My mom never wanted to have an open casket funeral, a viewing, but there she was anyway, in the church’s vestibule, awaiting those who arrived for her funeral mass.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, and it certainly wasn’t planned. What happened is this:

Friends and relatives chatted in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Catholic church, killing time while waiting for Mom’s funeral to begin. The hot topic, it seemed to me, was whether or not my brother, Steve, was going to show. My sister, Kelley, and I were one of the few who knew he hadn’t spoken to our mother for almost ten years, a long-time grudge set in stone because he hadn’t called Mom, or visited her, or sent a card after her stroke.

My brother always seemed to fascinate the relatives. He was the renegade, spoiled, the man of our family, the one who wouldn’t “amount to a pimple on your dad’s ass,” as one uncle told him in our driveway. (I heard him say that and remember that night well, for it was the night I hid in the basement, fat girl, freshman in high school, hurling glass things at a wall until I was satisfied that they, too, were shattered.) Steve was not necessarily a bad guy. He just rarely came around after he flew our family’s nest and had, I guess, become a curiosity.

After my family and I got out of our car in the church’s parking lot, various relatives swarmed around me like mosquitoes at dusk during early August in Ohio. “Is Steve coming?” “Have you heard from Steve?” I honestly didn’t know, for he told me the weekend prior that if he couldn’t be a pall bearer, then he wasn’t coming. I wouldn’t budge on my sister’s and my decision to have Mom’s grandsons participate in that role because, as far as I was concerned, he had chosen his role as passive bystander, and my sister and I were in charge of this operation.

Before long, I spotted my brother and his fiancé pulling into the black-top lot. Mystery solved, curiosities satisfied. I made my way over to them and hugged them, relieved and happy to see them. Steve’s grudges were not mine, and I have never stopped loving Big Brother.

Steve, Kelley and I were invited to sneak into a side door of the church for a private viewing of Mom’s body. I’m still not sure how or why it happened, but family and friends in the parking lot soon joined us. I was horrified. This was not what my mother had wanted to happen, but there she was, for all to see, in a casket that matched my dad’s, wearing the new duds my sister had bought for the impromptu lay-out, hair washed and curly. My brother stepped up briefly before stepping away, and my sister remained in the back of the church, not wanting to see her mom like that. I stood there, next to Mom’s casket, playing hostess at her death party, alone with her for one last time.

I’ve often wondered if people thought it strange I had a polite smile plastered on my face. There would be no tears for me on this day. It was, I believed, a way I could honor my mother for the very last time, much the way she had honored my father during his funeral.  (She was actually criticized for her behavior at Dad’s funeral, she later told me, by relatives who gossiped that she had  “acted like she was Jackie Kennedy at her JFK’s funeral, who does she think she is, for crying out loud?” What her critics didn’t know is that, as Mom told me once, “I had to be brave for you children. If I hadn’t, I would have fallen apart, and I couldn’t do that to you.”). Stoic, staid, nothing to see here, folks. Mom and I were soon enveloped  by grieving family and friends, most of whom, like my brother, hadn’t sent a card or made a phone call after Mom’s stroke, something I don’t think she noticed, but I sure had.

Folks crowded around the casket, patting Mom’s lifeless hand or cheek and offering condolences. One of Mom’s sisters sobbed and sobbed. I reached over the casket to touch my aunt’s arm and comfort her. I probably shouldn’t have, for I understand people need to grieve in their own way, but I couldn’t help myself. “Honey, it’s okay, she’s okay. She’s happy now, no longer miserable and sick. It’s okay.” I knew, though, that I could never convince my aunt that this occasion was many things but certainly not sad.  See, I knew things about my mom few others did, and  I’d always known that Mom was different from her nine siblings. She had undergone more than her fair share of tragedy and  sorrow since my dad died thirty-six years earlier, endured life’s trials no one knew about, let alone understood, and until Mom’s stroke, I’d been crouching behind the mask of my own ignorance about this life of hers as well.

Ignorance returned during this same aunt’s wake twenty-one months later, when one of their sisters-in-law took it upon herself to remind me, “You know, your mother was always spoiled. She always got what she wanted.”  I knew that Mom didn’t like this particular sister-in-law, this woman who was now completely inappropriate and needed to be put in her place. “Aunt Helen,” I said, “you have no idea what my mom went through, and she paid dearly  after my dad died and after her stroke, so, no, she wasn’t spoiled. Far from it.”

After that conversation, I knew with certainty no one really knew, let alone understood, my mother, at least no one better than I. This knowledge did not come about easily, or quickly, but only after I had the privilege of acting in the role of Mom’s caregiver for nineteen months. In the emergency room. In her hospital room. In not one but two long-term care facilities. Now I am the keeper of the stories, the memories, the historian behind the facts of her stroke journey that became my journey as well.

Mom, it is my pleasure to write this memoir for you.

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