My husband Frank and I were on the Jersey Turnpike heading north to visit my mother. We had passed two exits when he said “You’re awfully quiet. Did I do something wrong?”
“Sorry. Of course not. I’m a bit distracted. Ann called. Mom’s on one of her rants. She’s obsessing about death—specifically what to do with her body after she dies. Says she’s worried about the environmental mess her generation’s leaving behind, cemeteries taking too much land, we should find better ways to dispose of bodies. Ann said Mom’s exploring some bizarre idea called ‘above ground decomposition’. It’s like composting, except for people. Can you believe it?”
“Is this another one of her crusades,” he said, “or is something else going on?”
“I don’t know, but Ann’s wangled me into talking with Mom about it. She says if she does they’ll end up arguing.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time my sister had tried that line. I didn’t always bite, but on this occasion she probably was right. Two years older than I, Ann lived within ten minutes of our mother in a Boston suburb, whereas Frank and I were three hundred and twenty-five miles away in Philadelphia. Mom and Ann were close, but proximity didn’t guarantee harmony.
Our mother was like a modern-day prophet–let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. It may have been admirable from a distance, but at close range it was unsettling. I remembered the time Ann called me in hysterics at midnight. Mom had been arrested after she and her friends had written “remember Chernobyl” in red paint on the edifice of a company entrusted with designing safer, cheaper nuclear power plants. Mom said it was a contradiction in terms.
Fresh troops were called for, although Mom would bristle at that analogy. Most of the time I avoided tough subjects, especially where she was concerned. No matter how reasonable my arguments, she could mow them down with the efficiency of a John Deere harvester.
Frank was the opposite. An experienced sailor, he delighted in bracing seas, but on the home front he appreciated calm, and that is what we had given each other for thirty-five years.
“Ann was the gutsy one,” I said. “She stayed close to home. My way of coping was to marry you and move away.”
“I assume escaping your mother wasn’t the only reason you married me.”
I twisted around to look at him, my seat belt straining, pulling against my shoulder.
“You know that’s not true.”
His wispy ginger red hair had receded to the center of his head, while soft gray ones sprouted on the side of his neck. His ears and nose were large, but somehow they fit his big-boned body and his dear face.
“It’s not her causes that are exasperating,” I said. “It’s her tactics. Now she’s turned into an eco-zealot.”
“Is she all right? After all, she is eighty-five. It tends to focus the mind.”
“Mom’s as solid as the granite boulder in her back yard.”
Even as I said it, I wondered.
I stared out the window. A sprawling cemetery stretched along the Garden State Parkway near Newark.
“Remember when Harry died?” I said.
One of Frank’s golfing buddies, Harry had prostate cancer which he’d ignored until it was too late. I made sure Frank went for an annual checkup, kept track of his PSA levels on a chart on my computer, researched dietary recommendations, served him lots of tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon.
“We never talked about what Carol did with his body,” I said. Harry’s wife had scattered his ashes off Martha’s Vineyard.
“Why talk about it? Better to remember old Harry making that hole-in-one during The Club championship.”
“If there’s no place where the body rests,” I said, “where do you go to mourn?”
“She could look out over The Lagoon and take comfort knowing he was there.”
‘Where’s there? If you’re everywhere, are you anywhere?”
“Don’t go all theological on me. If you want to explore the big questions, ask Reverend Morton.”
It started to spit rain. Drops sliced across the car windows. I reached over and rubbed his shoulder.
“You’ve never told me what you’d want if you die,” I said.
“What do you mean ‘if’? Like taxes, it’s gonna happen.”
“Please God, not for a long time. What would I do without you?”
“You’ll be well taken care of, that’s what’s important. For the rest, you decide.”
“What makes you think you’ll go first?”
I pulled an antacid out of my purse and chewed it. Frank was grafted on me as surely as the apple branches he spliced onto a tree in our back yard.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “I’ve got ten years on you, so it’s more likely. I’ll bet your Mom’s thinking about her future so you won’t have to. Good for her. Hear her out, that’s my advice. In the meantime, we’re coming to a rest stop and I’ve gotta pee. You want anything?”
Four hours later we were in Newton. Mother still lived in the two-story, white-shingled house where we’d moved in 1962 after she and my dad divorced. The posters in my bedroom were long gone but she’d kept the same cherry double bed, nightstand, dresser, bookcase and rocker. Frugality personified, she’d been too cheap to dry clean the same old drapes she’d let me pick out when I was a teenager, so the linings hung an inch below the flower-patterned fabric. She had grudgingly allowed Frank to buy and install a window air conditioner, which we turned on as soon as we arrived. The space worked for me when I was a kid, but it felt small when Frank, a substantial six feet three inches and two hundred-five pounds, navigated around the furniture.
