As my mother was dying, I was 20 minutes into cooking a lamb roast. Since my kids left home, Friday nights had become a ritual, my husband and I kicking off from work early, having a cocktail and a nice meal with candles, settling into the weekend on our own time.
When the phone rang I didn’t recognize the name on caller ID, but it was a Dubuque, Iowa, area code, so I answered. It was my sister Libby. “Janna,” she said right off. “Mother’s in the hospital. They said she won’t make it. You should come.”
My mother had a fear of dying alone. As I scrambled to BWI I realized I had very little information. Was she in a coma? Were both my sisters with her? Was she in pain? I called back, letting Libby know what flight I would be on and volunteering to call my brother, who lives in Detroit.
“She’s gone,” Libby said. “Just a second ago.” I looked out over the clouds, trying to figure out what to say. There was nothing.
We agreed to meet the next morning at the funeral home, three hours away from Chicago Midway, the nearest airport I could find a flight to. When I got there, Libby was standing in the empty gravel parking lot of the low brick building across from the car dealer and the Piggly Wiggly. We hugged for a long time, which means we had a hard time finding words.
Before we went in, Libby said, “I need to tell you about Mother.”
I bent my knees, stiff from driving, but mostly for a chance to look away. My shoulders tightened. Now what?
“So, the thing is, she already had all her arrangements worked out. Six months ago. She came here with Mary [our step-grandmother] and arranged everything.” Now she looked off. “So, um, she wanted to be cremated. That was her wish. I thought I should tell you before we go in. So you won’t be surprised.”
She seemed visibly relieved and hurried me through the glass doors, where the funeral director was waiting. All business now, she introduced me, and he motioned us to the big leather chairs around his desk. This stranger, who knew the most intimate decision of my mother’s life when we did not, sat talking with his back to the bright summer sun. Libby took notes and asked questions in the voice she must use for meetings. The chairs made me sweat, even though the room was overly air-conditioned.
There was so much I wanted to ask, but Libby would have been embarrassed. She had handled this so far; it was her meeting. She had earned her place in this man’s veneer-paneled office. My place was to listen.
And so I heard his voice, even and soothing, but not his words, like a minister giving a benediction in Latin. The sun had blurred the outlines of him, and I had to squint to see him properly. “Any questions?” He smiled the smile he must have learned over decades of sitting with tongue-tied grievers.
I looked at my sister. Could she tell I hadn’t been listening?
The awkward silence passed, then he said, “I understand you’re from out of town.” His smile was dimming.
It was the end of June, and the fishflies were thick as I drove across the Mississippi River bridge to Libby’s house.It had been a wet year; the sloughs below were swollen, and people would not be likely to anchor their boats to watch the air show and fireworks for the Fourth of July in a week.
I thought back to all the times we had sat on Libby and her husband Bill’s increasingly large boats watching the air show that always preceded the Fourth, holding our ears while fighter jets passed overhead to patriotic music blasting on the radio. The previous year, my mother had sat silently, not drawing attention to how weak her congestive heart failure was making her. This year, and every year after, would we still come together to celebrate?
My mother’s funeral was a few days away, the Fourth a few days after that. We talked about what we would do. “Fireworks, all that ... I don’t know ... it seems too soon,” I said to Libby as we sat in her kitchen discussing funeral logistics. Would everyone even be able to stay over after the funeral? Did we really feel like fireworks this year?
She was stacking dishes from the dishwasher and hesitated before turning to me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking, like always, that I had said the wrong thing.
“You know how Mother loved the Fourth. How it was the only time we all got together?” I could tell she was hesitating.
“So, she wanted us to send her up in a firework. I think it’ll be really cool.”
Surely she was joking. I smiled and said, “Right.” It was late. I went upstairs to her guest room and fell into a deep sleep.
It was not a big deal at first, our gatherings on the Fourth. Just a few sparklers, tractor rides, always the carb-loaded, all-day Midwestern meal. But as the children grew and the men in the family got to know one another better, this once-a-year get-together began to turn into something else entirely.
Our husbands created potato guns and rocket launchers and new ways to shoot virtually anything into the woods beyond. The reality that we all had very little in common anymore began to melt away as the guys turned into the Thunder Kings, naming themselves after a favorite explosive. Shortly after we arrived each year, husbands and sons took off into the country to get “ice” — you can’t buy fireworks in Iowa — returning hours later when it was dark. After they unloaded, platforms and scaffolding and large tubes began to appear in the yard. Large “cakes” containing dozens of rockets that exploded in succession, fountains for the kids, three- to four-stage shells that required cannons were organized and sequenced. The morning after, the kids were paid piecemeal to pick scraps of firework casings off the lawn. One year we discovered it wasn’t a good idea to dispose of these in the fire pit.
