July 17, 2009:
Gaetano and I got into his car yesterday morning and drove with my Mom's ashes across the Bay Bridge to Piedmont. When we reached Mountain View Cemetery, we stopped and got out of the car. It was a lovely day, warm and more humid than most, a light steamy edge to the air. I kept thinking that my Mom would have loved yesterday. She would have smiled and looked around and taken full breaths. It would have pleased her to be home.
Although I've done end-of-life care for going on thirty years, I haven't been to a cemetery for decades. I simply don't go. But my Mom's family has slowly been filling up a niche in the Mountain view columbarium for some eighty years. As far as I know, it is the last material task to be done for my Mom, and I was glad to have the honor. During her dying and at the time of her memorial service, my sister stepped forth and did a splendid job of caring, delegating, signing off, making good choices and taking responsibility.
My role at the end had a finality that didn't occur to me until the night before interment. I lurched through strange sensations that didn't resolve into images or information. I felt preoccupied, testy, sorrowful, zoned. In the three months that my Mom's ashes had been resident in my apartment, I can't say that we had dialog. I don't associate my Mom with her ashes. When I did communicate with her, it was spur of the moment. I didn't create ritual with her ashes, didn't sit holding them in my lap. But, I was aware that I wanted to move them on in good time. That good time was set for the day a week prior when I suddenly had to cancel since the tumor on my rib had just erupted, causing a lot of pain and drama. This Thursday was the second appointment.
The procedure was quite simple. Her ashes were transferred from one plastic bag to another, then placed into a square bronze urn. The urn was sealed. Then, we walked across the cemetery to the columbarium and entered into a world of watery marble walls, long hallways with side chapels full of ascending niches, indirect lighting, a great silence pervading. Hallway turn left, hallway turn right. Stop. A ladder next to the wall. My family's niche on the top row. Impulsively, I kissed the bronze urn just before handing it over to the fellow who would carry it upward to the final resting place. The decision to kiss the metal box was my first deliberate choice in several minutes; I realized that I was in a light trace. And then, the metal box was put in its place. Goodbye.
The cemetery attendant motioned behind Gaetano and myself. "Would you like to sit for a minute?" he asked. What a concept! I hadn't thought into the next moment. The ashes were gone, what else was there to do? So we both sat. The attendant left. It was very quiet. Then, slowly, the uneven breath, the heat inside the eyelids and finally the arrival of the tears. They were wonderful tears: crystalline, effortless, heated. In my many years of knowing Gaetano, this was one of our closest times together. There was no need to go anywhere else, so we didn't. And then, just as simply, it was time to go.
Outside in the car as we were leaving Mountain View, I asked Gaetano, "When we were sitting in those chairs, were you crying for your Mom?" "I was crying for all of us," he answered. That felt like a memorable answer.
My Mom would have been thrilled by the next stop: lunch at Olivetto's. A table next to the window overlooking College Avenue where she'd been a child and a teenager. Ordering a remarkable sequence of Italian summer food; a crostatto with freshly sliced pancetta and buttery avocado with just a drizzle of vinaigrette. My Mom would have started talking about her trips to Italy, recalling lunches in Rome. Then--which is one of the reasons she was special--she would have put aside her own experiences and asked us about our memories of Italy. So we sat and enjoyed the aromas, the skillful play of textures, the mezzogiorno warmth, two people ordering food for three.