For one moment -- barely even a hiccup -- I thought it didn't matter. I wondered if that was shameful, or normal, or some combination of both.
What mattered, really, when my friend Marie called to tell me that her mother had died, was that now her mother's nightmare was over. What mattered was that we loved her, and that we had all said goodbye to her nearly 20 years ago, back when the Alzheimer's diagnosis was no longer deniable -- back when she went from being Marie's mom, a gentle caregiver at a nursing home, to a resident with severe dementia, seemingly overnight.
Marie would bring her home for holidays. She would sit in her wheelchair in the corner while we swapped presents and Marie calmly spoon-fed her. She had been in the advanced stages of the disease for so long, registering no awareness whatsoever, an old woman with a healthy body but no mind. At some point in the evening, the van would come to take her away, and we would kiss her and then wave. This went on for so many years it became routine. Marie, her only child, was a devoted soldier -- all those visits, all that giving, with not even a nod of acknowledgment in return.
So when Marie called to tell me her mother had died, my initial reaction was an exhale. For everyone. "A blessing." That's what people call suffering that finally comes to an end.
I asked Marie about the funeral arrangements, fully expecting her to tell me not to bother making the five-hour trek, and fully expecting to insist on being there.
"You know I would never, ever say this unless it really mattered," she said. "But would you please come?"
Of course I would. But -- Marie? This did not sound like Marie. She's my most emotionally self-sufficient friend. She doesn't ask for things. I wondered why my presence mattered quite so much to her. Hadn't she made peace with her mother's passing long ago? Isn't this what we do with people who suffer illnesses as insidious as Alzheimer's? When the body gives up so long after the mind, death seems something of an anticlimax. An afterthought. A mere formality.
Easy to say if it's not your mother, I suppose. Way back in college, Marie and I used to forecast the inevitable days of heartache ahead. We would do the math and figure out what year we'd turn 40, and we'd imagine it, and eventually one of us would hit on this passage: One day we'll have to deal with our parents' dying, we would say, as if rediscovering a mortality we still couldn't quite believe. Our parents' dying. That would surely be the hardest time of our lives.
Marie got there first. Her father passed away six years ago, and now her mother.
"You're one of the few people who knew her," Marie said, after making her unnecessary plea for me to come to the funeral. "Most of the people in my life, even my own children, knew her just as the lady in the corner in the wheelchair." It hit me then. The history -- that's what mattered. We are the sum of our stories. What if they had a funeral for you and no one knew your stories?
So, Marie's mom was a withered old lady in the corner of a room. Everyone at the funeral knew that. But she was also a short woman with a brisk walk and a thick Brooklyn accent who bragged of her days as a buyer for a big department store in New York, a career woman before there even was such a term, known for her movie-star wardrobe. She was an "old maid" who one day found herself on a blind date, and soon after that at the altar. She was an overprotective mother who taught her daughter to swim and to soar. She was a prayerful soul who went to church every day, and at the nursing home where she worked, she was known for her touch, the hand on the cheek that reminded the dying that they were loved.
Marie said all of these things in the eulogy before a small gathering, and she didn't cry. For a lot of people the stories came as news; for a few of us they came as sweet reminders. At the cemetery we each placed roses at the gravesite, and at lunch afterward Marie brought out a scrapbook of autographs she had found, had never known about until she went through her mother's things. Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Nelson Eddy, Helen Keller, Jackie Cooper, Lionel Barrymore, Amelia Earhart, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All these people writing to say, sure, they'd be happy to be included in the autograph collection of a teenager living in Brooklyn dreaming of a big, exciting life. Marie and I paged through it together in a kind of stunned silence, getting to know her mother a little better, while I suppose forming a new piece of our own shared history. We wanted to sit there for hours poring over that book, but we had to hurry along, as people do, so that Marie's son, Daniel, wouldn't be late for football practice.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is email@example.com.