Sunday: The Last Viewing

I slept Saturday night, but I don’t recall how long.  It was in the normal range.  I was relieved.  It seemed like I had moved to a point where I wasn’t going to have to track my sleep anymore.  More importantly, I was sleeping, period—something which seemed impossible only a couple of days before.

Sunday is a bit of a blur.  I know that I do not recall this day as vividly as the other days of that week.  It was the first day that there was not some titanic event or decisions to conquer.  It was the first day my house wasn’t packed with people.  This made way for my new reality to sink in, and that was really very rough, folks.  Very tough, indeed.

I recall feeling shell-shocked.  I recall having an aching in my gut that was like no other I have every experienced. I recall feeling like someone had just yanked a knife out of my heart.  I was very aware, as I had been a couple of days prior, of what felt like an ACTUAL hole in my heart.  I could see why some people would feel the need to do something, anything, to fill that hole, or close it down, or to ignore it by any means necessary.  It is a strong and immediate desire to make that hole not be a hole anymore.

I knew that there wasn’t REALLY anything that I could do about the feeling that I had a hole in my heart.  My precious two-year-old daughter had been yanked off this earth with no warning.  I felt like anything I did to disguise or ignore that hole was a betrayal of her, and what had become of her. I did not want this.  I knew that only time would heal that hole—and that maybe even time would not be up for the task.  I knew that I might very well have that hole for the rest of my life.  I felt like it was all I really had left of her, to be honest, so I didn’t want to muck it up with trivial attempts to hide the pain.  I knew, from helping others through grief, that the only way through it, was through it.  So, I committed myself to remain an observer of this feeling, and denied the urge to run from it.

I looked around me, and saw so much love, so much support, so many other people hurting like I did, and decided that my best bet was to let that hole be, and to allow the light sent by all of those loved ones to shine through the gaping hole in my heart.  So, I committed to continuing to say “yes” to the love and support.  I committed to allowing all of the love directed my way to surge through that hole, and see what a little love could do.  I know this sounds very airy fairy, but it is the truth.  Honest to God, I could feel the love pouring right through, and around, that hole.  I could literally feel light surging through that hole.  I swear this by all that is good in the world.

I sat on my back porch, stationary, and dumbfounded by this experience.

I used to be more private about my airy fairy thoughts, but this does not seem to be the time for that.

Most of the siblings and step-siblings (except Caitlin, who was staying the week) were leaving that day.  My brother and his family came by to say goodbye.  An idea came to me.

I asked the four members of my brother’s family to come down the hall with me.  I opened the linen closet.  I selected, and pulled out, one of Alice’s precious blankies, and gave it to them.  My brother emitted a noise like he’d been punched in the gut and teared up.  I think we all cried here, to be fair.  I wanted them to have something to remind them of Alice.  Adults leave estates, houses, life insurance policies, and sometimes they leave unfinished business.  Alice left a mass of broken hearts, but she left no unfinished business, save the business of living what we think of as a full life.  She left no children, and no real possessions.  Alice’s most precious, beloved, material (literally) possessions were her arsenal of 16 muslin blankies, and I wanted her loved ones to be able to have something into which she had poured so much innocent love. I selected blankies for the grandparents, and other siblings, and distributed them with few words.  I think everyone cried.

(An aside:  I think Colin and Heather left before I had this idea.  Maybe missed someone else too?  Hit me up later, sibs, if that is the case.)

It was mainly a quiet morning spent saying goodbye to the family leaving that day.  I could have this wrong, but most people left early that day except the grandparents, Caitlin, and my Uncle Danny and Aunt Nancy.  Uncle Danny and Aunt Nancy left late afternoon, I think. I recall that they were here early in the day.

My inner circle folks had the “day off” and deservedly so.  I cannot imagine how tired they must have all been, having done EVERYTHING to make that service possible, not to mention having done everything to keep me and my extended family afloat.  I recall distinctly having a moment where I thought, “Crap!  What AM I GOING TO DO WITHOUT BUBBA TODAY?”  I had barely been without him since Tuesday night.  He, like my other close friends, had dropped everything that week to help me.  I am sure he was beyond exhausted.  I was glad he had the “day off” from my situation and from me, but I won’t lie: I had a moment of panic wondering if I could press on without him there.

