Authors: Plum Johnson
This was the subtle clue I’d missed.
We called Robin in Virginia. Victor picked me up at my house. Chris was already on his way. As we raced back along
the same highway I’d travelled only an hour earlier, Victor’s cell phone rang.
It was Pelmo. “Your Mum …” she said, “she is died.”
The moment we thought would never come had come and gone in a blink. I’d worried that Mum’s dying would be lengthy and tortured, with a tenacious struggle for breath and the desperate gurgle of drowning, but nothing like that happened. She had simply closed her eyes and was gone.
How did it happen that she—who had bound her children so tightly to her—should choose to die without a single one of us there? How could I have been so hard-hearted as to let her? Why couldn’t I have spent the night?
“She complain she is hot,” Pelmo told me later. “She told me, hold my hand … not leave her … so I call doctor … then I told Mum:
. I tell her, ‘You pray God whole life, so now is time
.’” Pelmo looked down at the floor and shrugged. “She just close eyes and go sleep.”
Victor, Chris, and I stood around her four-poster bed and looked at her peaceful face, turned slightly in her pillow, the pink flowered sheet pulled up to her neck. She looked alive: her fleshy cheeks still rosy, her eyes closed, her demeanour serene. The shape of her under the sheets was the same mass as always, still taking up the same space as when we used to dive in beside her as children, cuddling her cushiony warmth, hearing her breathe, smelling the sweet mix of leather and spice on her breath—tobacco and alcohol—feeling safe.
Dr. Breen was there, signing the death certificate.
We left Mum in bed for the next two days, long enough for grandchildren to come and gather round. Tears spilled silently down cheeks. Arms went around new shoulders in unexpected configurations. People tiptoed and whispered.
Slight bruising began to appear on Mum’s turned cheek, where internal blood was pooling, but mostly she remained pink and remarkably unaltered. I found myself unable to cry. I didn’t feel sad. I felt numb.
The house took on an echoing quietness, like a vast sacred space. This house with its broad verandah, its open, expansive, inclusive personality, its tall windows, lake vistas, limitless horizon, fresh breezes, ancient trees, sudden sailboats, surprising wildlife: the fox, birds, ducks, swans, and—Mum’s favourite—the geese. Mum loved this house so much she swore she’d never leave. “You’ll have to shovel me out of here,” she once said.
On Monday morning, Victor and Chris and I drove to the funeral home to make arrangements. We’d been there so many times before that it seemed we could do it with our eyes closed. Mum had asked to be cremated. We chose exactly the same things we’d chosen for Sandy and Dad: the cheapest casket, no open coffin, no embalming, no visitation, and no thank-you cards—everything honest and simple.
We found Mum’s many address books and turned the house into a call centre. It seemed everyone was in a different room on a separate cell phone, overlapping voices speaking in hushed tones. The first call I made was to Mum’s friend Geoffrey, in Wales, with whom she’d talked for hours only the day before. I knew he would be devastated—but he couldn’t remember ever having spoken to Mum.
Robin and his family were preparing their long drive north. There was a frantic effort to reach my son, Carter, working in the interior of Turkmenistan, but he couldn’t get back in time. He’d been home just a month earlier, for Christmas.
Victor took the frayed Union Jack from its winter storage
in the cedar chest and carried it outside to the flagpole. He raised it and then lowered it to half-mast, as a signal to neighbours. It was a worn, moth-eaten bunt made of worsted wool and it hung listlessly. Beyond the flagpole, the lake was heaving up and down in slow motion, slate grey in the growing winter dusk.
“Why are we using the Union Jack?”
“It’s all we could find.”
“What happened to the Canadian flag?”
“It’s in shreds.”
“I don’t think Mum would like using a British flag.”
“She married Dad, didn’t she?”
On Tuesday afternoon the undertakers arrived. We watched as they zipped Mum into a red velvet bag and carried her on a stretcher from her bedroom, across the upstairs hall, and down the wide staircase, carefully squeezing past the stair-lift.
As they started to take her out the front door, Chris shouted, “Wait—stop! Could you please turn her around? She said she never wanted to leave this house unless she went feet first.”
It was the same month almost to the day when only three years earlier Dad had gone out the front door the same way. Unlike Dad’s January, which had been piled with snow, Mum’s January had no snow at all, just ice.
We watched as the hearse drove slowly away, but just as we turned to go back inside, we heard a growing commotion over the lake. In the distance, sounding like a fury of flapping sails, hundreds of Canada geese thundered across the sky towards us, filling the air with their weeping cries. The sound grew louder and louder as they swooped in. The din was deafening.
It was as if all Mum’s beloved geese were homing in for a final farewell … a fly-past … a winged mourning. They skidded and scattered onto the surface of the water in front of the house like torn brown leaves, doing what I couldn’t do: crying.
HEEN-HAWK, HEEN-HAWK, HEEN-HAWK.
