Sam found the car keys on the hook by the front door and drove her mother’s rusty Accord straight to the hospital. She gave her name at the reception desk and waited for a social worker named Elise to take her down to the morgue. Elise walked with Sam to the elevator and unlocked their floor with a keycard. They went down, into the basement of the hospital, the part without gift shops or cafeterias. Elise pressed a buzzer on the wall; a young man poked his head out a door, nodded, went back inside, and then opened another door down the hall a few moments later. Sam walked into what looked like a small waiting room, painted pale yellow and fluorescently lit. There were soft chairs and a couch and a coffee table with a box of tissues and an open doorway to a green tiled room in the centre of which sat a stainless steel gurney with her dead mother on it. Sam dropped her purse on the coffee table and walked through the doorway.
Sam didn’t immediately recognize the shape of the body under the white sheet. The cancer had stripped more than half her mother’s bulk away, but her middle was bloated with the fluid they had been draining off every few days. Her shoulders and head were exposed and Sam noticed how small and bony she seemed. For the first time, Sam could see the resemblance between her mother and her grandmother.
The hair on her mother’s head had thinned, and hadn’t been cut or permed for some time. It hung back from her forehead, limp and white. Her facial hair had been neglected too, her chin hairs and moustache growing in.
“Oh, Mom,” Sam said. “You look terrible.” If she had come sooner, she could have at least cleaned her up a bit.
Her mother’s sunken face did not radiate peace, or even rest. The last few days of her life must have been an ugly fight. Sam tried to touch her mother, mostly because she thought that’s what people were supposed to do, but she couldn’t bring her trembling hand into contact. She hovered over her ruined hair, her face, and noted the absence of warmth. One of her eyelids was not completely closed, and Sam peered into the sliver of visible eye. It seemed to look back at her, baleful. Judging.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here, okay?” she whispered. “I fucked up.”
Sam said other things too, things she was barely aware of saying aloud, but she could hear herself crying and the sound of the social worker crying behind her and the whirring of the cooling fans. She realized that this would be the last memory she had of the woman, that this body on a gurney would now be the picture she saw when she thought of her mother, and that there would be no new last memory to replace it.
A thin stream of greenish-black fluid began to run out of her mother’s nose and towards the opening of her ear and Sam watched its progression, transfixed, horrified. The social worker appeared at her side and dabbed her dead mother’s face with a tissue. Then she offered one to Sam, and they turned and left the room.
The cemetery office building was frigid compared to the shimmering midday asphalt of the parking lot. Sam lifted her hair and exposed her neck to the cold air blowing through a floor vent beside the reception desk. She was no longer used to the heat, the Southern Ontario humidity that was like breathing through a hot wet rag. Sam’s shorts clung to the backs of her damp thighs and wrinkled in the front, and she wished she had worn a skirt.
The front desk was unoccupied, but a tiny man in a suit and tie appeared through a doorway and smiled at her. Sam was getting used to all the suits, a prerequisite for dealing with the dead, regardless of the heat. “You must be Samantha,” he said. His hand, when she shook it, was nearly as small as her own. Petite, Sam thought. Even the bones of his face looked delicate, almost elfin. He introduced himself as Michael, the Services Director. She liked how the title rang with professional anonymity; a label that wouldn’t make people squirm, like undertaker might.
“Sam, please. Only my mother called me Samantha.”
As he led her into the office, she noticed that his salt-and-pepper hair was thick but wanted cutting, with that long shagginess in the back that she hated.
Sometimes her clients wanted to leave that length, especially if they were thinning on top and believed that longer hair in the back made up for it. Sam was usually able to convince them otherwise. The advice of a pretty woman carried some weight in matters of hairstyle.
Michael’s office was filled with shelves displaying urns, memorial plaques, and granite headstone samples. Sam examined a wooden display with a number of necklaces hanging from it and fingered a heart-shaped pendant as though she were in a shop. A small brass plaque explained that the “memory pendants” were meant to be filled with loved one’s ashes. She let go of the heart and it rapped against the wood.
“So,” Michael said, sitting across the desk and interlocking his wee hands neatly, “I understand you’re here today to discuss your mother’s arrangements. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
There had been as many apologies as there had been suits. “These things happen,” she said, opening her palms to the ceiling. “But this, um…arrangement has made it a bit easier.” Through a typical Williams’ family fuck-up, a plot purchased by her grandfather in the ’50s had gone unclaimed. Some great aunt had married a Jewish guy fifty years ago and left her eternal Presbyterian resting place empty. It was Uncle Clifford who had tried to give Sam all the information right there in the arrivals area of the airport, before she’d even pulled her luggage off the carousel.