Books about death spanned a whole shelf. I took one, sat down on the bed and leafed through it.
“Look at these,” I said. “What do you make of them?”
The pages were peppered with black and white etchings similar to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
“Your Mom’s a reader,” he said, “always has been. You’ve been worried about how to broach the subject. There’s your opening.”
It was atypically warm for a mid-September morning. Mom was seated cross legged on the grass in the back yard digging up mint that threatened to take over her flower beds. She had on a pair of old jeans and a faded navy T-shirt from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Mint leaves make great pesto. Have you ever tried it?”
“Can’t say I have.”
I brushed my hand across the grass to be sure it wasn’t damp, then sat down beside her.
“You know,” she said, “gardening is quite contemplative. When you’re this close to the ground, you see stuff you otherwise wouldn’t. Take, for example, this maple seedling.” She held it close to her eyes, then handed it to me. “Look how perfectly it curves out from the weighted center, designed to float and land somewhere to generate new life.”
Frank and I had maple trees in our backyard, too. In the spring, the buds covered my freshly mulched flower beds in ugly yellow-green detritus. I twisted the seedling between my thumb and forefinger, then tossed it on the ground. How could I maneuver this conversation to talk about mortality?
“You know that book about international death rituals you’ve got in my old bedroom? I don’t think it was there the last time we visited.”
“Has Ann been talking with you?” She looked at me with the hint of a smile that emphasized the half-moon creases around her cheeks. Her thick gray hair, worn in a simple bob that hung just below her ears, looked white in the sunlight. “She worries too much.”
She took off her gardening gloves and stuffed them in the pocket of her jeans.
“Let’s go sit on the back porch,” she said.
I pulled her upright. The skin on her arms looked like crushed tissue paper, the veins on her hands bulged. Was she less solid than I thought?
“Thanks,” she said. “I can manage, but I get stiff when I sit too long.”
We eased into weathered wooden chairs near the porch railing. My rocking chair had an annoying squeak on the back-swing.
“Where’s Frank?” she said.
“Said it was a glorious day so he decided to walk into the Center, pick up a Wall Street Journal, and get a cup of coffee.”
“You found a real gem there, even if he is a Bush Republican.”
She didn’t say “unlike your Dad,” but I knew what she thought.
Squeak, rock, squeak, rock, squeak, rock.
A flash of bright orange flew across the yard into a tree.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Baltimore Oriole. I used to see a lot of them around here. There aren’t so many anymore.”
I tried to spot the elusive bird but all I could see was rustling foliage.
“Would you like a cup of tea, my dear?” she said.
“That’s a good idea. Let me get it.”
“No, I’ll do it.” She patted my arm. “You stay on the porch and enjoy the birds.”
While she worked in the kitchen, I cast about for a way to navigate The Conversation.
In a few minutes, she backed out the door and placed a blue plastic tray on a slatted wooden table in front of us, then poured two cups from an old china teapot with a chipped spout.
The tea was scalding hot. I drank it in small sips.
“Death is a hard subject,” I said, “especially when it’s about those we love. I can’t imagine you gone.”
“I’ve had to say good-bye to several friends. Whenever I do, I think it’s my turn next.” She sipped her tea. “If I look back on my life, very little has come out as I expected, but whatever the Almighty has in mind will be fine. It’s the future of creation I’m worried about.”
“On balance, has it been good?”
“Oh, yes, very good. I’m sorry you kids had to endure the divorce. It probably wounded you more than I understood, but at the time, I felt like I didn’t have much choice.”
I stopped rocking. I was tempted to ask if she had factored Ann and me into her moral calculus, but what would be the point? A spider crawled along the arm of my chair. I flicked it off and crushed it with my foot.
. “What we’re doing to the environment is unconscionable,” she said. “Future generations, kids like Spencer, are going to feel the brunt of it.”
Ann’s son and daughter-in-law had produced one grandson who visited Mom regularly. Frank and I had a thirty-eight-year-old daughter who thus far had avoided the marital state. Prospects for grandchildren were increasingly dim.
“We can’t go on like this,” she said. “Climate change is ravaging the planet. I helped organize a green-living teach-in at City Hall last April but it feels like I’m spitting in the wind. I’ve been thinking about how to make a final witness.”
“Something like a bequest to the NRDC?”
“I’ve already done that.”
This was new information. I didn’t need the money, but Ann, a divorcee who taught history at a community college, might be grateful for a boost.
“No,” she said, “something more personal. There’s got to be a better way to dispose of dead bodies. We think we’re environmentally responsible by shifting to cremations, but those furnaces spew carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and soot into the atmosphere, and consume tons of natural gas.”
I could feel a headache coming on. What had Frank said? “Listen.”
“I’ve never thought about it,” I said.
