They kept the caskets in the basement. Six feet down the steps we went, down under the floorboards of the funeral home to a wall of slide-out coffins.
“Would you like wood or metal?” The funeral director pulled one out and stroked the length of dark maple. “Feel free to handle them if you want.”
No one touched a thing.
Another wall held a display of coffin linings, another handles, another vaults. There were a million small decisions to make to arrive at a box that would be placed out of sight forever.
I tried to remove myself from the task at hand and instead focus on the irony of the underground coffin room. A door was marked Do Not Enter.
Hell, I presumed, swallowing a terrible little laugh that came with the thought.
The funeral home was inside a century-old house given over to the drudgery of death. It was divided into small bedroom-sized areas, and each door led to another horrific decision.
The funeral director was about my age, mild, calm, removed. He had bowed his head when I cried upstairs and he had bowed his head while telling us what we’d be doing downstairs. And he’d bowed his head when he asked who would write the obituary.
I was “the writer” in the family, and everyone had looked at me.
“Here,” he said, sliding the form across the table. “Just fill in the blanks. We can write something basic for you.”
I was silent as I looked over the form. There were blanks to fill in and boxes to check. Married, number of children, hometown, employment. This was insulting, in a way, to think my mother’s life could be summarized in a list.
“No,” I said, pushing the form back. “I’ll write the good stuff.”
“I bet you will,” he said.
A smile slid between us, a small connection, in the nicely appointed room with tassels on the curtains and paisley on the upholstery.
But, in the basement, I ignored him, betrayed that we’d sat above chatting while below waited the line of coffins.
My sisters and I followed my father through the basement. We were all quiet, trying to pretend that this wasn’t surreal. It was the first funeral any of us had planned. Our mother would have been in charge of tasks like this, in our old life. Just a few days ago we’d had that old life, had talked about what to have for lunch at the hospital, had brought it to my mother, had eaten it with her. Never letting ourselves imagine that by Monday, that very Monday, we’d be standing below, without her, planning.
I shuffled behind my father, a man with a fleet of overgrown ducklings in his wake. No one wanted to be left behind, alone in any of the rooms. We feigned interest in casket designs and vault lids and coffin colors, but we only agreed to whatever my father chose. Anything to get us out of there. Not one of us looked at anything, the products especially.
What about a headstone? This seemed the most permanent decision of all. My mother’s name engraved and embossed in a nice golden hue over a handsome brown slab.
“You can add an image if you’d like,” the man said. He handed us a three-ring binder.
“Something outdoorsy,” my father said.
The man thumbed the edges and cracked the book open a third of the way in, pages falling free. There, an endless, lifeless supply of trees and cones and clouds.
My father leafed through the binder, discarding beaches and sunsets and cottages.
“We spent every summer out West,” my father said, an idea coming to him, now looking for mountains.
“We never missed one.”
Another shove of grief, holding us in place, my father no longer turning pages.
But the man pressed on, another day on the job. “How about this?” He offered a picture with mountains, a stream, a man and woman hiking among magnificent peaks.
“That’s good,” my father said. “Looks like Montana, doesn’t it, honey?”
He turned the binder toward me.
“It could work,” I said, “but only if one is bitching at the other while they hike.”
The grave under the funeral home opened up with my father’s laughter then. Deep, full laughter that carried over the yellow lamplights on the desk, past the Do Not Enter, up the stairwell, back into the cold January sun.
“Yeah,” my father said, pointing to the bitching couple. “That’s the one.”
The following morning, I sat down to write my mother’s obituary.
I hadn’t left my father’s side for much more than a few hours of sleep. I set him down now with a grilled cheese sandwich in the living room and retreated to his computer room, my old bedroom, for the job I did not want. I typed my mother’s biography in a few short paragraphs. She hadn’t amassed a huge, long line of professional accomplishments. She had spent all of her years at home, raising her three children, then, later, spoiling her five grandchildren. I tried to keep my mind there; I might only be starting a fresh resume for her, as if she were embarking on her first job in years. I listed her hometown, her hobbies, her likes and dislikes.
“She likes gardening, reading, and shopping,” my sister read over my shoulder. After a moment she said, “That should say liked.” Past tense.
“This could describe anyone’s mother,” I said. “Leave. I’ll think about it on my own.”
My sister was out of the room before my hands met the keyboard again. But I couldn’t type. Instead I closed my eyes, laid my forehead on the desk, and braced myself for the emotions that came, pressing my face into the hard wood, punishing myself outside to try to match the pain inside. I swallowed and held tight and let the pain come.
And it did, waves of it. Memories, 32 years with my mother. An avalanche. How could I possibly sum it up? I couldn’t. Words would fail me now, when I needed them most.
Finally, I sat up. I forced myself to stop and think of how I’d spent my time with my mother. It was a short list, as we were creatures of habit. And when it came, it was simple. I wrote it fast:
Judy loved summer afternoons sitting on her deck out back, with her girls.
It said everything. The way we were, the way we’d always be. Those summer days, early spring and late fall days, too. Under the old silver maple and crab apple trees, their branches grown together above us, cupping us.
Sitting on the deck that my father and husband had built the summer I left home and got married. Next to the pool my parents had put in for their 25th wedding anniversary, much to our chagrin: we were all adults now after all. But then we got to talk over the noise of the first grandkids, toddling around, playing in the pool.
I would often arrive for a visit with my mother to find this: her sitting on the deck on the cordless phone, long before cell phones were part of life, her shoulder pressing the phone to her ear, talking with her sister.
I’d walk back into the house, dig a couple of frosted plastic mugs out of the freezer and fill them with ice cubes and water or Diet Coke. I’d pull a chair into the sun or the shade and wait for her to wrap up her call, hearing my aunt Barb’s deep laugh echoing through the phone.
When they hung up, it was my turn to have her, to laugh with her.
My father would join us for as long as he could stand it, before getting up to go change oil or mow grass, manufacturing work for escape.
“You guys finish a story only to tell it all over again the minute you’re done,” he’d say as he walked away, throwing his hands up in wonder. We’d laugh.
He was right.
That sentence I wrote, to announce the end, said it all. Yes, it was surrounded by other words—accomplishments, family lineage, hobbies—but that one sentence was truest. I’d never written anything better, never will.
And it was that one line from her obituary—that back deck—that everyone brought up a few days later at the funeral.
“We could always find her on the back deck with you girls.” Friends, family, neighbors I hadn’t seen in years, said this. Because it was true.
It was one of the smallest things I’d ever written. And it changed my life. Because in the days to come, I thought of that sentence with devotion, a ferocity almost. With all that my mother had done and had and built, life still came down to the shade of a tree, the heat of the sun, the laughter of her daughters.
That sentence became my mantra as a new mother. I was just 32 years old, and my sons were two and four when my mother died. And in the days and months and years after losing her, I did what she had done.
I started to choose quiet afternoons, little feet on green grass, the shade of trees, the warmth of the sun. I was never inside with my babies, not if I could help it. We slowed down, and we took time. Days stolen and treasured, quiet, on our 12 acres in the middle of nowhere.
We created a little outdoor oasis at our own home: my husband planted a red maple off the corner of our deck to give shade, then built a wooden swing set on the other side of it. And we made sure we had time for doing nothing at all. Countless days, and nights, on our back deck, together. Under any sky at all.