I'm up at eight. Dad is vacuuming the carpet again. He sets out a cereal bowl and pours me some coffee. He's never done that before. He's never had to.
Kim comes by, and we go to the funeral home. It's downtown, a severe brick building with a moderne clock and neon sign. One floor of funeral parlor, topped with five floors of apartments. It was finished the year my mother was born. They handled my grandparents' funerals.
The building feels deserted - you're certain the apartments above are empty, the offices abandoned, the embalming rooms filled with old rusted equipment. It feels the way a funeral home would feel a year after scientists perfected immortality. Eventually the director comes out - a fleshy man with a tomato-red face and the novacaine mask of professional sympathy. He takes us back to his office. We pour coffee and discuss arrangements.
We look through the book of caskets, and pick one that resembled mom's taste in furniture. The director notes that there is a model in the next room, if we'd care to see it first-hand. We go next door to a dim cream-hued room, itself with the long narrow dimensions of a coffin. The box is spotlit and polished to a warm glow.
Also, it's occupied. Someone else's Mom is resting in visitation. We keep our back to her as the director describes the features of this particular model. No one says a word about the dead body in the box.
Back to the office. The last chore is to chose the typeface for the programs. My mother has been dead for nineteen hours, and the issue now is whether to go with the sans-serif font.
I have no idea what we did that night.
Sara, my wife, arrives the next day by plane. We have lunch and get ready for the evening's visitation. It's a raw night, wet and cold, the sort of night that makes you open an umbrella just so the wind can snatch it from your hands. The chapel is full of relatives, come for the prayer service that closes the visitation. The family assembles in the lobby, then we march slow in a row to the casket.
It is a beautiful box, burnished to a low warm glow. Stands of flowers arranged like bridegrooms and bridesmaids flank the box. Soft mechanical piano dirges come from somewhere in the next room. Everyone takes a deep breath and looks.
There is an impostor in the box. There is a waxwork dummy who thinks this is funny: fooled you. This is not my mom. The mouth on the body is pulled down by some hideous gravity specific to the dead; the hair is styled wrong. There is pain even in this rendered shell. My sister turns away, her face stoic, but I can see the anger and grief sparking in her eyes.
The family takes the first row. Ten minutes pass in silence. Piano music; sniffling. Branches scraping on the window for the perfect merry touch.
My dad stands. "We can talk," he says. "If you want to say something, we can talk."
For the next half hour we tell stories, and we begin to laugh. People want to laugh at these things, really. My mom may have seen us cry from time to time. But mostly she knew us from our laughter.
The night ends like the rest: over to Kim and Dave's to play with the baby and talk; home with Dad. We drive back to North Fargo in his shiny black pickup. I'm driving. He wants to play the same tape he plays every night: Jim Reeves. Slow sad songs. He stares straight ahead, hands folded in his lap.
After he goes to bed I pour a scotch and figure out what I am going to say at the funeral. I page through some scrapbooks and old papers. Before I go to bed I read a Spider-Man comic from the big box of old Marvels. I wake around seven in the morning to the sound of Dad vacuuming the living room. He does it every morning now. Over and over again.
The funeral is Sunday afternoon. It passes, a muted procession of song and scripture, but it feels like a rehearsal for some distant, theoretically possible event. I get up to speak at the lectern where I've read for years. But that was always scripture. This is the first time I have my own words to speak.
The last time I was here was on my sister's wedding. My sister had paused in her ceremony to take a white rose from her bouquet and give it to my mom, and at that moment a charge had passed through the congregation and brought even the flintiest old farmer to tears, because everyone knew Mom had cancer, fresh cancer, brand-new rarin'-to-go cancer. And there was so much gratitude, hope and love in that single moment that the rest of the ceremony was almost an afterthought.
Downstairs in the church basement there are ham sandwiches, coffee in familiar cups, old familiar Swedes who were old when I was a child, tottering up to express condolences. The father of my childhood best friend appears, an old man who lost his wife a few months before; he is fighting to keep his composure, but his grief has been renewed and redoubled by this day, and there are tears in his eyes. We embrace, and I finally start to weep as well - there in the old bright basement, church of my childhood where a bad thing never happened, where the conversation is now loud and hearty and laughs bounce from table to table. He is weeping for his wife and the awful damn ordinariness of death, and I am thinking not of my mom but of the round powdery woman who brought up my good friend Peter. Christ, this never ends, does it? The day mom died was just the first domino falling. And now they clatter off in a dozen directions.
Off to the country church for burial. My dad notes the trucks parked by the church - the grave excavators, the groundskeepers, the people who deliver the winch that drops the coffin in the earth. And he notes that they are all customers. We sell them oil. We trudge through mud and gravel to the Maple Cheyenne cemetery - a small ration of stones and trees by a white wooden stuga. The box is suspended over a hole in the farmland, next to Grandma and Grandpa. Pastor Aaker says something, and then he sings. He sings a Psalm in a plain honest voice and splashes ash on the casket. We place our roses on the wood and walk away, and when we are in the car and on the road we realize:
It's over. Now it starts.
I saw Mom at Southdale mall today, and I saw her in the parking lot at the grocery store. Sunday I saw her rollerblading around Lake Harriet. There is a basic template for women her age - an infinitesimal stoop, a modest tidy coif, glasses, sweaters, a tinge of pride in having a trim silhouette, a busyness to the hands that indicates there are things to do, things to do. I see her every day.
I don't believe in the harps-and-wings version of heaven. I am unconvinced that individual consciousness survives death. It would be nice if it did. I have been told that all the characteristics of near-death experiences - the joy and peace, the sense of rushing to the light - can be explained as biochemical phenomena of a body shutting down. Turns out everyone dies with their eyes open. So don't take it personally. Just the way the machine breaks down.
Possible. Probably, really. But finding a biological explanation means less than you might thing. Love, devotion, misery, remorse, nostalgia, guilt, rapture - you can reduce those to a series of chemicals shuttling around the skull, too. It just seems odd to think that anything beyond the ken of human beings must be stuffed into empirical corsets and judged on its posture. Who knows?
In her blackest hours my mother asked Why? Why is this happening to me? and I could only think of the prisoners in Nazi camps who asked the same thing of their tormentors. Why? Why are you doing this? The answer - and I forget who recounted this - came from a guard who said, simply, that "there is no why here."
An adequate definition of hell. But also of a fine benificient afterworld: a place where there is no why - because there are no questions anymore. What needs to be known, you know.
At the end of the night of the visitation, I went outside the funeral home and stood on the corner. I watched the traffic light change, and change again; I looked up at the windows of the Fargoan hotel and wondered who lived there now, how long they stayed, how many souls had settled into that room for an interval of slow thoughtless sleep. And then I felt a presence. A familiar presence. And a single thought: something good has happened. Do not grieve.
And then the sensation left of its own accord. It faded like your breath on a cold pane of glass.
I stood there for a while, astonished.
And then I went back inside. So many sad faces. I wanted to tell them not to weep: it's okay. It's alright. She's fine.
She told me so, and she never lied to her children.