In his book, The Fault In Our Stars, John Green wrote that “Funerals…are for the living.” It is hard to argue against that perspective, the dead are gone and, regardless of your faith, beyond something so trivial. The point Green makes is that we, the living, use funerals (or memorials, services, celebrations of life, etc) to gain closure from the loss that we have experienced. It is an opportunity for shared grieving and the acceptance of the finality that is death.
Or it should be.
And maybe it usually is; maybe when family and friends gather to remember the person that is no longer with them, to say goodbye to someone that will never again return the gesture, the differences that usually divide people fall away and an atmosphere of safety and love settles on the ceremony, so that the communal intent of a funeral can be realized.
If so, that wasn’t the experience I had at my mother’s service this past weekend. What I witnessed was so widely removed from what I traditionally consider a funeral to be that even though I started thinking about how to write it down the moment I drove away, I am still struggling with how to put it into words.
Let me provide some context though, lest it seem I am guilty of what I will soon be accusing other people of doing. Consider yourself warned, this is a lot of exposition but I will make every effort to keep it as relevant and succinct as possible.
My mother and I always had a troubled relationship. But for me a defining event was my eleventh birthday, the day that she left me and my sisters with our drug addict babysitter. My mother left us to be with her new boyfriend. With us she had left three letters; one for my grandma Mavis, one for my Aunt Dawn and one for my father living in Oregon (we lived in Diamond Springs, CA when this happened). I wouldn’t see her again until my littlest sister Melissa was born (or maybe she was pregnant with her, I am not 100% on when exactly it was). This is a defining moment for me because I realized then I was disposable, any woman could leave me (that realization came years later, but this event is the root of it).
Once she came back into my life I never again trusted her to stay, I never got so close to her that her leaving again would harm me the way that it did when I was a young child. Our family (me and my little sisters) never again became a whole unit, the only time after that we would all live under the same roof was my freshman year of high school when my mother made me move to Sacramento because truancy had gotten me kicked out of El Dorado High (I was living with my exgirlfriend and her meth dealing parents). Even that was short lived because I refused to see or speak to her, keeping myself locked in my room when she was in the house, until she let me move back to Washington Street.
The next major thing to divide my mother and me happened after I spent fourteen days in Sacramento County jail. My sister Sarah picked me up after I had walked ten miles in the rain, took me to a recovery coffee shop she was working and I talked to her about what I had come to realize while I was in jail; I wanted our family to be whole again, I wanted us all to sit down and fix what was broken so that we could love each other and heal the wounds of the past. Sarah agreed and I contacted my other sisters and they all agreed. Tristan and Rachel warned me that our mother would be hard to convince, that she would refuse. I didn’t care, I knew I could explain what had happened to me and what I knew needed to take place so that we could all be healthy and she would see that I was right, she would take this opportunity to let love bring us all together again.
I was wrong. She refused. She didn’t want to hear any sad story or pleas for reconciliation. She refused to sit down with my sister Sarah and anyone that supported Sarah was her enemy.
I hung the payphone up and knew that we would never again be whole.
In the years after, gestures were attempted, not at our family being a unit, but just me and my mother dealing with the past and understanding things so that healing might happen. She refused to deal with the past, or address any questions that I had. Her terms were simple; let go of the past and we could be friends.
I refused her terms. I didn’t want a friend. I wanted to know why I could never maintain a healthy relationship, why I always felt like I was disposable and why me and my sisters were never enough to try for. These were questions she refused to listen to, much less answer. Her rejection toughened my defenses and each refusal made me less vulnerable to her, less capable of feeling emotions for her. Until all there was to feel was sadness at her inability to see beyond her own abuse.
Then in April of last year I got the call that she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and had months to live. Her new husband, Cary, asked me to let go of the past and make peace with my mother before it was too late.
My mother and Cary had married less than three years before this. I had been invited to the wedding and refused to go. I had no relationship with her, and all I knew of Cary was that he was my father’s best friend when they were all children, that they had all grown up together. I hadn’t seen him in year and I had no desire to pretend to know my mother. I stayed in Arizona.