Over time, I managed to silence my anxieties about someone getting their fingers blown off or tripping after lighting the fuses with a blowtorch, or all the millions of other things that could go wrong. I learned to watch my mother instead. How she would hold court in my sister’s large back yard, as if all this was being done for her benefit. How happy she seemed. Nothing bad ever happened on our Fourths of July. It never rained. Embers never traveled to unexploded remains on the hillside. The fireworks were never duds.
I learned to trust that, just as my mother did. Or at least to pretend.
My mother belonged to my sisters in a way she did not with my brother and me. I was the far-away daughter in Washington, the one she was proud of but did not know. The one who did not know her or what made her worry, what made her happy. I did not know what bank she used or what friends would need to be called or what hymns she would want sung at her service. My sisters did. They had stayed close, called or visited her every day.
They asked me to write her obituary because I knew only the bare bones of her life, and that is what an obituary usually is. Sitting alone in the silence of my sister’s dark guest room, away from the phone calls and tumult of arrangements while we waited for my mother’s funeral, I wondered where I fit in this family I was no longer close to. I thought about who I was to my mother, who she was to me.
After two days of cleaning out my mother’s apartment, we regrouped at my youngest sister Kayte’s house for Cincinnati chili, our family tradition and the only meal Kayte knows how to make. Between helpings, her husband, Chuck, brought up the Fourth.
“Remember, I know that guy in Madison. Do you still want me to call him?” he asked Bill. I wasn’t really paying attention, but I heard enough. Bill cleared his throat and nonchalantly answered, “Might as well.”
Then Chuck was on the phone and everyone was paying attention. I tried to figure out what was going on. My 11-year-old nephew, Corwin, a practical-minded savant, said, “Be sure you tell him she’s already been cremated.”
I stopped mid-mouthful, realizing that my family actually knew people who could pack fireworks with the ashes of their parents. Was this real? Chuck left a voice message and got back to his chili.
“I have to leave after the funeral,” I said. “I have to go home. I won’t be able to make the Fourth.”
Everyone looked at me. “I guess it can wait,” Bill said. “The ashes are all sealed up anyway, right?”
So it was decided. Celebrating the Fourth would have to wait till next year. Someone in the kitchen groaned.
When we were kids, we would pile into the Country Squire station wagon and head for Kentucky on weekends, where my mother’s family lies in a treeless cemetery now overlooking Interstate 75. It was an obligation but seemed more like an adventure. We were taught not to step over graves, not to interrupt or be disrespectful as our mother and grandmother put down plastic flowers and pulled up weeds and spoke softly to each other and to the dead. When I realized that my mother chose to be cremated and fired into the sky, it felt like a violation, as if she were saying that we couldn’t be trusted to visit her grave or, worse, that she didn’t really want us to remember her.
Did my sisters feel the same way? Were they surprised? Didn’t this feel weird to them?
It was like starting a conversation about money or any other thing that was too private. “Look,” Libby said, “Mother loved the Fourth. Stop making it so complicated.”
“You think too much,” Kayte said.
We have a rule, made to stop kids from asking every 20 minutes, that we cannot start the fireworks until at least two stars are in the sky. It was a year after her death and we all had returned, ready to honor my mother’s last wish. The guys had been working quietly but not especially solemnly, making it a day for remembering, not for sadness. They had been setting off ear-splitting little explosions for hours. My nerves, already rattled, reminded me that my mother hated these types of useless explosions, too.
The fire pit and lawn chairs had been moved from the far edge of the woods up onto the driveway, maybe because we all needed to be close instead of divided into our usual groups of “watchers” and “lighters.” Four large tubes saluted the sky; in them were positioned rockets labeled “The Mercenary,” a name so wrong and inappropriate that I peeled off their labels to expose the bare cardboard tube with my mother’s ashes retrofitted inside. I found a Sharpie and wrote: I love you. Always. Goodbye. Then I passed it to the person closest.
The day hadn’t felt like the final send-off of my mother’s ashes; it felt sort of the way it always did. I missed the small, quiet part my mother played, giving directions and telling kids to be careful, taking in all the craziness as if it were a TV show. Then I realized: All that time she was our audience. She just watched, applauding us for simply being who we were — her kids, her grandkids. The Fourth of July might be Independence Day, but for us it was about needing one another.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye. Each of the four children took a small blowtorch, lit for us by our spouses. Miraculously and without incident, we walked up to the four fuses of the rockets whose forward canisters held her and lit the ends, then walked away. Successive whooshes came from the four rockets that carried her ashes into the Iowa sky. A long white tail of pinpoint lights rose and detonated the explosives, but the canisters holding her didn’t explode until the third and fourth stages, popping around with little white screams. The smoky, carbon-smelling clouds rained down motes over the grass, the driveway, on my shoulders and in my hair. We hugged tight and felt the shift.
The Thunder Kings broke the silence.
The watchers sat down and the music went up. This year, they did not start small and work their way bigger, but kept the sky splashed with nonstop color, each round a dangerous, beautiful composition in the dark Iowa night.
Janna Bialek writes essays and other tales of leaving and longing. She lives in North Chevy Chase, Md. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine @washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.