Meleva was still here with Famke and made noises about going back home to Sacramento that day, but I begged her to stay.  I even cried, I think.  “Whipped up a few tears,” as my grandma would say.  I could not bear the thought of her leaving just yet.  Again, few people “get me” as well as Meleva does.  I needed her.  I needed her.  I had my family, but I also needed a friend.  And not just any friend.  I needed a friend that doesn’t blow sunshine up my ass.  A friend that dropped everything to come help.  A friend that makes me laugh through my tears, and hers.  A friend that can tell when I need to talk uninterrupted.  A friend that can tell when I need a silent hug.  A friend that can tell when I need a dirty joke.  A friend that can tell when I need a good talkin’ to.  A friend that knows how much I love my daughters, and how utterly devastated I was.  A friend that was clearly as devastated as I was, but did not run away from me. Instead, she clung to me.

I love you, Meleva.

My friend stayed.  I will be forever grateful.

I believe there was a family outing to Target on Sunday.  While I went to the funeral home, the rest of the gang took Grace to Target.  If you ask Grace what she likes more, Disneyland or Target, she thankfully (?) says Target.  Danny and Nancy bought her a coveted Ariel doll.  There was talk of her getting new shoes (there is ALWAYS talk of her getting new shoes.)

Sunday was the last day Alice’s remains would be whole.  Shari (our funeral director) offered to set up a last visit for me at the funeral home that Sunday, and I eagerly accepted her offer.  I was still embracing the “yes,” just as Bubba had so wisely instructed.  The old me, of just last week, would have not wanted to trouble Shari with this extra visit, despite her offer.  But, Bubba’s advice still stuck with me, so I said “yes.”  I had not yet seen the funeral home where Alice had been resting since Wednesday.  Shari had been kind enough to talk with me in my home, and to set up the viewing here, so I had had no occasion to see the funeral home at this point.  The family and Meleva were going to cover the care of Grace so I could say my very last goodbye to Alice.  I was so very grateful to have this opportunity.

The funeral home was not far from home, and near LAX.  Again, it felt weird to be outside.  I still felt completely out of synch with reality.  I felt a little nervous.  I felt a little sick to my stomach.  This day was so much quieter than any other day that week, so I was feeling my feelings with a far greater intensity than I had that earlier week.  There were no distractions.  There was only me, silently driving to see my deceased daughter for the very last time.

I could puke just thinking of it now.

It was sunny.  This pissed me off for some reason.

The funeral home was basically empty.  There were no services that day.  There was a receptionist there, and Shari.  That’s it.  It was silent in there.  Shari was wearing workout attire, and apologized for this, explaining that she was moving that day.

I mean, really.  This amazing woman could have sent someone else, but she didn’t.  She never told me she was moving that day, or I would have not gone.  She had gone so far and above the call of duty already, I just could not have asked for more.

Before going in to see Alice, who Shari had kindly laid out in the chapel, I needed to sign some papers.  I had hemmed and hawed so long on the cremation vs. burial question that there had not been occasion to do this. Shari said all kinds of wonderful things to me that day.  I cannot remember them verbatim, sadly, but basically she told me that this was one of the hardest cases she had ever worked on, that I had some of the best people around me that she had ever met, etc.  She was genuine, and so very kind.  Seriously, this is one of the most truly kind people I have ever met.  Flabbergasting.

Shari patiently explained each paper, while I sat there wide-eyed and quiet.  There were several.  I was basically signing permission slips for Alice.  But instead of permission to go on a field trip, or get out of gym class, I was signing away permission to have her remains cremated.

I burst into tears, big ugly tears, the second my pen hit the paper.  I had to stop a moment, because I was visibly shaking.  Shari had to look away, and I could see tears in her eyes.  She wiped her eyes and turned away. She did this for a living and yet, was crying, though unlike me, it was all very ladylike.  I did not look so ladylike.  I felt horrible that I had made this uber-professional woman cry.  So I cried more—head on the desk, shaking and sobbing.  It wasn’t the most composed moment of my life.

I finally signed them all.  I had to put my head down again for a minute.

Once I got myself together, Shari walked me down the hall and explained that I could take my time, that there were no services that day, that she had plenty of work to do there, so not to worry about her.  I mean, c’mon.  This woman is remarkable.  She walked me to the door of the chapel, and said to have the receptionist get her when I was done, because she a couple of things to discuss with me.

I walked into the chapel, which was utterly, devastatingly silent and filled with a soft, natural light.  The light was noticeably whiter than most natural light, I noted.  Why did I note this?  No idea.  But it really was different in some way I could not exactly put my finger on.

One enters the chapel from the back right, as you face the front.  I could see my Alice, laid out there like a porcelain doll, front and center.  She was completely still, in the utter silence.  I got chills.