Now my mother was dying. For a few moments I considered the odds of her using this to lure me closer to her, so that I would be vulnerable again and she could reject or leave me again. It didn’t seem impossible. I asked friends and family for help on exploring my options. I didn’t want to miss a perspective. After spending time reflecting on losing my last surviving parent, on letting the past keep me from saying goodbye to the woman that gave me life, on knowing this door would never again open once it was shut, I told my step-dad that I would go to Sacramento for my youngest niece’s birthday party and attempt reconciliation with my mother.
Which happened, as much as it ever could. We took an opportunity to get away from people and I told her I was ready to let go of the past and she said she didn’t want to waste what little time and energy she had last dealing with the past. We hugged, we cried and at the end of the party I promised I would see her again.
I kept that promise. My mother and I made plans for me to come by her house in Ione on my next visit. I was nervous, but I felt good about seeing her and I knew that I just had to remember the past was behind in me and the time I spent with my mother would be a positive experience. It was almost time to see her when my phone notified me that I had a message from her.
She was in Placerville, at the hospital. I told her I was on my way and within twenty minutes I was there. Following the direction the nurse pointed me, I stepped past the sheet covered sliding glass door and saw my mother laying in the hospital bed of the ER, tubes attached and monitors beeping. Before I could go to her and give her a hug, her mother, my grandmother, Rachel her husband, Andy, made their presence known. Not with greetings or signs of affection, but with a muffled cough and silent glares. I said hi to them, introduced my girlfriend and returned my attention to my mother.
A lot happened during the brief period of time I was at the hospital, the short of it is I learned that my grandmother had not notified any of my sisters that my mother was in the ER for pneumonia again, nor had she notified my mother’s husband, she then went on to mock the fact that people would be upset for her not telling them (I found out later that day she had promised my sisters she would communicate this is exact thing in the future because she had not done so less than a week earlier). They hadn’t known I was going to show up, and did not give me a moment alone with my mother. Andy berated and insulted an ER nurse that accidentally punctured a bag of saline that he was trying to replace (having to reach across the bed since my grandmother and Andy made no effort to allow him to the side where the bag hung), saying that his leg was stinging where the fluid had splashed on his pants, until he was told by three people that saline is sterile salt water and not burning his flesh. My grandmother spoke to my mother as if she was a toddler, cooing to her and eliciting such a disturbing little girl response from my mother that I instantly felt nauseated.
I left the hospital confused and disturbed. I talked to my sisters Rachel and Tristan about the events, I spoke to my step-dad, Cary, about the events and after taking all of their experiences in and my own at the hospital, I put together that my sister Sarah and my grandmother were working together to be the inner circle of my mother’s last days while Cary and the other children were kept outside of that circle. I spoke to my sisters and Cary about it and there was an agreement that efforts would be made on our shared behalf to assert ourselves so that we might gain access to the information that was being kept from us by Sarah and my grandmother.
It started with me asking to be included on an email list my grandmother sent out about my mother’s condition. My grandmother said she would add me, I assumed she was telling the truth. I then asked her who else received the email (because my sisters and Cary were unaware of who was on the list). My grandmother refused to answer me, instead telling me it was none of my business. Things got ugly at this point, I ended up writing to her that she had done nothing to earn my respect and that in fact, her husband had lost what little respect I had for him at the hospital by insulting the people caring for my mother and her silence in the matter had done the same for her, in my eyes. I told her that if Andy confronted me in a disrespectful manner that I would be happy to handle it man to man.
I asked my Aunt Marvee (my mother’s aunt, actually) to intervene, since my grandmother was more interested in maintaining control of my mother’s last days than she was ensuring everyone, including people she felt didn’t deserve it, was kept up to date on how my mother was doing. Marvee said that it was done, I would be getting the emails and that she knew the only people on the email list were people from church. I never got an email.
When Cary, Rachel or Tristan questioned my grandmother or Marvee about why Sarah and my grandmother felt it was there place to control the flow of information, they were told that Sarah and my grandmother were the only people that made time to see my mother with any regularity. The fact that Sarah had found herself a boyfriend with enough money so that she did not have to work and my grandmother being retired and living in the same small town as my mother were as irrelevant as the fact that Cary worked to maintain an income and health insurance, Rachel works full time and has three small children, Tristan works full time, has a second job and a small child and I live in Arizona.
