 pandemic altered the way in which we were able to visit and say our final goodbyes to each. Besides sending letters and cards from afar, and window visitations once we made it to their respective care facilities, we struggled to achieve any sense of intimacy with our loved ones. It seemed so unfair.
In September, 2021 my sister called to talk about Mom. “I don’t know if she is nearing the end or if this is her new normal, but if you are thinking of visiting, this might be a good time.” My husband and I immediately set about looking on Outdoorsy for a travel trailer to pull behind the Ford truck. Not having been vaccinated, we could cook our own food, maintain our own sleeping quarters, and hole up in state parks along the way. We found a small trailer in Waco. Some friends advised us that traveling with a trailer takes much more time than just driving a car or truck. This we found to be true on account of the winds, construction zones, and just needing to drive more slowly pulling so much weight. Had we rented the trailer for long enough? Could we make it from Texas to Michigan and back to Texas with this rental trailer without major incident? We’d just have to try.
Two days later, we checked into North Muskegon State Park, and headed over to Mom’s care facility. We found out we had to call ahead to make an appointment and that they would bring her out to us. On account of Covid19, no one was allowed inside. I’d brought my wedding album to see if she remembered when I’d married in Saint Thomas and almost all the family was there, fishing, snorkeling, swimming, and just having a great time. When we stopped at a bench to talk, I was shocked to find that she didn’t remember. “Looks like it must have been a grand adventure!” Fighting back tears, I pointed out Dad in his diving flippers. She didn’t say anything, but instead looked at my brother, now deceased, and said, “Oh, I can’t wait to see him again!’
We had two nice outdoor visits wheeling about the grounds, stopping here and there to examine the wildlife and foliage. Our visits were limited to fifteen or twenty minutes. After two days, one of the care facility’s employees was diagnosed with Covid. All further visits were off.
Before we left town, however, window visits were allowed with both parties required to wear masks. This made any conversation more than a little amusing because both of us had difficulty hearing. Mom relied mostly on reading lips at this point in her life, and that was impossible now. It soon came down to just enjoying the present moments with one another without words. We could read the love in each other’s eyes and we all knew where this road was leading. She seemed more ready and courageous than I was.
Mother passed away in early February. My husband and I flew back to Michigan, this time staying in a small hotel. Although I had voiced my vote for a virtual funeral on account of the pandemic, the majority of family members carried the final say and arranged for a rosary, mass, and memorial at her Catholic church in town. My sisters prepared an entry of pictures and flowers that was absolutely stunning. I’d prepared the obituary presented on laminated bookmarks. Mom would have wanted all of this and thanked us for it.
Most everyone attending her service wore masks and a couple of her granddaughters stood to deliver moving eulogies in an attempt to capture a part of the woman we all remembered as “Mom” or “Abuela” or “Rita.” With so many family members in attendance, here was a gathering that the Centers for Disease Control would have shut down in a hurry. But it was what Mom would have wanted. Many of her siblings and relatives drove in from out of town to share stories, tears, elbow shakes, and homemade bread with strawberry jelly. Her Skylight frame, situated in the center of a long table, looped a medley of family pictures over and over.
Before catching our flight back, we stopped in Detroit to visit my husband’s mother. We found her in a concerning, unusual condition. Television was on, but she wasn’t wearing her hearing aids or her glasses any more. The second night we were there, she slipped out of her Lazy Boy at 4 a.m. and my husband and I struggled to get her back up. Her legs just didn’t work. When I assisted her to the restroom later that morning, I discussed the amount of blood in the toilet with my husband and we decided she should see a doctor right away. Two of her grandsons arrived to assist with getting her into the car to head to the hospital. Her grandson’s wife volunteered to enter the hospital with her, where she was admitted to emergency. After tests, she was moved to another room, then very quickly, a hospice house. She’d been living with so many health issues, it’s amazing that the only thing she complained about was, “I’m just so tired all the time.” Her body was giving up.
For my mother-in-law, window visits were allowed. Bed-bound, she was wheeled to the window with a cell phone to her ear. Her daughter prayed with her over the phone and had to accept with resignation the reality that this would be how everyone’s last goodbyes would be shared.
My mother-in-law said she just wanted to die. My husband and I cancelled our return flights and re-made other ones once her care and condition seemed stabilized.
Catherine passed away a month after my mother in March. A small, immediate-family-only service was held at the funeral home followed by a burial service at the cemetery where her plot awaited next to her husband’s. A priest offered grave-side blessings and her only daughter read a selected poem about not grieving at the grave site, but rather looking for her in nature, in life. Grandchildren threw in handfuls of sand to hug her casket. This small ceremony would have been exactly the size and type of burial she’d have wanted. Family gathered at a nearby park afterwards for a picnic lunch and to share more conversations, tears, and stories.
So here we are, surviving tribal members, untethered, adrift, sensing a tangible void, knowing we’re on our own. The love, laughter, wisdom shared by these two strong warriors of time, now shift to memories. At times I feel like I want to check into a hotel and scream and cry for three days straight. Other days, I just want to walk quietly in the woods near our house to look for signs of both of them. A primal urge to scream and cry haunts me daily and I wonder when it will pass.
I recently read a book entitled Odyssey of Ashes by Cheryl Krauter. When her husband passed away, she was gifted with a personalized mythology from a Celtic story teller. She received the story of Mis, a wild woman of Irish mythology who goes mad upon not being able to revive her dead father. “Mis is the archetypal madwoman who lives within each of us. She screams the rage we are afraid to express, she wails the grief that threatens to swallow us whole, she expresses the unacceptable inner voices we suppress out of fear. At the heart of Mis’s story is the need to honor mourning in all its wild expressions of rage and grief so that one can once again open a broken heart to love.”
Dating back to the dawn of time, these vocal releases were known to have been part of wakes held by the ancient Greeks and native Americans. This keening tears into our psyches, rips our hearts out, and purges our sorrows to make room for more living. It’s been said to be the only way a mourner can let go of the grief and become whole again. I’m waiting for that.
“You can decorate absence however you want—but you’re still gonna feel what’s missing.”
Siobhan Vivian, Same Difference