The only other time I’d encountered silence like this was on one of the rather serious backpacking trips I had done in the Sierras.  I was with Michael, Jeff, and Brian, all geologists.  We hit the ridge, which I considered “the top,” when they informed me that the actual peak was around the corner and some feet up.  I peered around to look.  It was going to be a move that I would have assumed a sane person would have used ropes to perform.  “Um, you fall, you die?”  I asked.   This was confirmed.  “Ok, have fun, I’ll sit here at MY top and wait for you, do a little meditation, and read my Alan Watts book.  See you soon!”  The boys took off, and I sat on that ridge with incredible views of two enormous valleys.  It was SILENT.  When I say silent, I mean, literally not one sound except my own breath.  You could hear the wings flap on a dragonfly kind of silent.  That is how it was in the chapel that day as well.  I felt like I was in a vacuum.

Maybe I was.

Now Alice was not exactly known for her silence.  She wasn’t a fussy kid, or even a loud kid, but she certainly was not silent.  Alice made her presence known.  Looking at her lying completely still, and in utter, deafening silence, was perhaps the strangest experience I have ever had in my life.  It defied explanation.  And as I write this, I cry.  I rarely cry while writing these pieces (I have no idea how or why), but this memory brings on the waterworks.  I just could NOT BELIEVE that my precious, funny little sweetheart would make a sound no more.  No more.   AGONIZING.  Just agonizing.

I cried again as I walked toward her.  This time not an ugly cry, but a still, silent cry where water just pours out of your face without effort.  Like someone turned on the faucet and forgot to turn it off.  Like a waterfall.  Like gravity was nonchalantly pulling water from my face.

I went immediately to her and knelt beside her.  I hugged her and cried.  I think I said, “I’m sorry, Alice, Mama is so sorry” about 100 times.  I was still racked with guilt.  Just completely racked with guilt. I looked her over slowly.  I looked at her fingers.  Her arm was heavy and limp and not at all how I wanted it to feel.  I wanted her to hop up, and say “Hi, Mama!  Funny joke!”  but I knew this was not going to happen.  I looked at her autopsy scars, all of them.  I had to do it.  I realize some folks would never do that in a million years, but I HAD to do it.  I felt compelled to do it from the very marrow of my bones.  I had to take in the truth of this moment, and what Alice was now.  It did not upset me further; in fact, I was rather stoic during this part of the viewing.  How?  No idea.

I picked her up.  Again, I noticed that her center of gravity was different.  I noticed her head didn’t move much, which was surprising, as the rest of her was really limp.  I put her blankie and her head on my shoulder and swayed, and patted her back, and sang to her, over and over again, while I looked up at the altar and stained glass and cried and cried.  I realized a passerby might think this behavior was a bit crazy.  I didn’t care.  For starters, no one was likely to pass by, and secondly, I just simply felt like I HAD to do it.  I felt I would regret it the rest of my life if I didn’t take this precious time to do exactly whatever I needed to do to say goodbye, to try to make this moment seem real, to try to wrap my head around this new truth in my life.  It was my last chance to physically touch my daughter, and I was not going to blow it on acting how I thought I “should” act.  I was going to do what I needed to do, dammit.

I meditated and prayed while I held her.  And water fell out of my eyes in endless streams.

I placed her back on the table carefully, and arranged all of her favorite things around her, as Shari had.  I tried to get her just like Shari had her, because I thought she had done a wonderful job, and I wanted Alice to know I tried to get it right, in case she could see me wherever she was now.  I felt her chubby thighs one more time.  They were cold, but they were still pink.  Five days later, she still looked perfect, despite not being embalmed.  I kissed her head, which felt different, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was different about it.  I hugged her.  And then I sat beside her in silence, and mediated and prayed.  I tried to feel her presence, but could not.  I don’t think she was there.  Or maybe she was, but my grief was too big to allow any other senses to operate fully.

Eventually, I felt like I needed to say goodbye, or risk getting to a place where I would have to be physically removed.  I thought that choosing the moment to leave was going to be hard, but in the end, I had a little feeling that it was time to go, and went with it.  I wasn’t as hard as I had anticipated.  Look, it was no amusement park, but it was one thing that week that turned out not to be as hard as I imagined.

So, maybe she was there after all, silently letting me know that it was OK to go, because she wasn’t in that body anymore anyway.

Now, she was everywhere.  Or so I like to believe.  This is one thing that priests, physicists, and psychics can all agree on, so, for now, I am going to go with that.  She is everywhere, including within my own being.