We had hit a wall and there was no fighting against it, my grandmother and Sarah are better manipulators, their time free to scheme for greater. So, we let it go and our collective energy was spent on making sure that my mother got stronger, both in body and mind. We discussed plans for her to be more active and for negative influences to be kept away. We would not allow Sarah or my grandmother to paint us in a negative light, which was already being attempted.
One example of this would be when Sarah posted something on Facebook asking people to pray for my mother, that the end was near and they all needed to ask God for her to pass quietly and without pain. Sarah knew this was true because her boyfriend’s mom had died of cancer, the same day that my mother and I reconciled in fact. When Sarah was questioned about her post and told to take it down, she refused and said it was her right to do it, blocking people that questioned her. Sarah would later post a picture of my mother in her final days, emaciated and vacant, an image my mother would have burned down a city to destroy. Both posts (and others from what I have been told) gained Sarah many comments of sympathy.
I made another visit to see my mother. We kept it quiet and had some time alone. Together we sat in her backyard, talking about trivial things before the conversation went to her health. We talked about how strong a woman she was, how her character was a force that could damn her as easily as it had damned others. How as much as I resented her will as a child, I respected her determination as an adult. I reminded her that she had the ability to be heard and exert her will, she was a strong woman and not a meek child. She smiled and nodded, her bald head covered in a knitted cap.
I left her there sad but hopeful that she would not give up the fight.
A conference call was scheduled not long after that. It had been decided that she would be taken off of her cancer treatment and put into Hospice care. These were not the last days, things were being done to build her body back up so that the chemo could happen again in the future. She needed her strength back before she could fight another battle. It made sense, she would have better care and some physical therapy.
It was this phone call that Cary and Sarah had different accounts of when my mother found out that she had cancer. Sarah said it was her, my mother, my grandmother and Andy there when the doctor first told them, no one else. Cary said it was just him and my mother when it happened. They both did all but call each other a liar.
This is when information stopped flowing between us. I would talk to my sisters about things and they would have no new information. Cary’s silence seemed to imply no changes. Then I got the call that I needed to be in Ione as soon as possible, the Hospice nurse had just given my mother days left to live. I asked my girlfriend if I could take her car to CA, a storm made my car an even greater hazard than usual, and plans were made for me to leave as soon as I could.
We gave my mother a Santa Claus for Christmas, something that she had collected when we were younger. It wasn’t yet Christmas, but we wanted her to have one last one with us there. My nieces and nephews were there, time was spent decorating the tree. Cary and I went to the bar. Melissa and I went to the bar. Tristan and I went to the bar. For two days people looked at the end of their time with my mother and needed to process that, needed the dullness that alcohol brings to keep the tears from coming, or to give them permission to flow.
I said goodbye to my mother, looked at her imperfect face and remembered the imperfect being that she had always been. I didn’t need to forgive her for anything at this point, her peace had been made and I wanted to do my small part in helping her walk the path toward whatever comes after this. I kissed her forehead and told her to be good.
That was the first day, I didn’t expect there to be a second. And I guess in a way there wasn’t a second day for me. When my mother saw me the next day, I don’t believe she saw her only son. If I had to guess, I think she saw my father. I caught her staring at me, her eyes narrowed in my direction and when she saw me see her, she would shake her head and look away. She asked Tristan who I was, Tristan said I was her son, Shawn. It never seemed to process for her.
The last time I set eye on my mother, I stood at the foot of the hospital bed that dominated the living room. I just wanted to look at her as she slowly moved her head across the room at the people gathered around her, I could see recognition flash across her face before her mind lost grip of the connections that it could once effortlessly make. Then her eyes came to me and she stopped, she stared and her faced turned that familiar stone I had grown up with. She talked to me, she said; “I’m not the one who lied first.” Tristan was on the bed next to her and as everyone else remained silent Tristan asked; “What do you mean, mom?”
There was no response, she tucked her chin and I knew I had been dismissed.
It doesn’t hurt me, that exchange. I’ve been mistaken for my father before. Maybe I had the honor of playing the role of a ghost that she no longer had haunt her in the short days she had left.
Either way, she was gone soon after that. A wife gone too soon, a mother with stories still unshared, a grandmother with lesson left untaught; death always leaves things left to do.
So it goes.
Cary told us of the memorial service that he wanted to have for my mother. The pictures he wanted to collect and the video that would be shown. I was asked to provide what pictures I had, which I provided happily. I heard nothing more of it until he told me a date had been decided on and that he would help me with the money to get there when the time came.
