Earthly Remains

Memorial Day 2013

May 23rd would have been my mother’s 94th birthday.

How strange it feels to be in England, instead of New Jersey, during these long, lovely late May days.

‘Your mom passed away’

My mother died peacefully in her sleep on Saturday morning, April 28.

Despite her recent frailty and deteriorating health, I was stunned by the nurse’s words over the phone, ‘Your mom passed away.’

Mom and her father, 1924

In late February, Mom had several falls. She had begun losing weight as her ability to use utensils and interest in eating decreased. I spent 16 days with her in late February and early March, during which time she was moved to her assisted living facility’s memory care unit.

Mom had also become confined to a wheelchair full-time. She seemed more comfortable there and no doubt felt safer than during the final weeks of using her walker. She still knew me and my son, but otherwise her memory was largely gone. We could at least page through her 90th birthday book and she recalled with deep love her wonderful parents.

A beautiful day in February 2018

I was thankful for those weeks with my mother, despite the distress of seeing her in her weakened condition. One afternoon I sat in the local Barnes & Noble and cried on the phone to Clive, asking how long a person could live without eating.

working girl at the Jersey shore

Mom received highly-personalised care in the memory unit, including mealtime feeding. It was both upsetting and positive to see her letting an aide (and sometimes me) feed her. She could still sit up in her wheelchair, enjoy different programs and respond to questions and interactions. As ever, the staff who cared for her told me how kind and lovely she was, and what a wonderful mother I had.

with Mom in the memory unit, February 2018

In late March, Clive and I returned to NJ for another two weeks. We did our usual routines, attending programs with Mom, sitting with her and spending as much time as possible with her each day. While I couldn’t say Mom was doing ‘well’, I was thankful she was receiving excellent care and felt she was doing as well as possible in the difficult circumstances.

Mom at University of Michigan

I knew I lived far from my mother. But based on experience with my father, both of Clive’s parents and other elderly people we’ve known whose death occurred over a period of days or weeks, I always thought and hoped I’d have time to get to my mother before she took her last breath. I always wanted to sit with her at the end, to talk with her, hold her hand, stroke her hair, hug her and tell her how much I loved her and that she was the best mother in the world. This was not to be.

I’ve read and heard many stories about people who die when their loved ones just step away from the bedside or go out for a short while. In most cases, the moment when people leave their earthly life is not our choice.

‘It was very peaceful, with no pain,’ the kind nurse told me. ‘She was comfortable.’

Interesting word, that: comfort-able. In those first, shocked minutes and hours I was not able to be comforted.

last photo together, April 2018

Three things

In between phone calls with my son, who was ably handling immediate matters in NJ, and Clive contacting local friends and booking flights for early the next morning, three things crystallised in my mind about what would happen with my mother’s earthly remains:

(1) Cremation. Over the years Mom and I talked multiple times about her desire for cremation. She felt that in today’s world, environmental concern and physical space was one factor. She also had a deep-seated fear of being buried alive (which I assured her I understood). It was incredibly helpful that, thanks to her clear guidance while she was alive, I had absolutely no doubt about her wishes.

Mom on her 93rd birthday, 2017

That said, I also wanted to be certain – and worried about getting there in time — that before the cremation occurred, I would have …

(2) Time alone (meaning me and Clive only) with her body. And I wanted this before anyone else viewed it. I didn’t necessarily expect anyone would rush over to the funeral home for this purpose, but experience has taught me that when people die, you never know how others may react or what they might do.

(3) Cemetery burial. Years ago, at the time of my brother Rob’s death, my mother reserved a space for herself in the family plot where her son, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. I anticipated many phone calls and communications with the cemetery for the cremation and interment.

Mom with her mother and me

Thankful things about Mom (and a few about me)

At some point in the hours that followed the news of Mom’s death, I realised my wish to have been with her during her final days and hours — should her death have come that way – was mostly for my benefit, not necessarily for hers.

On our flight to the US, in an attempt to keep my focus on my mother instead of my own loss, I made a list of things I needed to remember and be thankful for.

Thankful about Mom

* she had kind aides and a nurse with her when she took her last breath

* she was ‘comfortable’ with no visible pain or distress

* she was fine the night before, and at 5am that morning when an aide checked on her and she awoke and said, ‘Thank you, dear.’

* she didn’t linger for weeks or months in any horrible ‘out of it’ state

* she died in bed, with dignity, not in a public space or falling out of her wheelchair

* she could still respond to people and say a few words, including ‘I love you’

* we visited her five times last year and had two two-week visits with her this year

* she still knew me and my son, and my voice on the phone

* we had a loving conversation on Thursday, two days before she died (and I will always regret not calling her on Friday)

with me and Clive, May 2012

I also couldn’t help listing more practical things about me (and Clive) that I was and am thankful for:

* our friends D&J offering to drive us to Heathrow and coming over Saturday evening

* D picking us up at 5:30am Sunday for that drive (and, though we didn’t know it then, that he would repeat this generous act of friendship in reverse ten days later)

* my son and belle-fille immediately offering to host a family memorial gathering the following weekend at their home, disrupting my belle-fille’s travel plans and taking all that pressure off me

* timing: my mother died on a Saturday morning. My son, who lives within an hour of her, arrived home from a business trip late Friday night. He handled local matters on Saturday and Sunday, until Clive and I arrived Sunday afternoon. That evening, he had to leave for a crucial five-day overseas business trip. It may be coincidence he was home the one day his grandmother died. Or maybe his grandmother had something to do with it.