I walked out slowly, and could not resist the urge to stop and look back one more time.  My baby was there, all alone in a big silent chapel, peacefully resting, completely unaware of her mother’s complete and utter devastation.  I took a mental picture—a “life picture” one of my friends calls these moments—and walked through the door.

That was the last time I saw Alice as I knew her.  The devastation was almost life threatening.

I sat on the couch in the lobby and collapsed into it.  It is possible I had not really let myself collapse in days; I had been on high alert since Tuesday.  I couldn’t think.  My mind was blank, and I was in emotional pain too large to describe with words. Could. Not. Process.

Shari came out to talk with me about what would happen Monday morning.  Alice was going to be cremated Monday morning.  Part of me wanted to scream out and hit something and cry, but the larger part of me could not move, or emit a sound, or do anything, really.   She asked if I wanted her to call just before Alice “went in.”  She explained that some people like to know so that they can have a moment of silence or pray during the time the body is being transformed.  She said that the process would take about 15 minutes for a person as small as Alice.

Fifteen minutes.  That’s it.  Gut wrenching does not even begin to describe it.  Realizing that I was discussing the time it takes to turn your child’s body to ash is one of the most difficult moments I have ever had in my life. I pray there are no moments in my future worse than those I had dealt with in quick succession this week.

I said that I absolutely did want to know when Alice “went in.”  Shari said that she would call when she was on her way over with Alice, so that I could prepare myself and be ready when the moment arrived.  She would then call again when they arrived at the crematorium, and then again, when it was time.

This all gave me a pit in my stomach, but again, it did not feel like something I could run from.  It hurt like hell, it hurt worse than all previous pain I have ever felt in my lifetime combined, but I still needed to know the truth.  I still needed to be in the loop.  It hurt, and I knew that hiding wouldn’t heal the hurt.

As it turns out, I am a person that needs to dive right into the hurt to heal it.  Other folks are different.  And that’s fine.  But with each passing day, it was becoming more and more apparent to me, that I was a “dive right in” kinda girl.

Look, it’s not for everybody.

Shari went on to say that we needed to discuss a container for Alice’s ashes.  She never once used the world urn.  She spoke for a while but I have no idea what she said.  I was looking at her. I could see her mouth move.  But, briefly, I could not hear her, and I could not move.  I went blank again, for a moment.  When I came back to “reality,” she was saying that she had a feeling that a traditional urn would perhaps not be the right thing for my particular family, that she was imagining a cloth bag…and it hit me.

“Can we make it from the blankie she is holding in there,” I asked.  Shari said that she thought that would be perfect.  She said that it might even be more cloth than she would need to have the pouch made.  I asked if she could use half for the pouch, and then place the other half with Alice when she “went in.”  She said she that she could, and that she would.

I felt better, for a moment.  I loved this idea that Alice would be forever wrapped up in her blankie; that half would be around her, and that half would literally become mixed up with her.  I smiled.  I felt like Alice would approve of this.  I can never, ever, ever adequately express how grateful I am to Shari for being her forward-thinking, loving, creative, professional self.  Every little touch she suggested was perfection, and she was able to so perfectly identify our family’s needs without really knowing us.  She is surely an angel.

Shari hugged me.  We both had tears in our eyes.  What we would have done without her, I just have no idea.  I was grateful for her then, but as time goes by, my gratitude grows.  My certitude that a traditional funeral would have messed me up in a massive way is strengthened every day.  Shari Wolf truly helped set the stage for me to grieve in a way that befitted me, and to do so without apology, and this, my friends, has made all the difference.

I went home.  The ride home felt silent too.  A dream.

That afternoon, the remaining relatives were all there, but it was a relatively quiet day at home as well.  Meleva and Famke were there.   I think Chrislie was there.  Ramsay came by, and I believe had Danny McGough in tow.  My friend Tracey Mac came by.  Tracey is East Coast Italian.  I found her at my door, standing on my porch, crying and holding a lasagna.  She was so sorry she couldn’t make the service, having been out of town on business, and said she just needed to do SOMETHING.  So, she said, she found herself in her kitchen, crying and making a lasagna.  She didn’t really set out to make a lasagna, she said, she just found herself doing it.  “I’m Italian,” she explained.  “It’s what we do when we don’t know what to do.”

All I know is that it was one fabulous lasagna, and you could actually taste the love that went in to it.  Thank you, dear Tracey.