The time came, I had done my best to support and comfort those that I could before the day came. But as I made the drive from Sacramento to Placerville where the service was being held, I knew I had failed. I wasn’t attending because the service was for me, I wasn’t even going there for my sisters or nieces and nephews. I was driving there because I had an obligation to be there, the duty of the eldest child and only son to be present when people gathered to remember his departed mother. I tried to assure my sisters that I would protect them from anyone that might try to take away from this day, I would take the brunt of any blow dealt.
My girlfriend was with me, the twelve hour drive there had led to me leaving her at Tristan’s house so that I could walk along the river before dressing in the black that I felt the day required. I brought a bottle of whisky. Took two long pulls from it before leaving it in the car and making my way to the room where people had already gathered. My sister Sarah and her boyfriend were easily spotted, at the sidewalk where the parking lot ended, her face smiling as she greeted people and thanked them for coming. Cary stood not far from her, talking to my grandmother. As I approached my grandmother turned and walked away, having already thanked my sisters for coming, as if they were past co-workers or distant relatives instead of the women with families that had been there with my mother at great personal sacrifice. Cary hugged me and said we should hurry inside. I needed to use the restroom and the halls emptied of people as I did so that when we entered the room, we were the last to be seated. I am sure whiskey flowed from my breath as I passed rows of people with unseen faces, my eyes searching for our empty seats, finally finding them at the end of the first row.
The first person to speak was the Pastor of the church, a man that I do not think my mother ever met. He spoke of God and death and what it means when God walks with you through the last moments of your life. His church was hosting the service and he did what he was expected to, I am sure some people appreciated the sermon.
The next person to speak was the Hospice chaplain. This is where I first started to get upset. He spoke of the life he had seen in her eyes in the last days of her life, he might have even said “shine” or “shimmer”. I never saw that, I saw no gleam of vitality that inspired me to hope for her. I saw nothing remotely close to that, quite the opposite. Who had he seen? What number on the list of dying people he had read over was she? Not that it is his fault, if he truly knew my mother, it was in those last days and he could only hope that his words were being felt by those in attendance. Maybe some people found comfort in them. I took special insult to being called Shane and having the names of my children omitted from the list of those left behind, but I am sure it was an oversight.
My sister Rachel went next. She spoke for me. She spoke for Tristan. Even if she didn’t know it.
Most importantly, she spoke for our mother. She spoke for our mother more truly than any person in attendance did, or could. She read something from her blog, a tribute she had written. She expanded upon it at the service, but here is part of what she said, what so many people there seemed to not know:
“One of the many characteristics that made my mom who she was, who we remember her to be, was how insistent she was about seeing people for who they really were. She rarely sugar-coated anything, had very few unexpressed thoughts and she told it like it was even to your face. She was honest and real and expected the same from everyone else. She didn’t romanticize or idealize people, living or dead. She made it a point to tell me, even before she was diagnosed, that she didn’t want people standing up at her funeral pretending as if she was some great and perfect woman who was a blessing to all whom she met. If you knew her, at all, you know this is true.”
I had to stop myself from going up to Rachel and hugging her. Funerals are for the living, this was not for my mother but Rachel knew that people needed to remember who our mother had been. To know her is to love her, people had to truly know her if they were to claim real love for her.
My sister Sarah spoke next. She spoke of a 50 pages speech she had written, a letter to my mother that none there “would appreciate, but here it is”. If Rachel had held up a picture of our mother, Sarah presented a cartoon likeness with large doe eyes and a bright red smile. Rachel said in her offering that our mother was not in Heaven looking down on us, she was in Heaven enjoying everlasting bliss and waiting for those she loved to join her. Sarah said that she knew our mother was in Heaven looking over everyone there, and that she was her own personal guardian angel.
The last person to speak was my mother’s cousin, Jeff. He gave a very heartfelt offering, sharing how he had known my mother when they were children and holidays would be spent where he lived in San Jose. How they had lost contact for decades and he reconnected with her less than a year before this day. He struggled to get the words out, I don’t doubt for a second that he meant every word that he said. At least he got my name and the names of my sons correct.