“Give me a fucking minute, wouldya?” she’d snapped, her fellow travellers’ faces wide-eyed. Even the top of Clifford’s old-man head had blushed, and Sam tried to make polite conversation during the ride home, but the damage was done. He wouldn’t even get out of the car when he dropped her off. One major family insult accomplished before she’d even seen her mother’s body.
“—and since that facility is a member of our larger family of funeral services providers, the transfer of ownership is a relatively simple process—with the necessary forms of course.” Michael presented Sam with a series of papers to be signed and initialed, which she did with a suitably heavy ballpoint pen.
“Let’s move on,” said Michael, “to your mother’s wishes. Did she leave you any instructions at all?”
“Well, my mother wanted to be cremated and then have her remains thrown into the trash. She was always a bit of drama queen that way. But even though I’m going to totally ignore her and her stupid wishes, I’d like to keep things as simple as possible.”
Michael scarcely flinched, but Sam felt satisfied by her own testiness. It felt good to have her personality back for a minute, after all the polite whispering of the past few days. The obligatory visits to the airless sitting rooms of her few remaining relatives made her want to scream, but sitting home alone was even worse. An air-conditioned audience with Mr. Services Director was something of an improvement over both.
He flipped through a binder of plastic sheets, keeping up the sales patter as he went. There were many things to decide: the urn, interment in the ground or a crypt (which Michael called a memorial wall), matters of size, shape,
colour…Sam was baffled by the array of choices for the dead. Whatever she chose, it would most certainly not be in accordance with the note she found in her mother’s safety deposit box that morning.
My death is to be followed by cremation
If it’s put in the paper, do it after the fact (I mean later)
(No service! Or memorial service NO PICTURES)
Ashes in a cardboard box only
Given to my daughter to be thrown in the garbage
WON’T COST MUCH AND NO TIME SPENT
You do not have the right to judge or change these wishes
NO FLOWERS—IN LIEU OF—Charitable donations to children’s charities of your choice. The children are the future—help them!
Hooray the witch is dead!
Signed by, A Misfit
The note was not a surprise. Sam’s mother had been working over that particular turf for years. She’d brought up one variation or another of those instructions so frequently, and with such bitterness, that Sam had always thought she’d have no trouble following them. She had often pictured herself walking out of some funeral home with her purse over her shoulder, a grande white Starbucks cup in one hand, and a white cardboard box in the other. Fuck you, you got your wish, she would say, lobbing the box into the first garbage can she passed on the sidewalk. But now that she was actually dead, Sam was puzzled to discover that a lot of her bullshit had died with her. Their fights that had gone on for years suddenly ended, even if Sam hadn’t been finished fighting them yet.
In addition to not wanting to throw what was left of her mother into the trash, Sam discovered that she had no desire to hold a box of human ashes. She remembered how at the hospital she couldn’t even touch her mother’s body, that creepy cold shell that had nearly nothing to do with the person she had known. The idea of keeping the ashes, or wearing a pinch of them in a special pendant, was sickening. She had called the newspaper and arranged for a small notice to appear in the Saturday obituaries, after everything had been completed. There would be no funeral, no memorial service, but at least there would be a place to visit, if anyone wanted. If the plot hadn’t been an almost-freebie, things might have gone differently. Real estate costs were high, even underground. But this way, the body had travelled straight from the hospital to the funeral home, and then would go on to the crematorium and the cemetery, all without Sam having to touch anything more than pieces of paper.
Sam flipped through the selection of urns and chose a plain, white marble vessel shaped like a tall shoebox, not at all like what she thought of as an urn. One of their most economical options, it cost six hundred dollars. She thought of school projects on Egyptian tombs: the marble box sealed behind a wall, never to be seen again. “How do I know that you actually use this and don’t just put the ashes in another box and keep this one to sell again?” she asked.
“Most of our families do attend the interment and have a small service or say a few words at that time, Miss Black.” Michael was proving to be unflappable. Sam reminded herself to pronounce it “interment” instead of “internment.”
He showed her a photocopied map of the grounds and the locations of various plots. Sam thought the ground was a nicer place to be than a big marble mausoleum with everyone’s boxes all jammed in together. “Would you like to take a walk around?” he asked. “It’s very warm out, but it might give you a better idea of some of the available options.”
As they crossed the parking lot together, Sam resisted an unexpected desire to take Michael’s hand. The last few days had brought unwieldy and confusing feelings to the surface. At first, she had had no appetite, and there was shiver of delight that cut through her numbness. Could this grief burn its way through five or ten pounds? The answer came the next afternoon, when she ate half a jar of marshmallow fluff from her mother’s fridge because it was one of the few things that hadn’t expired. And now, all day, she’d been aching for physical contact with someone—no matter how stupid the circumstance—even this small-handed man in a suit. She had brushed against the hand of the gas-station attendant when he passed her her credit card slip that morning, and the urge to wrap herself around him had almost made her cry with longing.
As they walked, Michael gestured at a giant white Jesus with outstretched arms at the top of a slight incline. “That area there is our Garden of Grace,” he said, “and behind that is our Walk of Memory. Most of those spaces are pre-booked, however,” he said, meeting her eyes. “A very popular option nowadays.”
Sam just nodded, busy thinking of other good names. The Path of Righteousness? The Valley of the Shadow of Death? The Road to Nowhere?
They followed the winding pavement to a pond surrounded by benches and memorial columns. On the other side of the pond stood a decent-sized maple. Sam pointed at its base. “Over there,” she said. “Is that a spot?”
Michael consulted his laminated map. “Yes, Plot 256. It’s very nice, but it’s right beside the roadway. Some people like to be a little further away. If you’ve got elderly relatives, however, it’s easy to find and there’s not much walking to do…”
Sam walked toward it. The tree made a small blob of shade, and the grass looked a little thicker and less thirsty there. “She hated the sun,” she said. “She’d be pissed if I put her in direct sunlight.” She turned to Michael. “It gave her hives, that’s why she hated it. I think this is the one.”
The plot chosen, they headed back towards the main building. A hot breeze ruffled Sam’s hair and made strings of it stick to her face and chest. She pulled them away with her fingers and saw Michael looking at the wide vee of her shirt, her tan and freckled collarbones against the white of the cotton.
Back inside, Michael passed her a binder full of designs for the bronze plaque that would mark the gravesite. It was easy enough to choose something small and basic, with a border of roses. Her mother had liked flowers. It struck Sam as odd that she had been so against them in her note. Then Sam needed to choose a sentiment of some kind to put on the plaque, and Michael produced a helpful pamphlet with biblical phrases and snippets of poems. “Of course, you’re welcome to come up with something on your own, if you prefer,” he said.
Thin at last? she thought. Or how about I told you I was sick? She pinched the inside of her bottom lip with her incisor to keep from smirking. She pretended she was just overwhelmed and asked to use the ladies’ room.
The bathroom had its own aircon vent and was even cooler than the rest of the office. Sam looked in the mirror, running her hands over her white shirt. Even rumpled and sweaty, she looked too good to be pissing the day away in a funeral parlour, or whatever this place was supposed to be called. She leaned forward and rested her forehead against the cool of the mirror for a moment. It left a greasy print.
“I think I have to go,” she said to Michael when she returned.
He clucked sympathetically. “Of course. It can be a lot to take in all at once. Take this with you,” he said, handing her the pamphlet. He had already stapled his business card to its front. “When you’ve selected something, just give me a call.” He placed his hand on her shoulder and Sam nearly let a sob escape. She turned away to keep herself from collapsing into his arms.
Sam drove to the convenience store and loaded up on supplies: Diet Coke, chips, chocolate bars, Frosted Flakes, fashion magazines, and a carton of Belmont Milds. There was almost nothing to eat in her mother’s house: the cancer took her hunger, something Sam never thought she’d see. It had been over a year since Sam had been in the house, but it looked like no new food had come in since then. The kitchen cupboards held only expired boxes and dusty cans: packets of instant diet pudding, cake mixes, low-fat soups, sugar-free iced tea mix. Sam mostly ate sushi and brown rice and lattes and fruit smoothies from the shops near the hair salon. But here in the aisles of the mini-mart, she surrendered to the lure of the child food in its shiny, rainbow packages. Even chips and pop were better than what she’d be purging from the old woman’s cupboards.
Back at the house, Sam cracked a Diet Coke and was about to go out on the porch for a smoke when she realized that the house belonged to her now, and so she lit a cigarette sitting at the kitchen table. She thumbed through the pamphlet of quotes. Most of the passages were embarrassing and trite, or too religious, or sounded desperate, things that made Sam think of people draping their weeping selves over coffins. She finally decided to go with the last line of Browning’s Sonnet 43, “I shall but love thee better after death.” Stripped of its context, the line was awkward, sounding almost like “I like you better now that you’re dead,” which she understood. Her mother was definitely easier to get along with now. She rolled a joint on the placemat.
The thought of actually cleaning out the entire house was daunting. Every closet, cupboard, and drawer needed to be emptied, its contents evaluated and inevitably discarded. Clothes and furniture and accumulated piles of useless crap: Reader’s Digest condensed books from the sixties, worn-out orthopedic shoes, a man’s overcoat that Sam didn’t recognize, at least a garbage bag’s worth of empty pill bottles, and a set of Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedias that her mother had collected using grocery-store stamps and had been so proud of…there would be carloads of stuff to take to the Value Village. Sam reminded herself that it didn’t have to happen at all once. Maybe she could recruit a couple of old high-school girlfriends who still lived in the area. She knew them from their Facebook pages, now wives and mothers, raising their own families in the neighbourhoods they used to prowl on drunken Saturday nights. She could call
them, and they would help her out. It might even be fun to see them again.
Bolstered by her own pep talk and a few puffs of the joint, Sam decided to take another look around. The hallway closet seemed the least visibly packed; a relatively safe place to start. There were some old liquor bottles on the top shelf, and Sam pulled down a bottle of cherry whisky she recognized from childhood. It looked drinkable. Beside the bottles were stacks of photo albums, picture frames, and a few floral-print boxes meant for storing photographs. Sam ground the crusty lid from the whisky and carried the boxes into the living room. They did hold photos, mostly, along with clippings from newspapers and magazines: mostly comic strips, Ann Landers columns, and quasi-religious inspirational passages. On the top of the pile in the third box, Sam found a note addressed to her on a piece of kitten-bordered paper.
Remember, If you feel any guilt at all—try denial! It works for some people!
You never made time for a meaningful conversation or had any TIME for me!! All I was to you was the slave who tried to make home a home.
I believed! And I cared! And you turned your back to me.
Sam turned the note over.
I have to admire greatly the strength of anyone who can turn their life around after making ALL the wrong choices. When people start making adult choices—supposedly they are an adult. We are all humans and not perfect—there’s no such thing.
I’ve since learned that if you start working with a young child and their choices, not an adult’s, they will learn by their mistakes and not be as devastated by their errors or by adult choices pushed on them. Small child—small choices, and by the time you’re older the decisions made may not be so traumatic even if they ARE wrong.
We were raised in the era where you went out and made your own way, and your own place to sleep, and you didn’t blame anyone else for your lot in life.
The actress and the melodrama are all that come first for you and always will be. I’m just glad you didn’t end up on a pig farm in B.C.
“Jesus Christ.” Sam took a long pull of the whisky. It tasted like cough syrup. “I cut hair, for fucksakes.”
Sam awoke on the couch with the detritus of the previous night all around her: the cherry whisky bottle on the coffee table, photos and bits of paper scattered around the carpet. She had been unable to face sleeping in her mother’s bed, in the room that used to be Sam’s when she was a girl.
Her loneliness felt like a garment around her, and Sam turned on the radio to try and shake it off, along with her headache. She craved good coffee and good music, but knew she’d find neither. She wished she’d thought more about what to pack; she could have brought some coffee beans, her iPod, and a blow dryer. As it was, she’d swept the contents of her bathroom counter into one suitcase, and into another she’d thrown shorts and T-shirts, along with a couple of black skirts and dresses, since she’d been fairly certain she’d need a funeral outfit eventually. She had been in the cab on the way to the airport, trying to imagine tearful, heartfelt goodbyes at the bedside, trying to picture all the things that she and her mother had never managed to pull off in life now coming naturally to both of them, when her cell phone rang, telling her she was already too late. She was two for two now, if anyone was keeping score on missing the death of parent. Sam hadn’t made it to her father’s passing either, when he was crushed between two train cars at the steel mill a month before her birth.
Sam ate a bag of ketchup chips for breakfast and called Michael. He suggested that she come in at ten-thirty, and although she had planned to just tell him the Browning quote over the phone, she agreed. Sam thought about what to wear while she showered. She decided on her yellow sundress with the cap sleeves, even though she sometimes worried that it was too young for her. When she climbed into the Accord, she felt excited, as though she were going to meet a lover.
Sam pulled into the parking lot beside the silver Acura that must have belonged to Michael. Getting out, she bent down to check her lip gloss in the Acura’s passenger window and noticed something green hanging in the back window. She moved closer, shielding her eyes from the glare. It was a shirt or jacket in a drycleaning bag. The silky blue fabric and big gold buttons reminded her of a Renaissance costume, or a pirate. The cuffs of matching knickers or pantaloons hung beneath the shirt’s hem. Resting on the back seat was a long black nylon bag. Gun, sword, musical instrument? Sam stood and hastily buffed the window with the hem of her dress to remove her hand prints.
This time, a mousy brunette sat at the reception desk. Her pretty eyes peered at Sam over the tops of glasses a decade out of fashion. “Michael is on the phone, but he’ll be with you in a moment,” she said. Sam fussed with her ponytail, picked at her cuticles. When the brunette’s phone beeped, she picked it up and gave Sam a nod. Sam walked in and sat in the same seat as she had before.
“How are you today, Sam?”
“Um, I think I’ve picked something out.” She released the sweaty pamphlet from her hand, smoothed it out on the desk, and pointed to the number she’d circled. To her surprise, Michael recited the last few lines of the sonnet in a buttery voice.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
“Are you fond of poetry?” he asked.
“I’m a hairdresser.”
“The language of love,” he said, “is accessible to all of us.”
She nodded again, staring at his hair. She imagined standing behind him, fastening the vinyl hairstyling cape around his neck, reclining him at the shampoo sink, the water and suds flowing through her hands and his hair.
Michael cleared his throat and moved his fingertips together. “Sam, I want to ask you something rather serious,” he said, leaning forward and looking into her eyes.
She didn’t mean for the “yes” to escape as a whisper, but it did.
“Have you given any consideration,” he said, “to your own arrangements when the time comes?”
“Arrangements…sorry, what?” Sam tried to translate his words into what she’d expected to hear.
Michael waited, then spoke again. “It’s just that, now that there’s already a plot here for your mother, we can offer you quite a reasonable rate for your own, especially with our interest-free prepayment plans. Many of our clients find that this alleviates a lot of unnecessary worry. Of course,” he said, watching Sam’s face, “if it’s too soon to discuss these matters, I completely understand.”
She barked out a laugh. “I thought you were about to ask me out.” She looked down at herself, sitting in a budget office chair, her purse between her ankles, dressed like a girl going to a birthday party.
Sam ground the gears as she pulled out of the parking lot, glancing back at the silver Acura in the rearview mirror. Michael and his receptionist-wife were probably standing together and watching her drive away, his small hands a perfect fit around her small shoulders.
There had been a long pause as she looked at her feet before Michael asked if she should perhaps come another day when she was feeling better. She had laughed again, but it sounded ridiculous, like a donkey. He told her what day her mother’s remains would be interred and she remembered saying that she wouldn’t be attending and that there would be no service. His expression had telegraphed pity, and she had stood up, seen the slim gold band on his finger for the first time, and retreated from the office to her car.
The ride home passed in the blur of familiar houses, with the same sad dry brown grass all around. Sam pulled into the driveway without checking the mailbox, turned off the car, and hurried into the house. She flipped on the radio with its insipid oldies and lit the remains of the previous night’s joint. When it was gone, she walked into the bathroom and rummaged through her makeup bag. She removed her haircutting scissors and grabbed her ponytail with her free hand. She started by snipping away at the ends, but gradually worked her way up, where the scissors began to resist the thick hank of hair. She squeezed the hair flat and kept cutting. The cuttings fell around her feet, landing on her sandals and toes. Sam slid the elastic out of the ponytail’s stump and shook her hair out. It was uneven, but it could still be fixed if she stopped. A chin-length bob. She kept cutting. She held out random sections and cut each down nearly to the scalp until there was almost nothing left. Haphazard longer pieces stood on end and contrasted with her darker roots, giving the impression of a broken doll or a sickly orphan. Sam set the scissors on the counter and ran her hands over her patchy head. The woman in the mirror looked naked, skull-like. Sam saw her grandmother’s cheekbones, her mother’s baleful eye. She saw her own emptiness, her heart so open, so capable of love, and not a soul in the world to give it to. This was her house now. This was her life now. And, somewhere, a hole in the earth waited for her.
Jenn Farrell, through sorrow’s trick.
Published On: June 21, 2010
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/100621b.htm