“That’s just the problem. People aren’t thinking.”
Breathe. Hear her out.
“Obviously you have,” I said. “What did you have in mind?”
“I’ve been reading about liquefaction.” She spooled out the word as if it were a poem. “It’s a kind of chemical bath that leaves a carbon footprint only a tenth of cremation and there are no fumes. The nutrients can be used as fertilizer.”
“Fertilizer? Please tell me you’re kidding. What are we supposed to do, ask mourners to wear green knee boots to the memorial service? Couldn’t you be a little more…traditional?”
Even as I said it I knew this was the wrong argument. She enjoyed flying in the face of convention.
“Tradition? Whose tradition?” she said. “If we were in India, you could light a funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges.”
“But we’re not in India, we’re here.”
And with that exchange, I regressed into a self-conscious teenager who had walked into our house with my girlfriend Marsha whose father was in Vietnam. Mom was on her hands and knees, painting anti-war signs on the kitchen floor. I had listened to her often enough to think she was right, but how would Marsha react? I was embarrassed. Mom was oblivious.
She shifted in her chair and put her hand on my arm. “Calm down, I checked, it’s not legal in Massachusetts, at least not yet.”
They say whatever tendencies you have get exaggerated in old age. Mom’s prophetic inclinations were morphing into the histrionic. We had reached an impasse. What else was new?
Somewhere in the distance a woodchipper erupted with a deafening roar.
“Hello, ladies!” Frank mounted the back porch steps. “Have you solved all the problems of the universe? I picked up some bagels and cream cheese while I was in the center.”
He patted my shoulder, then leaned over and kissed Mom on top of her head.
“If you two haven’t had breakfast yet, and if Mom lets me use her kitchen, I could rustle up some scrambled eggs and bacon to go with them.”
At three o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by Frank calling my name and jostling my arm.
“You were yelling,” he said.
I buried my head in a pillow.
“Sorry,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”
“I’m awake now.” He sat up and leaned his back against the headboard. “What’s wrong?”
“I had a nightmare.”
I was still in that half-sleep, half-awake mode of magical thinking, afraid the telling would give it power.
“If you don’t talk, you won’t be able to sleep,” he said, “I won’t sleep, and we’ll be rough company for your mother in the morning.”
I sat up and took a sip of water from a cup on the nightstand.
“It was horrible! I was on a rocking chair on the back porch. Ann and I were feeding Mom’s dead body into this industrial sized woodchipper.”
“No wonder you were terrified.”
“A gooey pink substance spewed over the railing onto the backyard bushes. It looked like when the neighbor’s dog barfed on our deck. That’s when you woke me up.”
What I didn’t tell him, but what frightened me even more was the sight of another body, taller, bulkier, propped up in the corner of the porch, also slated for the chipper.
Frank took me in his arms and kissed my forehead. “You poor girl, you’re shivering.”
“I tried to reason with her,” I said, “but her thinking is so unconventional.”
“I love all of you, even with your peculiarities. Now,” he said as he tucked me snugly into the duvet, “can we get back to sleep?”
He stroked my hair until I nodded off.
I awakened to the sound of fierce wind rattling the windows. Ann’s old Honda Civic was in the driveway. A buttery sweet aroma wafted up the stairs. When I walked into the kitchen, Frank, Mom, and Ann were seated at a round table eating buckwheat pancakes.
“Hi, hon,” Frank said. “Your mother’s outdone herself. Sit down and have some.”
Mom returned to the stove and poured batter onto a big black cast iron skillet. While her back was turned, Ann mouthed the words “Did you talk with her?” I grimaced and shrugged my shoulders.
“Mom,” Ann blurted out, “did you tell Marti about some of your wackadoodle ideas?”
Mom turned around and waved a spatula at Ann.
“Why does it matter what happens to my body after I die?” she said. “We’re 93% stardust anyway.”
“If that’s the case,” Ann said, “let’s turn your ashes into glass jewelry so we can pass it on to future generations. Just think. You could be a key chain or a bracelet.”
“Or a Christmas tree ornament,” I said. “One ended up in a thrift store a while ago. I read about it in The Philadelphia Inquirer.”
Maybe reductio ad absurdum would jolt her into common sense.
“Since we’re exercising our imaginations,” Mom said, “I could have a sky burial like they do in Tibet, let my body get devoured by turkey vultures.”
She turned her back on us and flipped the pancakes, then deposited three on my plate and pushed a cruet of maple syrup in front of me.
“I used to hate riding in the car with you,” I said. “You had a bumper sticker for every cause. You made me squirm with all your convictions. You were so public about it. Isn’t that enough? Do you have to do it in death, too?”