The thing that bothered me about Jeff’s speech is that I had no idea who he was. He sat with a group of people that I had no recollection of. I would later learn that he was from a part of the family I had met once at my great grandmother’s 90th birthday party. I side of the family that my mother worked to avoid my entire childhood, people that I was told to never expect to know.
How could a whole group of people that I had never been exposed to as a child know the woman they were there to say goodbye to? My childhood and the childhood of my sisters was a fair portion of my mother’s life. Did we miss something in those years?
After people talked there was the video slideshow, with music set to the themes of the pictures. Tristan had told me she was asked to pick a song to be played during the show, a song that I learned later was never played.
The video was emotionally charged for me, but not for the reasons that I think people would have wanted the child of woman they were remembering to have been affected. I didn’t see pictures that reminded me of happy times or fond memories. I saw a whole segment of pictures of my mother as a child that I had never known existed, my mother as a baby that I had never seen, her as a tomboy that I had no idea of. She was humanized in a way that I had never been exposed to before, I had glimpses of her youth that made me mourn lost opportunities we might have had if I had been able to see these pictures while she was alive. There were dozens of them, pictures that no one had thought to show me or my sisters before we were on display for the gathering of 130-140 people.
Then there were pictures of our family; family pictures where one sibling was always missing, never all of us together. A reminder that that we are broken and now parentless, set to music that was meant to be celebratory. There was a picture of my first wedding, a picture that I didn’t even know existed, a picture that I would have not put on display for people to see. Pictures of my sons, with no context except for their names mentioned briefly (Sarah didn’t even include them in the event she created on Facebook).
A close family friend, a member of our extended family, Lynda, was shown on the screen with Sarah. Something that Lynda would not have approved had she known. There were numerous pictures of Cary’s children, which I understand to a point because she did become their step-mom, but the children of the woman that was at the focus of the pictures were not consulted, except for Sarah.
There was one picture that was included that has the potential to cause extreme emotional damage, something so sensitive that I can’t even write what it is but the people that know the situation know what picture I am referring to. A picture that served no purpose but to cause pain and trauma, but was included anyway.
The video ended and it was announced that the children would leave first. We all walked out, I was stunned and upset and confused. I wanted to leave, to be away from this gathering of people unaware. I felt as if I was outside of a circle that I belonged near the middle of. People walked past me without a word, no comfort offered or safety given. I went to my sisters, I hugged them as they cried and I searched the people walking by for any threat from Sarah or my grandmother.
I went to the car to drink. I talked to family from my father’s side and there I found my people. Some of them joked about how my mother would have laughed at some of the comments made, we smiled at her pride in being a bitch. This wasn’t for her, funerals are for the living.
There was a reception to go to, food being served and people talking. Women my mother knew when I was a child came up to me, talked and asked how I was. I checked on my sisters, I took pictures of my little nieces playing on a stage. I talked to Lynda and my mother’s friend Jane. I said goodbye as people left, and made plans with my siblings to meet for dinner a few hours later.
Someone wanted pictures of the siblings, Andy stood next to Sarah and had to be told to sit down. The pictures were awkward and there was no offer to email me, Rachel or Tristan one. The pictures weren’t for us. The day wasn’t for us. Sarah retreated with grandma Rachel and Andy and her boyfriend. People gathered around them and it was clear that it was now time for us to leave.
There was dinner later with Cary, I was later told. Sarah and grandma Rachel were there. My mother’s cousin Jeff and his family were there. My invitation never arrived.
I wasn’t expecting closure, I processed the loss of my mother years ago when I learned how easily she could walk away from people (a trait I learned from her). I was prepared for the judgement and scorn that I was met with. I was looking forward to the opportunity to see my sisters find some peace in gathering with the people that were there.
There was no peace to be found though, only judgement, scorn and confusion. I am left wondering who really knew my mother. I don’t know the woman that most of the people at the service talked about, some ray of sunshine on every cheek she found. I remember the woman that begrudgingly invited me to a family photoshoot only because I happened to stop by her house as her and three of my sisters were on their way to get them done. I knew the woman that drove around with a bottle of schnapps under the front seat of her car daily, not the woman that people called loving and caring.
I am sad that it wasn’t until the last few years of her life that she found the strength to get sober and really show love to people. I am sad that the years before then taught me to stay away from her toxic influence and the emotional damage that went with that. Rachel said it best; “she was a victim of abuse and addiction”, but I’d go even farther, she was a product of abuse and addiction and she really did do the best she could with the shitty hand she had been dealt.
