When a Good Death Means Thinking of a Daughter First

NYTimes

January 25, 2009 / GENERATIONS

DaughterArticle

“Hi, dear, it’s Mom,” my 91-year-old mother said when my husband picked up the phone. “Is Paula there? I want to talk to her about my burial arrangements.”

Robert said he had stammered a reply: “Are … are … you O.K., Cathy?”

“Oh, everything’s fine,” Mom said. But she’d been thinking: it was going to be a big inconvenience to ship her body from Florida to New York and for everyone to take that long drive to Gate of Heaven Cemetery. . .

The cemetery my mother was referring to, in Hawthorne, N.Y., is where my father is buried.

Luckily, I wasn’t home to take the death call and had time to prepare for my return call that night. It went something like this:

“Hi, Mom.”

“Oh hi, dear. I guess Robert told you I called.”

“Yes, he mentioned —

“You know, I heard it was very difficult for Joan to book Daddy’s funeral Mass up there in her parish.” (My sister Joan had arranged a wake and Mass for my father on Long Island.)

“And what if we can’t get the church?” my mother went on. “Plus, it’s such an expense and inconvenience to ship the body.”

“It’s not going to be inconvenient for you!”

She started laughing. “No, but seriously, if. . .”

I let her go through her litany. When she was done I reassured her: “Mom, we’re going to do whatever you want, so don’t worry. But let’s consider a few things. First, you’re worth the trouble, so that’s a ridiculous argument. Second, you’ve prepaid for the plot up here and almost everything but the dinner afterward — ”

“Oh, I put aside for that. I don’t want you kids to be out any money.”

“Plus,” I continued, “it would actually be more convenient for your children, most of whom live up here, to have friends and extended family nearby who will make up our support group. So if you’re thinking about us, burying you in Florida won’t be better.”

“Oh,” she paused. “I hadn’t thought about that.”

“And don’t you want to be buried with Daddy? And your mother and sister?”

“Well, yes, that was the one thing. . .” she trailed off.

Thanks to me, Mom was back on track for a New York burial.

But not for long. Ever since the Florida idea began percolating, she’d been determined to cross it off her list, the ultimate To Do task.

The next time the subject was reintroduced, it was presented as a done deal. I believe it started with, “Hi, dear, thanks for the lovely birthday card, so beautiful, and the Red Lobster gift certificate.”

And then — pretty quickly, I recall — she got right to the point.

“Listen dear, I wanted to tell you that I bought a plot here in Florida. I know we talked about it before and Joan’s a little upset, but Florida’s been my home for 30 years now, Dad loved it here…”

“Are you worried about people visiting your grave?” I asked.

“Oh no, when you’re dead you’re dead,” she said, casually brushing the thought aside. I could almost hear her swiping at the air with her hand in dismissal.

Her insistence about being buried in Florida probably has nothing to do with concerns for herself; there isn’t a selfish bone in her arthritic body. I believe she’s doing it for my sister Karen.

After Dad died in 2002, Mom lived alone for nearly two years. At 87 she asked Karen — who was nearing retirement age, single and didn’t own real estate — if she would move to Florida and live with her.

“What if I say no and Mom falls or breaks her hip,” Karen had said to me. “I’ll never forgive myself.”

A few months later, Karen uprooted herself from Manhattan and moved to Ocala.

They’re an odd couple. Karen’s messy, artistic and glamorous; Mom’s neat, conservative and practical. Karen likes it cold; Mom wears sweaters and socks year-round. Karen’s used to living alone; Mom’s used to having someone around.

In this role reversal of caregiver, Karen has given our mother not only more years to her life but more life to those years. And provided peace of mind for me, Joan and my brother, Joey.

When Karen moved, my mother changed her will from having all her assets split equally among us to leaving Karen the house in Florida, ensuring that she would always have a home. Soon after, she offered to buy Karen her burial plot, ensuring her an eternal home.

“She doesn’t want to discuss it,” my mother told me over the phone, sounding surprised.

“Mom, stop offering to buy Karen a grave, it’s depressing,” I remember saying. “Not everyone is as comfortable talking about death as you are.” Poor Karen was transitioning from working and living in Manhattan to being retired and living with her mother in Florida — and Mom was chatting up a grave as a selling point!

A devout Catholic, my mother seems comfortable about meeting her maker, though she’s not necessarily eager. Her mind is sharp, despite some short-term memory loss, and she’s interested in everything and everybody.

Her good health is, in part, thanks to Karen, who, a neighbor said, has probably given our mother another 5 or 10 years. My sister spends much of her time doing things my mother needs — accompanying her to doctor visits, driving her to church, running their household — as well as pushing Mom to do things she would rather avoid, like water aerobics, wonderfully therapeutic for arthritis and osteoporosis. And in between, Karen has made a life of her own. She’s grown to love the relaxed pace of Florida, made friends, joined clubs, put down roots. She doesn’t travel far, having recently lost partial vision in one eye. And I suspect this is why Mom changed her plans, to make her passing as easy on Karen as possible.

Karen didn’t try to sway our mother either way, but when she and I were discussing the topic, she said, “If Mom’s buried here, I could visit the grave.”

And then I understood my mother’s plan.

When my father died, we had a rushed memorial service in Florida — the announcement never made it into the church bulletin, and most of my parents’ friends didn’t even know Dad had passed. Three neighbors came. It was utterly depressing.

At home on Long Island, the funeral home was packed; you could barely get from one side of the room to the other. Friends, family, neighbors, colleagues came out in droves. It was heartwarming. The collage of pictures from the decades of Dad’s life sparked memories. Tales were told, stories were shared. The funeral was difficult — I remember standing in the pew between Robert and Karen, crying uncontrollably — but the wake was a joyous celebration of Joe Ganzi, the guy quick with a joke and a smile, loved by all.

Our mother’s death, whenever it occurs, will be difficult on us all, but probably hardest on Karen. If the funeral is in Florida, I won’t have friends to hug me and cousins to reminisce with about Dad’s practical jokes and Mom’s terrible cooking — all the ingredients needed to bring a person to life as you grieve for their death. But if it will ease my mother’s mind about Karen and provide a little relief for the daughter who’s been so devoted to her over the past years, that’s all the consolation I’ll need.

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