Two of my favourite people

My mother’s body

We learned at our meeting with the funeral director that he would organise the cremation and burial of my mother’s ashes.

After going over the details, he left the room for a few minutes to contact the cemetery. When he returned, he said everything was confirmed as we wished and, ‘She’s going in with Robert.’

It’s hard to describe how much those five words meant to me, except to say they made me weep with relief and something much deeper, a meaning and significance I hadn’t anticipated but knew was the culmination of life coming full circle from the years that had passed since my brother’s death.

Mom with her children

In a calm, lovely room – like a large living room, with comfortable chairs and sofa and soft light from table lamps – I had the time I yearned for with my mother’s body.

Mom’s body was laid out on a bed, with a soft blanket pulled up to her chest. Because it was to be cremated, the funeral home had not done a full embalming (e.g. with make-up and a hair-do), but had made her look lovely with her eyes and mouth closed, beautiful as she always was. She looked utterly at peace, more as if she were sleeping than any other body I’ve viewed fully-embalmed in a casket. The dear staff of the memory unit had dressed her in a nice shirt, one I’d bought for her a few years ago, and slacks. Her hands were clasped over her abdomen.

Because the body wasn’t in a casket, I could get right next to it by dropping to my knees on the padded bench beside her. (This is called a kneeler, or a Prie-dieu according to the funeral director. Literally this means pray God, a perfect French word if there ever was one.)

I was able lay my head on my mother’s chest for long periods at a time, hold her shoulders and hug her as I cried and talked to her. I stroked her face and hair and lay my hand on top of her beautiful hands, so I could feel them all the time. Of course her body was cold-ish by then, but my hand on hers actually made them a little bit warm temporarily

holding hands, March 2017

For just a few moments, I thought maybe I should order a nice casket and leave my mother’s precious body as it was. But immediately I knew that would be wrong. She had made her wishes clear. I whispered, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. We will have the cremation.’

In a way, I guess I did get my wish, to be at her side and to touch and stroke her body – though all the time I was in that room, I knew her soul, the essence of her being, was elsewhere. That didn’t lessen the importance to me of having that time with her earthly shell.

Also briefly, I considered keeping Mom’s ashes myself, carrying them back to England so I would always have them with me. But equally quickly, I knew, without doubt, they belonged exactly where they were going.

The grave on the hill

I’m not a big fan of cemeteries for myself. Then again, I’ve written about them many times, especially in Paris (e.g. MontparnassePère LachaiseMontmartre  …) and on the Great Orme in Wales. Clive and I enjoy walking, contemplating and occasionally picnicking in these peaceful places.

On a tranquil New Jersey hillside, my cousins and I have watched the caskets of our grandfather, then our grandmother and then my brother and their father (killed in the same auto accident) lowered into the ground. We’ve visited the site regularly, though I hadn’t been back in several years.

Spending time at the cemetery, seeing the monument and freshly-planted grass seed where the earth had been dug up for my mother’s remains, and knowing they were right where they should be was a tremendous comfort. Clive and I spent a couple of blessed hours on and around that petite patch of the planet.

flowers for my mother at our family gravesite

At the end of the week, my son and belle-fille hosted the memorial gathering in their beautiful home. It was just what my mother would have loved, and I know she would have been as proud of them as I was. Mom always loved a family party.

Somewhat to my surprise, I feel a sense of peace about my mother’s death. It seems all is as it should be, especially with respect to her wishes and her earthly remains. She graced this earth with her presence for nearly 94 years. How can I feel anything but gratitude for her life and for the gift of having her as my mom?

The beauty parlour

The afternoon before she died, Mom participated in a music program and went to the beauty parlour. She always enjoyed these activities, and I enjoyed accompanying her to them when Clive and I visited.

On the afternoon of what would have been Mom’s 94th birthday, I went to the Felixstowe hair salon. This may become an annual tradition.

Mom and me (taking photo) in the beauty parlour, October 2017

My dear friend Sandy gifted me with a little book at our memorial gathering, Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief, Martha W Hickman’s wisdom-filled gem. The quotation at the top of the page for that day is a Bible verse that spoke to me then and now:

When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.   [Isaiah 43:2]

My mother’s earthly remains may rest in New Jersey, but I know she will always be with me, here in Felixstowe or wherever we may be. She lives forever in my heart.

with my beloved Mom, May 2008

Thank you for reading and blessings to all and our mothers.