Because if we really want to examine the cause of things, why I felt anger and betrayal watching pictures of my mother flash on a screen to the sounds of Sweet Child O Mine, it is because my grandmother raised a daughter that ran away from home as a teenager, went into foster care before turning to drugs and alcohol and eventually pregnancy and marriage. It is because the abuses dealt to my mother were never confronted or healed, they were covered up and ignored so that no one might ever know. And when the next generation of victims was born, when the cycle repeated and me and my sisters had struggles to deal with, there was no help to be found from our mother or our father.
My mother’s cancer was an opportunity for my grandmother Rachel to finally atone for what had happened to my mother as a child, a chance for her to give the love and care for a daughter that she had failed to do in the past. And no one would be allowed to take that from her, no one could rob her of the chance to have the control she failed to have decades earlier. She had one last chance to be a good mother, to do the right thing and nothing would stop her. She even went so far as to have my mother speak in the voice of a little girl (I’m not the only one that has commented on this happening).
My sister Sarah though, she is the cherry on this fucked up family sundae. Her desperation and emptiness made her latch onto my mother like a rat on a sinking ship. It is more than fair to say that Sarah caused my mother more heartache than any other child she had. From robbing her house to hitting her, running away and buying her cigarettes in the weeks before she died (from my mother’s own lips). Sarah was making her amends in those last months, ensuring that she could be the “good daughter” protecting her mom. As she said in her speech at the service, she followed my mother around when she moved, so that she could be close to her.
And I don’t mean to suggest that people are not allowed to fix mistakes from the past, but both my grandmother and Sarah denied people the chance to spend time with my mother, telling them no or making an excuse why it could not happen. My mother knew this, which is why she kept the plans that we made from my grandmother and Sarah. She knew they would interfere, and one of the times the plans were known, my grandmother was there and without telling anyone she gave my mother morphine, so that she was too high to communicate and we were quickly ushered out the door.
I am writing this because my mother was never ashamed of who she was or what she did. Just like Rachel said, she would never have wanted people to talk about her as if she was better than she was. She was human, and she was imperfect. If you could not love her for that, you could not love her. She was strong and she was a bitch and she was mean and she was stubborn, but she was also someone that people loved and her grandchildren became her life. There was a large amount of time before that happened though and to forget those times is to ignore the struggles and work she had to go through to become the woman she died being.
I am not going to forget those struggles, the pain that was involved. And for those people that didn’t know those struggles, you didn’t know my mother. You might have known of her, but you didn’t know her.
So, before you judge the children that were there during those times, the kids that never saw black and white photos of her as a baby or have memories of BBQs for 4th of July in Los Gatos, consider your privilege and luxury you have; my mother is dead and there is no highlight reel of my time with her, but I sat there out of respect for her memory and my sisters without calling you all sycophants and fools.
My sisters, Rachel, Tristan and Melissa, are not bandwagon jumpers. They didn’t flock to my mother once they heard she was a sympathy case or a path to salvation in the eyes of the drama-starved. They didn’t post photos or comments in public asking for sympathy and shoulders to cry upon. They didn’t send out emails asking for support or positive thoughts for a woman people didn’t know. They were there for their mother, not asking for a light to be shone on them for their actions, because what they did they did for no one else but the woman that gave them life.
I didn’t arbitrarily decide to let go of the past as if it was nothing to me. I made every 766 mile drive to Sacramento to see my mother with the weight of history on my back. I had to question the fundamental belief of myself and reconcile the cost of being vulnerable again. I wish I could have been a distant cousin that hadn’t seen her in decades or someone that had never seen her drunkenly yell at another person until they had no choice but to yell back. I wish I had fond memories of BBQs and fireworks. I really, truly do.
Funerals are for the living. I tried my best to not rob anyone of that experience as I sat there, watching a video for a woman that so many people gathered seemed to not know, their quest for closure and peace was their own. Now that it is over I can shine a light on the absurdity, just like my mother would have done, and call out those that used a memorial service to satisfy their own agenda, also as she would have done.
Once I came to understand my mother and move past the pain I felt, I came to love her. Once I knew her I could love her.