We had just recieved the news, my mother had been found dead on her couch by her neighbor and a maintenance man. I had been trying to prepare myself for her death for twenty years but somehow I still felt blindsided by the news. Still in shock and processing the information, we had just received, Scott and I started tossing around questions…what do we do with her things? She wanted to be donated to science. How do we do that? What do we do about a memorial service? Where do we have it? When do we have it? Who will come?
“Wait! Where is her body?” I asked.
Scott didn’t know the answer to this question. He called the Police Department in the city she lived in and asked them. They didn’t know and said they would find out and call him back.
It was about 11:00 p.m. when Scott came into the bedroom where I was curled up in my bed. He laid down beside me and told me they had found my mother’s body. He told me the name of the funeral home. It felt weird. Not knowing where your mother’s body was and then being told they had found her and then thinking about her body in a freezer at a funeral home. I knew it wasn’t her. I knew it was just a shell her soul had lived in. I knew she was in Heaven with family who had gone before her. I knew she had been saved years ago and we had talked about some of those things. Even though she had done bad things, I believed she was in Heaven. When she wasn’t drinking or using she was kind, meek, quiet, thankful, pleasant, funny, anxious, embarrassed and full of guilt. When she was drinking or using she was mean, ugly, hateful, entitled, spewing nastiness, always looking for a fight, confrontational, and aggressive. She was the total opposite of her sober self. And lately, she had been more of the ugly side than kind side.
It reminded me of one of my favorite Native American Proverbs…
A Native American grandfather talking to his young grandson tells the boy he has two wolves inside of him struggling with each other. The first is the wolf of peace, love and kindness. The other wolf is fear, greed and hatred. Which wolf will win, grandfather? Asks the young boy. Whichever one I feed, is the reply.
Mother had been feeding the wrong wolf for a lot of years. I knew she was happier now than she had ever been. I knew she was at peace and that she had a brand new beautiful body. And the truth was, I was also at peace for the first time in a long time. As she became more and more out of control, her behavior escalated. The more she escalated the more my world became disrupted and uneasy. And the more I had to try to keep my sanity and positive outlook.
I would get phone calls multiple times a week from hospitals, neighbors, case managers, life line and police. Sometimes I could get multiple calls in the middle of the night. Then the calls would stop for a week or so. I could always tell when she was on a binge. She was out of control and they didn’t know what to do with her and neither did I. She was of sound mind and could make her own choices. It was everyone else who had to deal with the fall out. When they called I had to tell them, no I can’t come and get her. I had to tell them I lived almost 2 hours away and have 2 boys and a full time job. What am I supposed to do with her? It would make me feel terrible and guilty and sad. But I knew I couldn’t race down there every time I got a call. We had already tried moving her closer and that had been a disaster. I wasn’t going to put my boys, family or myself through that again.
Now, all that had stopped. She was at peace and so was I. I was sad and I cried a lot. My heart ached for what could have been and the sweet stuff she missed out on. I cried for the sweet stuff I missed out on too. But I also knew for the first time in her life she was completely free of all the cravings that had controlled her for most of her life. But it was still weird and sad. My mother’s body had been lost and now it was found at a funeral home I had never heard of.
I went to sleep. I tossed and turned, dreamed and cried.
When I’m going through something tough, I like to be alone. I have to submerge myself in the junk – the ugly and the hard stuff. I have to process, think and try to make sense of things. I don’t stay there very long because I don’t want to get stuck in the junk. After I have dealt with some of the junk, I dig really deep for the sweet because it’s always there. Sometimes it takes getting out the shovel and digging deep and hard but it’s there. It’s like a diamond in the rough. I can’t get in the junk and do what I need to do with people around me. I have to be alone with no distractions. After a little time by myself, I’m in a much better place. Scott knows this. So he let me have the next day alone to take care of myself and process.
When I woke up the next morning, after Scott and Mason had gone to work and I had taken Madden to school, I started picking up my house before I called the funeral home. I did some laundry, dishes, swept, vacuumed, made the beds, and such. I’m weird like that. It’s a control thing. I know I truly have very little control in this old world so I control the things I can. It makes me feel better for my house to be clean. For me, it’s like having a solid foundation to pour the junk on so I can sort, trash and file away. I know. It’s crazy.
After I was done picking up, I sat down on the couch and looked at the name and the number of the funeral home Scott had left for me. I dialed the number. Someone answered. What a weird feeling. I explained that I believed my mother’s body was there. The guy asked what her name was and said he would check. I thought to myself…”Really? You’re kidding me! Don’t you have a list by the phone so you are prepared and can sound more empathetic?” Instead – I felt like I’d called Wal-Mart to find out if they had a certain item in stock. He got back on the phone, “Yes, she’s here.” I told him I needed some information about donating a body to science. I explained that is what she had wanted. He told me I would have to speak with someone else and they would have to call me back. We hung up.
