“We’re all stories in the end.”
Went to my husband’s stepmother’s mother’s funeral today. I don’t know what that makes me to her. I think the only time I ever saw her in person was at my wedding almost ten years ago. But I did hear a lot of stories about her, mostly from the Inspector’s stepmother, Daisy, who fretted a lot about her mother’s living arrangements, her failing physical and mental health, and (in a refrain of resentment all too familiar) her constant disapproval of everything Daisy ever did for her. Even as she was dying, Daisy told me last weekend, her mom was lucid enough to berate her for all the pain she was in. “Now, you have to do something about this, Daisy,” mimicked the daughter in a voice that bristled with the scorn that Daisy’s mother always seemed to relay. “I want to get up. Reverend, you do something. My daughter’s no good.”
Of course, there was no way Mom could possibly get up. She was dying, and although Daisy thought she was much more together, mentally speaking, than she had been of late, it sounded to me like the only awareness Mom had was that she wanted something her daughter wasn’t springing up and providing. Same as always, except that was the last time Daisy spoke to her mother. To the end, mother and daughter sparred, and while I tried to say something consoling to Daisy about how the mind with dementia works in mysterious ways (i.e., trying to soften the blow of how Daisy’s last interaction with her mother was full of the same negativity they always had toward each other), I feel like I missed what Daisy was trying to tell me, some sobering bit of knowledge that you only come to at the end of a loved one’s life. The day after our conversation, Daisy’s mom was gone.
So today I went to Daisy’s mom’s funeral. I didn’t quite know how to prepare for this moment. I found my wedding lipstick–yes, I still have lipstick tubes from ten years ago–and so I wore lipstick for the first time in God knows how long. The Inspector and I drove to the funeral, which was at a nearby Catholic church where the priest seemed controlling and dismissive. (Not the family priest, I soon found out.) Then we went to the reception, where suddenly all these stories came pouring out about Daisy’s mother and what a class act she was, how she had a wonderful sense of humor, how she never went to college but gave herself a good education by reading books and newspapers, how her best friend from grade school became a cloistered nun and how she kept up the friendship for decades by going to visit every week and chatting with her best friend through a barred window (oh, there’s some hefty symbolism in that image, for sure), and how Daisy’s mother’s favorite color was purple.
I had a friend who worked at my college library when I was a work-study student there. She was a full-time employee, middle aged, married, always smiling, making the best of things. I worked for a little while in the area after I graduated. Right before I went off to graduate school, this friend was diagnosed with colon cancer and had an operation to remove the tumor in the hospital down the street from where I was living. (I was renting a room from a rather loony live-in landlord, who would one day paint her house purple. But I didn’t know that at the time.) Because the hospital was down the street, I got up the courage to go see my friend from the library. I brought her a card, because that’s what you did for people who were sick. On the cover was a field of lavender growing in a forest, under a cloudy sky. I wish I knew where that picture was now, because Jeanine loved it. She said that, coincidentally, she really loved that color combination, the purple and green together. And that was the kind of person Jeanine was. At one point, she looked up and gave her husband the sweetest little smile. They seemed happy, and at that point in my life I knew very few married couples who were happy.
I hope they held on to that happiness for as long as it lasted. The oncologist couldn’t remove all the cancer, apparently. Later I learned that Jeanine died almost six months exactly after she was diagnosed, just as the doctor predicted.
I’m not telling this story or the story of Daisy’s mom (now, on my blog, her name will be Lavender) to be morbid. Actually, I really liked that Daisy’s family took time out during the reception to publicly tell stories about Lavender. There’s really so little of us that sticks around after we die. The amount shrinks as time pushes you further back in history. So the stories are important, you see. Even letting go of the bad ones and indulging in a little revisionist history is okay, especially when your parents are involved. You’re re-fashioning the story so that everyone can keep going. You’re letting the dead survive. You’re helping yourself move on.
(And who knew Steven Moffat was a believer in the God of Stories? I’m totally getting that epigram engraved on a bracelet.)