“I can see the obituary now,” Ann said. “The body will lie in state in the Smithfield Family Farm where it gradually will unite with cow dung until everything becomes fertilizer for next year’s corn crop.”
Frank put his fork down mid-bite with a narrow-eyed look I hadn’t seen since our five year old daughter threw herself, kicking and screaming, on the living room floor.
“Come on, ladies,” he said, “we’re having a nice breakfast here. Why don’t you all take a deep breath, pull yourselves off the gangplank and onto dry land. I want to digest my breakfast in peace.”
“I’m an old lady,” Mom said. “I’m going to die one of these days. I’m only trying to make my death mean something.”
“Not, we hope, any time soon,” he said. “Your life means something, to your family, your friends, who knows how many others you’ve inspired. Isn’t that enough?”
“Thank you, Frank. I appreciate the sentiment, especially from you.”
“Look,” he said, “you are a formidable presence. When you die, you will leave a big hole in our hearts. Marti and Ann have told you that something unconventional would be even harder on them. Have you thought about that?”
“Since when did you turn into a family counselor?” Ann said.
“Since the beginning of breakfast. I’m not just a pretty face, you know. I appreciate a little creative tension. Not, however, when it threatens peace in this family. My old philosophy professor said love means willing the good of the other. You love each other too much to fight about this.”
Frank wiped his lips with a linen napkin and tossed it on the table.
“How important is it to have a place to go when you mourn?” Mom said. “No cemetery, no worry about keeping the plot pretty. Besides, would you and Marti come all the way from Philadelphia to visit a cemetery?”
“I don’t know the answer to that one,” he said, “but the need to reverence a person, the body that was that person, is important. That, my dear mother-in-law, is why your ideas worry us.”
Frank had managed to lower the temperature in the room, even if the stove was still hot.
“Ow, ow, ow” Mom shrieked as the skillet crashed to the floor, pancakes scattered under the table.
I bolted up so fast that my chair fell backwards.
Mom’s eyes were shut, her mouth compressed in pain. She clutched her hand against her chest.
Ann rushed over, led her to the sink and held her hand under the tap.
“Let the cold water run on your hand for a while until we can assess the damage,” she said. Ann rubbed her back in a circular motion. Mom’s shoulders gradually eased.
“How bad is it?” I said. “Do you hurt anywhere else?”
“I’m all right.” Mom waved us away and turned off the faucet. “Don’t fuss.”
I returned the skillet to the stove and grabbed some paper towels. Frank helped me clean up the mess.
“How could I be so stupid?” She studied her pink palm, then wiped her hand with a towel. “The potholder was right in front of me and I forgot to use it.”
Had there been other incidents? Was this a warning? What was she not telling us?
“I swear that cast iron skillet has gotten heavier over the years,” she said. “I should get rid of it but I love how evenly it cooks.”
“It was an accident,” I said. “Nevertheless, Mom, it’s time for you to get a check-up.”
“Don’t let your pancakes get cold,” she said as she massaged her arm. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”
The refrigerator kicked in with an annoying hum.
“Sit down!” Ann ordered. She went to the bathroom and returned with some antibiotic cream.
“Remember,” Mom said, “when you girls tented a blanket over the couch and onto the floor and had what you called a ‘sleepover’ in the living room? You raised a ruckus when you thought you saw spiders.”
“We worked ourselves into quite a state,” I said. “You rushed downstairs, took us by the hand, waved a flashlight under the couch, and all we saw were dust bunnies.”
“I learned a long time ago,” she said, “the best way to face a fear is stare it down.”
“Is that what this is all about?” Frank said. “I did a little research on the web last night. If you sisters want to have a place to visit Mom after she dies, there are a few spots in Massachusetts that allow green burials. Or if place is not essential, and I don’t know how you’d feel about this, Mom, perhaps could you donate your body to scientific research.”
“You!” I said, “the poster child for death avoidance.”
“If nothing else, your Mom has made me think.” He reached across the table and rested his big hand on her shoulder. “You see, you already have accomplished something.”
Frank and I were quiet as we drove back to Philadelphia. He turned on NPR. Bill McKibben was being interviewed about his latest book on climate change.
I turned off the radio.
“I think we should visit more often,” I said.
Frank drummed his index finger on the steering wheel. Suddenly a BMW whizzed in front of our Volvo and veered into the left lane. I grabbed the oh-shit handle above the door.
“Whew!” he said. “Sorry! I didn’t see that coming.”
He flicked on the turn signal and eased into the slow lane.
“Mom can be out there,” he said, “but can you ever think of a time when she was wrong on the essentials?”
I had assumed Frank thought she was a loony lefty.
“You left a spot of shaving cream under your earlobe. You’re always doing that.”
I fished a tissue out of my purse, reached over and gently wiped it. He was right, I just didn’t want to admit it.