17 Responses

  1. Truly, such a beautiful post. I hope it gave you some comfort to write it all down and realize how perfectly you took care of your mother at the end of her life, and beyond. Sincere condolences.

    • Patricia, thank you so much for your kind words. Really appreciate your comment and condolences.

  2. Oh dear CSDBR, I am pleased you are the place where you could compose a memoir of the past month. You KNOW I can identify with much of what you’ve felt and said. Writing about your mother’s passing is a good start to the healing process, but don’t try to rush anything. I know it takes a very long time. Love, Mary

  3. Beautiful, Carolyn! I can see that the act of writing this memorial was cathartic for you. You have a gift for written communication. I was hesitant to read it, because I knew it would make me cry. However I got caught up in the story, remaining dry-eyed until the very end. The scripture was so perfect. May you continue your healing, knowing your mom lives on in the minds and hearts of many.

  4. A beautiful tribute to your dear Mother. She was such a kind and gracious lady for all the time I knew her; that spirit will always be with you. I loved the photos too..her as a baby, growing up and progressing in life..always with beauty and dignity. I am so sorry for your loss.

    • Merci Martha — our moms were both so courageous in their lives. Truly appreciate your comment.

  5. Caroline,

    Sending love and light. Thanks for sharing. And you’re right – your Mother is always with you. Best wishes, Ruth

  6. What beautiful, heartfelt memories and pictures! Your Mother looks so beautiful in the Jersey Shore picture. Gorgeous. Your memories and feelings brought back my own similar memories of our very similar situation with my Mother. Makes me tearful. I wrote it down in a journal I keep from time to time. I talked to my Mother afterward and still do. As you with your Mother, my Mama is and will always be with me. She had also told me years ago that she wanted to be cremated, so like you I knew what to do. I even found a small piece of paper among her things afterward where she had written her wishes down.
    All the best to you and your family-

    • Birgit, thanks so much for your lovely comment. I know you understand deeply from the loss of your own beautiful Mama. That is cool you found a small piece of paper with her wishes written on it. Our moms are always with us for sure.

      Thanks again and best to you and all your family xxx

  7. This was the most beautiful and heartfelt memorial to your mother Carolyn. The photographs you shared were wonderful. The words you have written about her over the past few years have allowed me to know her on some level, and wish I had known her better all those years ago. You will continue to move through your life feeling her loving arms around you and touching your heart. It will comfort you.
    As I read your words I was reminded of my own thoughts and challenges when my mother passed 8 years ago at 96. There isn’t a day that goes by without some thought of her, I will hold her in my heart forever. I still “talk” to her, and laugh when I hear “her words” come out of my mouth at random moments. I draw strength and courage from her memory, as I always admired her inner strength and tenacity.
    These are the memories I am so thankful to have. I thank you sincerely for sharing your thoughts. I love your writing Carolyn, and have enjoyed it over the past few years.
    My very heartfelt and sincere condolences for your loss. Marilyn

    • Thank you so very much, Marilyn. Wow, how great your mom lived to age 96. I really love ‘laugh when I hear “her words” come out of my mouth’ — so true, so true. And I will draw strength and courage from my mother’s memory — that is a beautiful way to put it. Thank you!!

      Cheers and gratitude for our wonderful mothers and thank you for your kind words xx

  8. Carolyn … my deepest condolences on the loss of your much-loved mother. Thank you for sharing your memories and photos of her, and how you have coped over the past few weeks. Your mum would be so proud of her daughter.
    … be strong and thankful in the knowledge that you are your mother’s daughter … with much love from Judy

    • Judy, what a lovely comment — thank you and I so appreciate your message and condolences. Hope all is well with you.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment xx and a hug to you and yours

  9. Hi Carol,

    I read this on my phone when you first posted it, although only now I have used my desk top computer to read. I liked reading it so much and I loved the pictures especially the one of you, Rob, and your mom taken in front of your house. You have suitcases and are all dressed up. I remember when we all used to get dressed up to go someplace. Perhaps that was the time when the three of you went to California to visit your cousins, I think.

    I always miss my mother so much about this time of day because that is when we so often talked on the phone. Rebecca, knowing this, often calls me when she is on her way home from work. I am going to Kappa Alpha Theta’s convention in Orlando at the very end of June. I could not make reservations that would have me wait and change in Atlanta. I was so upset at the thought of being in Atlanta and not seeing my mother. There is no airport that I have flown in and out of more times than Atlanta, but other than the time I flew down for her funeral, my mom was always there. Anyway I solved the problem by taking a flight from SC at the crack of dawn and a nonstop from Philly. I think I will need to make the effort to get to Atlanta and visit John and Janet.

    Just before Memorial Day, Dave and I took boxes of flowers down to Slatington to the cemetery My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents are all there. Last fall Dave and I worked hard on planting new grass in front of my mom’s grave, and it all came in so nicely.

    I’m also sorry about your toe; I did that last fall at home just before leaving with Brian and Rebecca and heading up to stadium for Michigan game. It was a real effort to hobble along behind them, but I was not going to stay home.


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