Death Toll: Visitation

Death Toll: Visitation November 14, 2016

My whole life changed for the better after the passing away of my evangelical mother, but not in the ways you might expect. The death toll demanded of me that first year of my witchhood was a high price to pay, but the road beyond has been well-worth traveling, thanks to her guidance. Our story began with Passing Away, Coming to Terms, and Psychic Agent.

Behind the Scenes

Late, after the family were all abed at my grandmother’s house, I sat in her kitchen to write the eulogy I’d heard myself offer to give at my mother’s funeral. I swear I was possessed when I made those plans, but it would seem that I had no choice. I borrowed a laptop, but I was unfamiliar with the keyboard and felt like it was fighting me for every word. I was getting nowhere and frustrated when my 2 year old son woke up at 11:30 saying he was hungry. I had barely seen my children all day while I was running between the funeral home, florist and cemetery. Their care was handed around between family members, and we’d grazed all day at a consolation buffet that flowed into the house from the neighbors, but no one could remember actually serving them a proper dinner.

So many feasts were served at this most sacred of kitchen counters. Easter 1998, Sondra (mom), Stormy (Grandfather) and Frances (Grandmother).
Easter 1998, Sondra (mom), and Stormy and Frances (Grandparents) in their kitchen with one of our family feasts laid out on my favorite counter. They are all in Spirit together now.

Nate was still wide-awake and munching when Lauren, my 5 year old daughter, woke up with 103 fever. She was whimpering, shaking and clinging to me. Looking through my grandmother’s medical supplies in the hall closet, I was excited at first to find a bottle of children’s Motrin. Until I discovered it expired in 1983, no doubt bought for one of us grand kids when we were her age. At 2:00 in the morning I drove to a gas station to buy some more. I gave up writing for the night and went to bed with a child tucked on either side of me in the same guest bed I used to share with my mother when we’d visit here over the summers.

But there would be no rest for us; three hours later I awoke to a thunk and screams as Nate rolled out of bed and hit his head on the nightstand. By the time he’d been comforted back to sleep I was wide awake, the third-eye headache pounding again and the eulogy whispering in my ears; language and anxiety were forming against my will.  I got up and in the quiet of those darkest hours before dawn, I sat with pen and notebook at the kitchen counter to write out my mother’s stories.

I absorbed what it meant to sit at that counter, remembering all the feasts we’d shared there; the cold watermelon sliced for after-dinner treats in the summers; holidays with giant roasted turkeys and Stormy’s signature pan of corn-bread dressing; celery sticks stuffed with pimento cheese, and hot coffee first thing each morning. So much had happened there in the 31 years since my grandparents built the house. Now that mom and her dad were gone, and my grandmother so elderly and frail, how much longer would that yellow, laminate counter be waiting for me when I came home?

Passing Away: Visitation

That day, my step-dad’s family all arrived from Florida; my husband’s parents arrived from North Carolina; my dad and stepmother arrived from Tennessee and all were enfolded by the family with open arms. I felt much better after they all arrived.  My dad was deeply mourning–as much as her current husband, Skip, it would seem. Dad mourned her death, but also the loss of his childhood friend, his first love and mother of his children, and his partner of 25 years. It had been more than 15 years since their divorce, but none of that seemed to matter anymore. The most beautiful part of the whole sorry mess was that both my mom’s chosen husbands could find solace in an embrace with the only other man on earth who could come close to knowing what the other had lost.

Line of Mourners at my Mom's Visitation
Line of Mourners at my Mom’s Visitation

By 3:30 we arrived at the funeral home, and the parlor we were given for the visitation was the same one used for my grandfather Stormy’s funeral 6 years before, and the funeral of her friend Paul she’d attended not even a week before. It was a large, pleasant room, like the sanctuary of a church with many long pews, upholstered with velvet cushions. The air was fragrant with the floral arrangements that streamed in all day. The light softly washed the sidewalls, accentuating the length of the room, and her open casket was front and center in a pool of flattering light.

Everything looked beautiful from the back of the room, which is where I wanted to remain frozen, but there was no avoiding that open casket that demanded an audience.  It was hard to approach mom’s body. She was swollen from the organ-donation surgery and three days of life-support. The body from which I’d emerged was now an empty shell, but that shell was tastefully groomed and miraculously dressed in her most cherished wedding suit. Her lovely hands, the only part of her that I recognized, were folded femininely together. Her nails were still perfectly painted in her favorite bronzy-rose color that, by no coincidence, matched her casket.

We welcomed our family and her many friends to come in and pay their last respects. The line was out the door for four and a half hours. She packed the house, which is exactly what I would have expected. As always, my beautiful Grandmother Frances was the gracious Matron who held court beside the casket for hours on end. She was so strong. Though we expressed our sorrow freely, she was as polished, lovely and responsible as ever. She greeted every single person like a long-lost friend.

There were moments when I’d feel a panic well up, as if I was an orphaned child with no idea how to “adult” my way through this maze of duty, but my Mama Frances was there, demonstrating how to rise up like a Lady and do the hard work. Side by side with my sister, Heather Anne and our step-dad, we shook hands, hugged, cried, laughed, remembered, told tall tales on my Mom about her charity and exuberance, and listened carefully as her friends came through to sing her praises.

Some of her Sunday-school students that she called her “rainbow class” came through with their parents. One of them was the father of the kids she’d babysit “so she could share her grandma love.” On the day she died, she bragged to me over the phone about getting those kids to try some steamed bok choy. They gifted my children with a toy Rainbow Carebear. He teared up as he spoke of how she could get his kids to eat their vegetables. Funny what little details will be most dearly remembered when we are gone.

With my daughter at her grandmother's Visitation, not always somber.
With my daughter at her grandmother’s Visitation, not always somber.

Rites of Passage with our Children

Several people asked if we were going to take the children to her funeral, as if death was something from which they should be shielded, or as though the demands for “good behavior” were a thing we shouldn’t even ask of small children. The very question pisses me off. Frankly, I think that it would be disrespectful to everyone involved not to welcome our children to our family’s rites of passage.

It is a parent’s duty to expose their children to the wholeness of life, and to engage them in their culture’s rituals, and ways of expressing emotions. Rites of passage are a necessary part of the growth process at all stages. The old folks need to see the babies at play; children need to hear the wisdom of old-folks in their dotage.

To pretend that death does not happen is unhealthy. For a loved one to disappear without any closure for the child, would be a trauma that denies them the benefits of the experience. Moreover, if you never give your children the chance to witness how to behave, and practice that behavior at both somber and joyous occasions, how will they ever know how to act?  Our kids were there with us every step of the way.

Lauren and Nathan both asked many times to go see their Grandma Sondra in the casket. We’d lift them up in a big hug so they could see. Lauren touched her hands. They were both very interested and calm, and said it looked like she was sleeping in a comfy bed. It had been 7 months since they’d seen her last, which was a quarter of Nate’s life away. They were neither upset nor tearful, just neutrally observing and offering us sweet comfort when they noticed we were sad. Lauren said “I’m sorry your mom died, I’m going to miss her, too. I love Grandma Sondra.” Otherwise, they politely played with their cousins.

My Grandmother Frances by my Mother's casket at the Visitation
My Grandmother Frances by my Mother’s casket at the Visitation

The Traditional Casket Picture

Before we left, we took a few last pictures by her casket. I’m not sure why it is in my family that they want a photo with their dearly departed as they lay there in a box. I’m claustrophobic, so that horrifies me, but it is what it is. When Skip gave her one last hug goodbye, he noticed that a blood-tinged tear had leaked, and was following the banks of a laugh line at the corner of her eye. The dam broke again, and we all had another blubbering group hug.

We spent the evening in my grandmother’s den, just like old times. Then I took another Tylenol to beat back the ever-present throbbing in my forehead and crashed for the night. The unwritten eulogy and the ball of anxiety forming in my gut would have to wait.

The funeral at her evangelical, speaking-in-tongues, rock-n-roll, dancing-in-the-aisles church, the eulogy I managed to hobble together, and her proper “Christian-burial” would be held the next day, but that is a tale for next time. ( Death Toll: Amazing Grace)

Thank you for reading, and for your lovely messages through my Witch on Fire FaceBook page, that encourage me onward in the telling of this tale. When we lose a loved one, grief is such an individual process, but the sharing of these stories can be therapeutic. I encourage you to share your stories as well. How do you honor your beloved dead?

Until next time,

*All photos by Heron Michelle, or used with permission

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