I waited. The man I needed to speak with returned my call. It sounded like an unenthusiastic uncaring sales call to me and when I explained she wanted to donate her body to science and asked if he could give me any resources or phone numbers, all care when out the door. I also asked about state aid for cremation just in case that’s what I decided to do. Mother had nothing. No money. Nothing. He said there was no money to help with her body. He said if she would have been homeless and didn’t have any family – the county would pay a very small amount of money to dispose of the body but that it actually cost so much more so they lost money. He told me what my cost would be.
It kind of irritated me the way he said it. I asked how my mother’s body had ended up there any way. He didn’t really know but from our conversation I got the impression the Medical Examiner or someone had made the decision to send her to that particular funeral home because they had their own crematory and would be paid the very small amount of money from the county. I got it. I understood their thinking. She was well known in the town with the police and hospitals. I’m sure they thought after my many “no’s” over the last couple of years that no one would claim her body. I made it clear we weren’t doing anything at the funeral home besides cremation if that is what we decided to do – no services, none of that stuff. We would handle that on a much more personal and less formal level.
I spent my time trying to find a place that would accept her body for science like she had wanted. I was unable to find anything. No one would accept the body because she had an infectious disease. Someone managed to tell me about “The Body Farm.” I was mortified by the name and googled it. I was just as mortified after finding out exactly what it was. I know there is a need for it but I certainly wasn’t making that decision.
When Scott got home, I told him I needed to see the body. It isn’t real to me if I don’t. He called the funeral home to arrange it. The guy said he wouldn’t recommend a viewing. Her body was decomposing. That really irritated me. Who was he to tell me what was or wasn’t appropriate for me. I’m sure he wouldn’t recommend a lot of the things I had been through and seen in my life!
I wasn’t sure when she had actually died. The guy at the funeral home said Friday night or Saturday. Which meant she would have died sometime soon after I had last seen her. That was a long time – almost a week now. I started second guessing myself. I know this is super creepy but I asked Scott to see if the funeral home man would send me a picture. That might help. I could view her body by phone and not have to deal with a lot of junk.
We felt really creepy asking such a question. The man said – it really wasn’t as uncommon as you might think. He said he would send one. I was grateful. They hung up.
Scott had my phone. I couldn’t bear to hold it knowing the text notification would be a picture of my mother’s dead body. I knew someone had to look at it before I did. I wasn’t that strong. Madden was standing next to Scott. The text notification came through. I was anxious. They both looked at it and looked concerned. I asked – “Is it bad?” They both nodded yes. I grabbed at the phone and said let me see it. I looked at the picture of my poor mother’s body. She had blood all down the side of her face. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? You can’t even wipe her freaking face! What the hell?? You send a daughter a picture of her dead mother and you can’t even wipe the blood from her face. What is wrong with you? You need a new freaking profession! That’s what I was screaming on the inside. I held it together. Fake it till you make it. I had learned how to do that as a child. Don’t ever let anyone know what you’re really feeling otherwise you might really let your crazy out. Besides, I hate being reactive. It’s another control thing. As the child of an addict, you learn at an early age how powerless you are so you control the things you can. I collected my emotions. I was thankful the man had sent her picture even if they hadn’t wiped the blood. I’m tough. I’m a nurse and I’ve seen numerous dead bodies over my career. I just wished they had treated her body or me with a little more respect. In healthcare, when someone dies. We take care to clean up the body and make it more presentable for the family. But this was different. And I understood.
The guy at the funeral home had told Scott to let him know after he saw the picture if I still wanted to see the body. He repeated that he wouldn’t recommend it. I was irritated after seeing the picture. I told Scott – “You tell that man when I make up my mind we’ll let him know.”
The next morning we (some family members and I) got up and drove the hour and 45 minutes to her apartment to gather the very few personal items she had. A man from the leasing company met us over at the apartment and let us in.
I asked him a few questions. Like – were you the one who found her? He said yes. I asked where he found her. He said on the couch. I asked when and he said Wednesday. He said he was sorry. I appreciated his condolences.
Mother’s place was a mess but that had become the norm. There wasn’t a death smell. There was lots of dried blood. Lots of blood. But that had become the norm as well. She knew she would eventually bleed to death. She would binge drink on vodka. She would bleed heavily for days after. She had told me Friday when we last saw her that she was bleeding. It made my heart heavy but I knew there wasn’t anything I could do. She had been to the hospital many times for this and it was a vicious cycle. She had to quit drinking and she knew it. It wasn’t as easily said as done. She was completely powerless and controlled by this demonic substance. It had a death grip on her. I understood my mother made the choice to drink but I also understood she never chose to be an addict. She never chose to be controlled and powerless. Who would choose a lifestyle like this? No she was a complete slave to those substances. The only way I could have saved her was to lock her in a cage and control where she went and who came to see her. And I’m pretty sure I would have gone to prison.
We gathered papers, wallet, pictures and anything that was personal. Her neighbor and friend came over. She was crying and telling us how much mother meant to her and how much she will miss her. She told me the last time she saw her was on Tuesday afternoon. It was nice to see this lady had truly cared about mother and would miss her. She had been able to see the sweet side of mother. Mother would tell me how her friend would bring her big stuffed baked potatoes and how good they were. I appreciated this lady for showing love to mother.
We found two large bottles of vodka. One was empty the other was almost empty. I poured the remaining vodka down the drain. I knew it was pointless but somehow in my crazy mind it made sense.
We found her stacks and stacks of Library books. We gathered them up and loaded up in the vehicles to return them. Mother always felt the lady at the library was always so kind to her. I appreciated that too. I wanted to make sure the books got returned.
We left her clothes, her toiletries, food and everything behind. We only took her papers, pictures and personal items. Normally I would have cleaned the apartment and not left a mess. But I wasn’t happy with the people she rented from. They didn’t require a background check so people like mother who had been kicked out of numerous places could live there. She had roaches. Her bathtub still hadn’t been fixed from Friday when I had called them. She wouldn’t let me look at it on Friday. I know she was embarrassed and didn’t want Scott and the boys to see it. She just told me it was covered in mold and please call the landlord. So I did. I wished I would have gone in there even though she had asked me not to. I wish I would have cleaned that bathtub myself. But we had been short on time, we were headed to a funeral that day. Everything in her apartment including the furniture which came with the apartment needed to be taken to the dump and burned. No, I didn’t feel too bad leaving all that stuff behind. Scum lords is what I called those type of people. I understood she was difficult and nasty to them, she tore up things, cussed them out. They did rent her a place to live. I wasn’t responsible for mother. I needed to get out of that scary nasty place. I felt bad but I couldn’t deal with it. Maybe in some crazy way it was payback for them leaving her with an unusable molded shower and roaches. They were receiving government money and had standards that weren’t meeting. But people like mother were caught between a rock and a hard place and everyone knew it – most of all people like mother.
Scott had already called the funeral home that morning and left a message that we would be stopping by to view the body and pay for the cremation.
When we got there we were taken to his office. The man asked if I was ready and said only one of us could view the body. Seriously? Have you been in this business too long? You are going to send a daughter in to view her mother’s body by herself? “No sir” I said. We are all three going in. My mother’s sister (who took me in as her own), one of my sister cousins (she was my biological cousin but we were raised as sisters) and myself. He tried to argue with me. I went on to tell him – “as far as the body decomposing – that’s not true. I know she didn’t die until sometime between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon. Today is Friday.” He knew I wasn’t giving up. He led us to her body. We walked through a dark room full of caskets and when we got to the other side of the room he switched on the light. He took us through a door to a large room that looked like a shop or something. Then we walked over to a metal container. He explained it was the freezer and she was the only one in it. As he put on his rubber gloves, he said I need your word that none of you will sue us for emotional distress because of what you are about to see. Seriously? We all nodded our heads. We walked in – her niece, me and her sister and the funeral home man followed us. There she was. My mother. Lying on a shelf in a cold freezer. The blood was still on the side of her face. Seriously? What is wrong with this funeral home? What is wrong with man? Did it cost extra to get blood wiped off? I wasn’t wanting them to dress the body but show a little compassion and respect. I tried not to be upset. It was only a shell. She wasn’t in that old body anyway. She was at peace, she was with family and had a whole new body.
The man told me not to touch her. I kept staring. After a few seconds, I looked at him and said – “Sorry, but I’m touching her. ” I touched her hand. It was cold. That was my mother. My poor troubled hurt mother was now free. I touched her forehead. We turned to walk out and he instructed me where the bathroom was and suggested I wash my hands. I did. I was disgusted by his behavior. My stomach hurt from the interaction with this man.
I’ve thought about this a lot, the way she lived and the way most people treated her in life and in death. Most treated her in life the same way this man was treating her in death. But there were also some who were really good to her. They saw her as a person and they treated her with kindness just like they treated everyone else, like she was no less important. She was God’s creation just like everyone else. Sure she had free will and had made poor choices but every day of her life she lived with the consequences of those poor choices. We had to set limits with her – healthy boundaries and say no a lot. There were times I certainly said no a lot more than I said yes. It was exhausting and excruciating to watch and be a part of. She made me mad, cry and disappointed me. But the truth is she was hurting so much more. I tried to keep my sanity but still show love. I failed a lot. I know that’s true. You do as well as you can with what you have.
Addicts are hard and burn a lot of bridges but we should always remember – the ones who are the hardest to love need it the most. Anyone can love the loveable. It’s when we can love and show love to the unlovable that we are doing something special. I’m thankful for kind people like the meals on wheels man, the lady at the library, her case managers, a personal care assistant and people who were there for her when I wasn’t. There will be a special place in heaven for those kinds of people. They treated her with love even though she was sometimes mean and hateful and had nothing to give them. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
Some people haven’t learned that yet. While they may have seen mother as a poor woman who didn’t have much family and not worthy of being treated with care, love, respect and dignity – I saw the funeral home and that man as poor ignorant people who didn’t have much sense.
The way we treat the difficult people says a lot about our character. The way we treat people is a direct reflection of us not them – another life lesson my mother inadvertently taught me.
Finding the sweet in the crazy!