Two days before my mother’s funeral I was hiding.
For reasons that still make very little sense to me, one of the first people I texted after I learned my mother died, was a friend from high school.
“Take my house.” He said. “You are going to want the space, trust me.”
I did trust him. My friend lost his wife to cancer six years ago when the oldest of their four children was seven and the youngest only two. His mother died about a month after my dad, two years ago.
Come to think of it, that’s probably why I texted him.
And now, I was hiding in his house.
A completely beautiful home designed and decorated with a big family in mind, with things like a mud-room and an outdoor shower and a kitchen meant for congregating and chaos.
My five brothers and sisters and I had managed to transition from stunned to action quickly, and each of us carried heavy tasks with a looming funeral day deadline.
Mine was the eulogy.
Because I don’t have reliable memories time during those days, I’m not sure how my writing a eulogy came about, except I’m pretty sure I said I wanted to do it. I may have insisted.
I’d seen my brother do the acrobatic high wire act, of writing and delivering the eulogy at my father’s Catholic funeral. Catholics have very specific rules for eulogies — you have exactly three minutes to honor the dead only speaking about faith, without exalting them. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds.
I’m not sure if I thought it was someone else’s turn to shoulder the burden, if I thought my mom should be eulogized by a daughter, or if I wanted to be the center of attention — I think all are possible. Whatever the case, I found myself sitting on my friend’s couch in the living room his wife had decorated for the life she didn’t live to see, trying to write my mother’s eulogy.
It was well past noon, I had written exactly three words and panic was starting to set in. Sitting in the quiet, my thoughts constantly ran down the same dark alley they had since my husband gave me the news: “It’s my fault she died. If I’d been less selfish, less self-absorbed, less (insert crappy word here) she’d still be alive.” I could hardly breathe.
Listen, I really do know. You don’t have to say it. I know it’s not my fault my mom died (most of the time, honest, I really do), but at the time those thoughts were incredibly real and nearly constant. Even in the moment, they felt like a magician’s sleight of hand — “hey look over here…” A distraction from what I knew would be the much greater pain of having to live without her.
The question “why didn’t you (my critical thoughts are always second-person, as if even my mind isn’t willing to align itself my behavior) INSIST she go back to the doctor?” was pounding me relentlessly when the doorbell rang.
I opened the door of the cool, dark house to a hot, gleaming day and an older woman in a suit, heels, and pearls carrying a computer and a backpack wearing an official-looking lanyard.
What was she doing here?
“Hi, there! I’m Mary! I’m from the Census Bureau! I’m just going to take two minutes of your time to ask you about your house.”
I couldn’t formulate any words, which didn’t matter. Mary was rattling off her questions — was this “a single-family dwelling?” and “who lives in that house? Is that a separate property or a guest house?” So many words.
I held up my palm to stop her.
“I don’t live here.”
“Oh, no problem you can still answer my questions.” Mary was sweating in the heat but smiling.
“Listen, this is my friend’s house. I’m only staying here because my mother died. I’m trying to write her eulogy. I’m just hiding here for the quiet.”
Mary’s face softened. She murmured apologies. All the nice words.
She asked if my mother was from the town, and then her name, which I gave.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I accidentally opened a card for your family this morning. Your parent’s post office box is above mine. I gave it back to Carol (because everyone in a small town knows Carol the post office lady) to put in your box. I’m just so sorry.”
I’d intended to run her off but felt myself crumple under Mary’s compassion, and instead invited her inside (and I feel compelled to defend Mary by saying I am now aware that Census takers are not allowed inside the home, but it was very hot, and I was very convincing).
“I didn’t know your mother, but I went home and read her obituary. It was beautiful.” And then as if as an afterthought she said:
“Your mother and I were the same age. Seventy-five.”
I felt my chest open up like someone had unzipped a too-tight dress.
Now Mary made sense.
Mary, in her suit and her heels, and pearls, carrying a laptop, and a full backpack even a sixth-grader would respect.
My mother Mary and Census taker Mary were both seventy-five.
Except my mother could never have been in those clothes, out in that sun, carrying those things, walking from house to house. My mother could never have been Census-taker Mary. They shared a name and a number, but little else.
People exclaimed “so young’ when they heard of my mother’s death, because they were imagining something other than the reality, and honestly so was I. Now that I had Mary in front of me, I could feel my breath release into reality.
My mother was already unwell.
Not dying surely, of course. But not hearty, Census taker in 86 degree heat, not AARP commercial seventy-five. Whatever had caused my mother to go to sleep and not wake up, had been cumulative, and not about me.
I had a brief respite from my thrashing thoughts, and Mary had her completed survey.
When I closed the door behind Mary, the house had been filled with the healing energy of the universe, which I still struggle to define, holding me so I felt less alone.
I sat down and wrote a draft of the eulogy, start to finish with no breaks.
Breathing the whole time.