Tracey stayed a while, and sat with me on a blanket in the backyard, and cried.  She apologized for crying, as many people had.  I assured her, like I had everyone else, that her tears did not make the situation any worse.  In fact, I found it helpful.  When something like this happens, when something you just cannot wrap your head around happens, it helps to have the privilege to see other people’s grief.  It helps you to realize that yes, this is a doozy. This. Really. Happened.  And it’s pretty terrible.  It helps you see that it affects many more people than those under your roof.  It helped me, at least.  I obviously cannot speak for all grieving parents of the world, but it helps me.

Tracey is the long-term partner of my friend Rick Boston.  Rick Boston has one of those names that demand you say the whole name: Rick Boston.  If someone refers to him as “Rick,” I honestly have no idea who they are talking about.  I need the whole name for this person.  Even Tracey calls him Rick Boston, for the love of God, and they live in the same house.

(Another aside: in addition to Rick Boston, I have a few other two-name friends: Kim Grant, Danny McGough, Tommy Doyle, Amy Young, Katie Wright.  You can’t just say one part of their name.  You cannot.  I dare you.  Don’t ask me why; it’s a phenomenon that defies reason.)

Well, Rick Boston thought his phone had been hacked when I sent him the news about Alice.  I would guess he wasn’t the only one that thought this.  He stopped by my house very early Friday morning on his way out of town.  He said that he sat in his car debating on whether to ring the bell or not, and had ultimately decided against it.  Instead, he wrote me a beautiful, unbelievably touching note, which was, incidentally, written on staff paper, befitting the composer that he is.  This note was straight from the heart, and I will be forever grateful.

Tracey said that Rick just couldn’t come this day.  I couldn’t blame him.  It was rough.  His granddaughter is only a little older than Alice was, and his daughter had been our kids’ sleep trainer.  Sometimes things just hit too close to home.

At some point that day, Uncle Danny and Aunt Nancy left.  I was very sad to see them go, and beyond touched that they had driven here all the way from Alabama.  I mean, really.  Nancy had bonded with Grace over Ariel and drawing, and Grace was very sad to see them go as well.  My gratitude for them is limitless.

My “sister” Betsy brought dinner for the masses that night. She came over with her hubby and her giant baby with enough Peruvian chicken to feed an army.  I still occasionally find a freezer bag with some of that chicken tucked away in my freezer.  It was all so delicious, and it was good to spend some quieter time with Betsy.   She found out that she was pregnant with her son the very day after she came to meet Alice in the hospital.  We had prom dates planned.  So, this was too close to home for Betsy too.

At some point that night, I received a text from Bubba.  I was so touched that he still checked in despite having a “day off” from me.  He said he was sitting quietly in his outdoor space, and the tuned wind chimes we had bought them as a house-warming gift were playing ever so lightly.  He felt like it was Alice saying “hello.”

But, you see, I feel like it was Alice saying, “Thank you, my Bubba, for taking such exceptional care of my Mama. She needed you, and you were there.”

My memory of the rest of the night is really very foggy.  I was exhausted I am sure. I recall the grandmas taking over the kitchen that night, giving Janet the day off. The grandmas did a splendid job, and I appreciate them all so much.  I recall a few friends stopping by, but I can’t recall who came on what nights after that initial week.

That afternoon was the calmest since Alice had died.  It was only five days after the fact, but it felt like an eternity.  Time and space seemed to have become slipperier than I had known them to be before.

Maybe I bathed?  I dunno.  Maybe Grace bathed?  I dunno.

I just kept seeing my Alice, laid out like a doll, in that silent chapel.  My mind could not fathom that this was reality.  But it was. The hole in my heart was still there. I still could feel light pour through it. I decided that this was just going to have to be the best I could do.

6 Comments

  1. Lynne Marsho
    February 10, 2014
    Reply

    Wonderful tearful read!

  2. Laura
    February 10, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you thank you for sharing your thoughts with all if us. I had no idea what a wonderful writer you are. I can feel the love and the pain you felt that day. I can literally see you nomen by moment. All I can say is wow. God bless you for ever my friend. I love you and will keep you in my prayers.

  3. Beth Nesbit
    February 10, 2014
    Reply

    Your writing is so beautiful and filled with such love. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Mary Schluter
    February 12, 2014
    Reply

    I’m at a loss for words. I think it is brave and kind and wonderful that you are willing to share your journey with the world. I know you are helping countless others with
    your heart wrenchingly honest account of your experience, and I respect and love you for it. I know that your friends and family will continue to support and comfort you with love.

  5. Kathy McGinty
    February 12, 2014
    Reply

    You, my dear, are a wonderful Mama.

  6. admin
    April 14, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you all, so very much. xo

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