It wasn’t what you’d expect of a burial–somber experiences normally, but my mom was far from normal. The evening sun filtered in through branches overhead, reflecting off wineglasses held by friends and family standing on the redwood deck of the house where I grew up, high above a deep canyon rife with cactus and poison oak. Down below, balancing precariously on the sloping hillside, Rich stood at the base of an oak tree wearing a white suit and a tie in honor of his wife’s memory. He was holding a bullhorn in one hand and wiping away tears with the other.
Simone and I both flew in for the ceremony to bury our mom’s ashes in her beloved canyon, even though it felt too soon, the barely covered scar of her death still too fragile to withstand another emotional scrape. Stephanie, far away in Spain, joined via Skype, her daughters staying up until 3am to see their Nana’s final resting place. Rich raised the bullhorn to his lips, touching and goofy all at once in his somber elegance, and read a Mary Oliver poem that ended like this:
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Gabriele’s ashes fit into a small box, the cancer having stolen what little fat she had on her and much of her muscle mass. Rich, his feet slipping in the morass of dry oak leaves, poured the ashes into a hole he’d dug and shoveled dusty, brown earth on top. Standing next to him, Griffin–Grandpa Rich’s 7-year-old helper–held the bullhorn, but could not resist its mechanical allure. “That’s the end of a very sad but successful mission!” his child’s voice announced, at which point all the bullhorn’s batteries fell out. Laughter broke the reverential silence and to this background music, my mom’s ashes were laid to rest.
Looking down, tears turning the canyon into a kaleidoscope of browns and greens, I saw my own 7-year-old self, careening out carefree over that very same oak tree on a swing my father built back in what seems like another lifetime–a time when I had parents who seemed bullet proof, the word ‘cancer’ meaningless except that it was my mom’s zodiac sign. But even then, that little girl had known–deep in a place children should not often visit–that her mother would die someday and she carried that knowledge around her neck like a noose not yet tightened. Back in the present, I read Emily Dickinson’s poem “Parting”, my godmother’s warm hand on my back giving me enough strength to say the words.
That night, Adrian started crying, the nightmare of his Nana’s death finally coming home to roost. ”I’m sad about dying,” he said, his sweet face wet against my shoulder. So was I, I told him.
“What does dying feel like?” he asked, curiosity overcoming fear. I remembered my mom, who had not been frightened by death or full of argument, but had participated to the full extent.
“It feels like…” I began, struggling to find Gabriele’s positive spin on death. ”You know when you are really sleepy and you feel delicious and warm and happy and then you just fade away?” He nodded. ”I think it feels like that.” Adrian thought for a moment and then accepted this nebulous, fairly ridiculous answer.
“Then do you come back as a puppy or something?”
And I swear I heard my beloved, not-at-all-normal mom laughing along with me.