In life, our bodies are inviolate by law, exposed only with our consent as when to a physician or a lover. In death, they become public property. Most frequently in the United States, preparation of a body for viewing and cremation or burial is done by strangers at a funeral home without family involvement. It is how our culture helps paper over the reality, the finality, of death.
Sometime after Mom died, Joe carried her body to her bedroom for me. I removed her bed gown and for the last time, the diaper, that object of so much indignity and cruel humor from no-talent comedians. As I washed her body, I was washed in a confused emotional jumble of embarrassment, grief, remorse and fascination. It seemed a brutal intrusion on her privacy, but I could not take my eyes off Mom’s naked body.
What stood out first was the criss-crossed network of deeply etched lines on her face and arms, testament to the decades of her fruitless efforts to coax a tan from her uncooperatively fair skin. There were the big, rude scars from her two hip replacements a decade before that no one had bothered to minimize. That was true too for scars from the more recent removal of her breast for which she had refused follow-up implant surgery. Her remaining breast, without its match, seemed shockingly mislocated, out of place by itself.
Hardly any flesh remained on her bones. Knees and elbows protruded like knobs and I could count her ribs as easily as the bars of a cage. Her hipbones poked sharply against skin as thin as tissue paper, but fifty years before when she was a fresh, vibrant, juicy young woman, I had been born of those loins. I was of this body. Part of this flesh. We, Mom and I, were made of the same stuff of life.
I wept as I washed her body, and I learned the meaning of the word keen that day. I keened for my mother and for me. For the times I refused to understand her choices. And could have. For the visits I did not make. And should have. For the closeness I might have tried to foster and did not. And for the rebukes she might have voiced to me and never did. I had not liked this woman. We had so little, I believed, in common. I was stunned on the day of her death by the force of my love for her.
Barbara arrived in time to help select a dress for Mom from her closet. Joe had arranged fresh linen on the sofa and he carried her there one more time. Having no personal or family ritual for the dead, I did what seemed right at the moment. A garden rose for her breast from the bouquet a neighbor had left the day before and a candle in one the ruby goblets Mom had used at holidays all my life.
Then we sat, the three of us, with Mom. I am sure we talked, though I don’t know of what. Joe wandered out to the patio now and again. Perhaps he made drinks for us. Barbara cooked, somewhat aimlessly, I believe. I went into my bedroom once or twice to lie down and have a private cry.
Toward evening, it came to me that there is a legal requirement to report a death to the local government and it was time, I thought then, to begin those procedures. Upon my arrival in Sacramento three months earlier, the night Mom had run her hands through her gold coins like old King Midas, she had also shown me the papers regarding her membership in The Neptune Society.
When I telephoned their office, a kindly woman explained the two options: I could phone 911 and the authorities would rush to the apartment with all the bells, whistles and sirens as in an emergency. Or, I could call a different number and the same authorities would arrive quietly. I chose door number two.
It is rare these days for people to elect to die at home and doing so, I learned, causes a lot of bureaucracy to lumber into action. Thirty minutes after my call, two firemen arrived who quickly determined that Mom could not be revived. They stuck around for the hour it took for three police detectives to show up. The five officers consulted with one another in the kitchen for a few minutes, after which the firemen left.
The cops questioned Barbara and Joe and me together and separately before settling their attention primarily on me, the one blood relative. They wanted to know Mom’s diagnosis and why I had not taken her to a hospital. How long had she been confined to bed, they asked. What medications were prescribed? What time did she die? Was I there when she died? What were her physician’s name and telephone number? Where was her will? Were there valuables in the house? Why had I waited four hours after her death to telephone.
They were not unkind, but they were insistent.
They were particularly interested in the brown glass bottle of morphine, holding it up to the light several times to check the level of the remaining liquid. Not until the officers put me through the same set of questions the second, or perhaps it was even a third time did it strike me they were trying to determine if I had murdered my mother. I wondered what I would have been feeling or how I would have answered their questions if I had “helped her die” as she had asked.
The police officers had been there for more than an hour before they reached the coroner who, I learned then, was required to officially pronounce Mom dead of natural causes and not misadventure before her body could be released to The Neptune Society. It took another hour for the coroner to track down Mom’s physician by telephone and determine that he would not need to come to the apartment, that Mom’s death, he felt assured, was not a crime. The police then backed off their professional attitude and offered to stay, if I wished, until Mom’s body was removed.
They had been pleasant enough, given what they are paid to do and I could not blame them for their questions. They had no way to know, until Mom’s physician explained her disease, that someone had not killed her. (Only I knew how close to the truth that might have been.)
But the death of a loved one is a private matter. I wanted the strangers to go away. I wanted just a little more alone time with Mom before she would be physically gone from my life forever.
As Joe and Barbara and I sat together with Mom awaiting The Neptune Society hearse, I saw that her face had relaxed as if, in the hours following her death, the physical world had let go of its hold on her. The lines and wrinkles appeared to be gone and when I stroked her cheek, it felt as smooth as a newborn babe’s.
…to be continued…
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript