Death is a strange thing. Today would have been my mother’s 89th birthday. Instead, it’s her first birthday since her death last August. Almost a year ago. In about five weeks, I will have experienced all the “firsts” — the first holidays, the first Mother’s Day, the first birthday.
My sister, two brothers and I took some of her ashes to the gravesite tonight. It’s the first time I’ve been there. And that’s when I realized how strange death is.
This woman lived 88 years. She had four children, numerous grandchildren and even more great grandchildren. She lived through the death of both parents and two husbands. She married, divorced, gave birth, attended school plays, had sex, danced, drank more than she should have, said that giving up smoking was the hardest thing she had ever done, rode a motorcycle with a lover. Her favorite picture of her mother was at her and my father’s wedding and her favorite memory of her was in a smart red suit.
She told me, on the last night of her life, some of her feelings about her life. A lot of them had to do with her mother. Maybe we are defined by our mothers in ways we can’t explain, ways we sometimes hate. But it’s who we are, and who they are.
And tonight I held the container that held her ashes. All of her 88 years, all of her memories, all of her life, loves, hates, fears, joys, laughter and tears contained in a baggie surrounded by a nice leather container.
Yes, really. That’s all that life boils down to. Ashes in a baggie.
Please tell me, I want to cry out, that there is something beyond. Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.
At the grave, my brother dug a small hole (yes, illegal). Each of us there — my brothers, my sister, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, my husband, my son and me — took turns putting a handful of ashes into the ground. As I left, I felt the residue of ash on my hands, making my skin strangely soft.
I haven’t washed my hands, haven’t brushed them off. Like a teenage girl who won’t wash her cheek after a kiss from a celebrity, I want to keep my mom close. Don’t leave! I feel the ashes coating my palms, feel them sinking into my creases, perhaps becoming a part of me.
And even as the evening goes on, as I type these words, longing to memorialize her in some way that I can’t hope to accomplish, the ashes fade. And life goes on.