“I’ve changed my mind,” my 89-year-old mother announced one Sunday some months ago. “I want to be buried in my own clothes.”
When she and my father had drawn up their burial contracts, she’d requested to be buried in a simple white shroud, in the Orthodox Jewish tradition known as tahara. Her pronouncement came out of the blue, as she was in fine health (for her age), but she was quite definitive. She’d even scribbled down her wishes on a scrap of paper and attached it to her copy of the contract.
A few weeks later, she told me she’d chosen the outfit, something she’d worn the previous week; a nice linen suit with a black skirt and black-and-white print jacket. Her description didn’t ring a bell.
“It’s what I wore to Daddy’s funeral,” she said. My father had died six years before. I filed the information away in the back of my mind, with some of the other details we’d talked about: “do not resuscitate”; no exceptional measures; burial, not cremation.
For weeks after that, the thought of the suit haunted me. Every Sunday when we’d meet for lunch, I’d want to bring it up, ask her to identify it in some way in her closet, even describe the jewelry she wanted to accessorize with. But I always found a way to put it off. I didn’t want to think about — no less talk about — death, not while she seemed so very much alive.
It was one of so many questions I wanted to ask my mother before it was too late. It’s easy to think that there’ll always be time. And this should have been one of the easier things to talk about: Nothing sentimental about a black-and-white linen suit I couldn’t even remember, was there? But I felt I had to be sure I didn’t get it wrong.
On Mother’s Day, she looked so good that I snapped a few photos on my phone, which I showed to friends over the next few weeks. Two weeks later, she was experiencing difficulties with her speech, and an MRI scan showed multiple lesions. The melanoma for which she’d had surgery four years earlier had returned, aggressively, this time in her brain.
She agreed to two weeks of radiation, and for the first week continued to live independently. At the beginning of the second week, however, the radiation oncologist thought she seemed dehydrated and sent her to urgent care. From there she was transferred to the hospital and three days later to a rehab facility, in the same community as her independent living apartment.
At first I was terrified that I would not know what to do. Families in this situation don’t have checklists. But, I found, institutions and social services do. Friends intuitively show up. Decisions get made. Support services kick in. Paperwork gets done.
My mind went back to the burial clothes. I kicked myself for not asking earlier, when it would have been easier, when we could have dismissed the heaviness with a joke, when her mind was clear, when she could speak. By this time, it was no longer a laughing matter. I needed to know. There was not much I had control over — her deteriorating condition was out of my hands — but this was something I didn’t want to get wrong. I voiced my concern to the social worker.
“Why don’t you ask her?” she asked.
“I can’t do that! It seems so . . . abrupt,” I said. How can you talk about death to a dying woman?
“Do I have your permission?” she asked. I nodded my assent.
We entered the room and sat on either side of the bed and asked. Without missing a beat, she repeated what she’d told me earlier: “The suit I wore to Daddy’s funeral. Black skirt and black-and-white jacket.”
The next day, I went through her closet again. I found black skirts and white blouses and black blouses and black-and-white blouses, but nothing that fit her description.
As the disease progressed, I found myself becoming obsessed with her nails. I couldn’t remember ever seeing my mother’s long, rounded nails without white frosted polish.
Maybe I couldn’t stop the bad cells from reproducing in her brain and making her weaker every day. Maybe I couldn’t turn back the effects of radiation on her beautiful blonde hair. But I could ensure that her hands looked beautiful, as they always had.
I arranged for her to be taken down to the beauty salon in the building. When I visited that evening, I couldn’t wait to say: “Show me your hands!”
“Bad,” she said, reduced to one- or two-word sentences by that time. “Bad job. Cotton.” She held up her hands to me. Not only were there bits of cotton left on the polish, but the nails were not evenly filed and — this was the worst part of all — they were squared instead of rounded. I was horrified.
“This has to be redone!” I hollered to the kind woman who had so generously taken her down that morning. How could I let my mother go off to eternity with a lousy manicure?
But I still didn’t ask my mother about her burial suit.
A few weeks later, still concerned about the outfit, I enlisted the help of my 20-year-old nephew and his sister, one year older, who were visiting. We went to Mom’s apartment and rifled through the hangers full of black-and-white clothes.
“How about this?” my nephew said, pulling out a black track suit. My niece and I laughed at him. Undaunted, he pulled out a beautiful linen suit, black skirt and print jacket, something I didn’t remember ever having seen. It fit the description perfectly. I wondered how I could have missed it. I told them I hoped it was the right one, but we couldn’t be sure. And then I had an idea.
“If she gets ‘up there’ and says, ‘What the heck did those kids do?’ ” I said, “we’ll assume responsibility, okay?” We squeezed hands in a three-way hug. It was decided.
My mother passed away in her sleep, almost seven weeks to the day from her diagnosis. My brothers and I felt grateful we’d had the chance to say goodbye, a luxury we’d missed with my father, who’d died unexpectedly at the age of 88.
Just before the funeral ceremony, we each had one last chance to spend a few minutes alone with her. I felt reassured when I looked at her outfit. It had to be the one she’d had in mind, and if it wasn’t, it should have been. Her face was serene — did I detect a slight grin? — and I kissed her forehead and told her I loved her.
I had tried. I had cared. I hadn’t gotten it wrong.
Only later did I think about her hands. I’d forgotten to look.
Lesser is a Washington writer and editor.