“We each have a baggie,” my sister said as she handed them out to us. “They should all be equal,” she added, true to form in always being peacemaker. As the middle child she was the easy going one. The one who never made waves. The one who tried to make everyone happy. Even now, as the three of us are each holding little plastic baggies with our mother’s ashes inside, she doesn’t want anyone to feel slighted.
Mom’s dying wish was to be spread along her favorite beach, the one she grew up going to as a kid. We didn’t take all of her, mind you. For one thing, there’s about ten pounds of ashes (mom was a big Italian Mama). For another thing my sisters and I keep talking about other things we want to do with Mom’s ashes- make some jewelry, forge a diamond, have her blown in some beautiful glass. There are many creative and lovely things people do with ashes now. I myself seem to collect them. I’ve insisted on a keepsake urn for some of Mom so I can add her to my mantle collection of Dad and my two beloved dogs (one doggie I just had to put down last week-soul crushing).
Mom had a pretty tough life and the last ten years were brutal. Even though she was still fairly young at 56 we had to put her into assisted living because of physical and mental illness. One of her ailments was COPD due to her chronic smoking. Sometimes her cough was so intense that it sounded like she was choking. This happened frequently when I called and I often wondered if she was literally dying on the other end- I felt a strange mixture of terror and disgust, infused with dashes of guilt and helplessness. Even though she was on oxygen she was still smoking. That was Mom.
Mom had become such a burden, both emotionally and financially. She was draining. She smelled. Once my sister took her to Dunkin Donuts and she stood in the middle of the floor and peed. She yelled and screamed at the assisted living staff. She horded food under her bed that would later rot and create a stench. She refused to shower. She soiled herself often. I could go on.
When we got to the beach we stopped for lunch. The three of us had several cocktails, my youngest sister imbibing the most. No one said it out loud but it was clear we needed to get a little numb for the next part. We had put Ma on the table since all of the baggies were in a tiny cardboard box. My youngest sister felt something touch her back and we figured it was Mom letting us know she was with us. It was strangely comforting.
When we got down to the beach we set up camp and then each went our separate ways, baggies in hand. I sat in the sand with my toes near the water. The tide was coming in and each time the waves came my feet got doused with cold ocean water. I hated it.
I opened my baggie and poured a little of Mom into my hand. I stared at it, remembering my middle sister’s earlier comment that “Mom looked like dirty coke.” The ashes were gray and I could see what looked like the tiniest fragments of bone. I couldn’t believe that I was holding my mother in the palm of my hand. I remembered the scene from Never Ending Story when the empress of Fantasia held the last remnant of her land in her palm- one grain of sand. It was crazy to think that this was what was left of my mother- the woman whom I loved so dearly yet who in many ways had been a lifelong burden. Holding her in my hand made it feel like a dream; like all the good and bad memories I had of her were just a fairy tale. Not real.
I said my goodbyes out loud to her. I told her how much I loved her. I told her to take care of my pets, Roxie and Max, who are both on the other side now. Either the alcohol kicked in or wore off because I cried. And cried some more. The best part was that I could feel my heart. Due to Mom’s struggles I had learned from a young age how to not care- how to wall off as a way of protection. In this moment I could feel the love I had and always had for her, no matter how challenging she was. It had been hiding and was now safe to come out.
It was a windy day and as I held my hand in the air the wind came and swept up Mom. I looked at my hand, which happens to look exactly like my mom’s hand did. I got many great things from her, including her beautiful, soft hands and double-jointed fingers. I got her eyes, her cheekbones, her round ass, her love of music, her sense of style. I also got her temper, her stubbornness, her sharp tongue and her outspokenness. An indelible mix.
When the ashes were gone I noticed the residue on my hand. I cherished it. The last vestige of my mother had coated my palm. I wasn’t at all freaked out. How could I be? It was the most intimate mother-daughter moment we ever shared.
RIP Mama 11/29/16