A year earlier I’d asked Mum what she thought about reincarnation. She was thoughtful for a moment and then she told me this story: “My father was devoted to the Bible and believed in everlasting life. He took that line from John 3:16—‘Whosoever believeth in Him shall have everlasting life’—and had it engraved on little gold pennies … then he gave one to every conductor he ever met on a train! In those days, conductors had gold watch fobs hanging around their middles … and, as you know, Daddy owned the Virginia Central Railway, so he took a lot of trains. I remember as a child seeing all those little gold pennies hanging from the conductors’ chains, saying
EVERLASTING LIFE … EVERLASTING LIFE
… so it stuck in my head. Who knows what everlasting life is? Nobody knows … but it says it in the Bible, so I have no reason to doubt it. Maybe it means you get to come back as something else. I’d like to come back as a tree … because a tree gets to see everything that’s going on … a tree experiences all the seasons … and a tree never needs anything! I’m just curious—that’s what I am.”
And so we already know where we’ll sprinkle Mum’s ashes—under the tree we planted in memory of Sandy, at the corner of the garden just outside the fence. Her memorial plaque will be placed there, too, right next to Sandy’s and Dad’s.
Late that night I drive back to my narrow, red-brick house in Toronto to compose the leaflet for Mum’s funeral. Boots clutter the front hall and dirty dishes are piled in the sink. Even though my children have officially moved out, you’d never know it; evidence of them is everywhere.
Mum always said my house was too small—she claimed she could stand in the middle and touch both sides—but now I’m noticing the threadbare Persian carpets, the easels with halffinished paintings, the jammed bookcases with paper spilling out. I’ve lived here for thirty years as a single mother, trying to be an anchor for my children. My children’s friends remark that they sense freedom as soon as they walk in; there seems to be no order to anything—creative chaos, they call it. Tonight, for the first time, I realize it looks uncannily like Mum’s mess— without the tidying influence of my father.
The next day, up in my second-floor office, I am adrenalinfuelled, relentlessly tapping the keyboard of my computer, trying to write a brief biography of Mum. It needs to be sent to the church to be printed in time for the leaflet. I frantically double-check facts with Robin, who’s writing the obituary for the newspapers; Victor is at his house, sifting through photographs, and Chris is conferring with the minister on the order of service. We’d found Mum’s handwritten note specifically saying “No eulogies!” but when we read it, we looked at each other and mimicked in unison her own favourite expression: “What? That’s ridiculous!” Then we burst out laughing. Children and grandchildren can’t wait to step up to the lectern and tell stories about her.
How can I capture my mother’s essence in five hundred words or less? I found it so easy to write Dad’s—love poured out of my heart—but with Mum I find anger getting in the way
and I have to delete and delete. I am conscious of the fact that so many of her younger friends will be at the service, friends who never bore the brunt of her tyranny. I want to hide what I’m feeling.
I stare at my opening sentence: “Mum was an amazing mother to have, as you all might imagine …” Will that do? Can I live with the word
The shiny black hearse has pulled up in front of Point O’ View, puffing exhaust into the cold air as it idles outside the front door, the door we use only on special occasions. Mum’s casket is visible through the car’s open tailgate and two men in black coats from the funeral home are standing beside it.
I can hear Mum’s words: “Never wear black to a funeral— it’s too depressing. Wear red! Make it a celebration of life!”
We are milling about, beginning to gather for the slow march to St. Jude’s church three blocks away. We look colourful enough. Naturally, I have worn red. Pelmo is dressed in her long Tibetan ceremonial coat, and Tashi wears his tall Tibetan fur hat. Twenty-eight of us—children, cousins, grandchildren, and a great-grandchild—dressed in our snow boots and heavy winter parkas have tied brightly coloured wool scarves around our necks. Some of us are wearing Mum’s white plastic earrings clipped to our lapels. Even my ex-husband takes one. He has come to offer support, and as he hugs me, I feel grateful that
our friendship never died; our good divorce has survived far longer than our marriage.
The sky is sunny and cloudless, but the lake has been roaring all morning—foamy green waves rushing onto the beach. The wind from the east has been blowing so hard that the flag in the garden is flying flat-out, stretched half-mast to its pole. Victor suddenly grabs my arm.
He whispers, “We forgot Mum’s pins! Get the granddaughters!”
As he runs back in I call after him, “Don’t forget the grandsons!”
I hastily call Mum’s five granddaughters back inside to the playroom and explain that before she died, Anya had earmarked one of her heirloom brooches for each of them. Victor reads the labels and hands them out so they can wear them to church. Then we call in Mum’s three grandsons and give them each one of Bapa’s war medals. We’ll save Carter’s until he can get home from Turkmenistan.
As the hearse begins to move slowly down King Street, we fall in line behind it, taking the identical path we took every Sunday in childhood when Mum and Dad led the way. Conversations are whispered and muted. Some of us hold hands. We beckon to the neighbours we see en route, inviting them to join our cortège, and the hollow crunching of our boots on the icy gravel creates a slow-moving, solemn drum roll. We have already formed this almost-identical funeral procession twice before—once for Sandy, in 1991, and again, only three years ago, for Dad.
Outside St. Jude’s, the grandchildren line up—they are the pallbearers this time. I’m amazed to see so many people in the church: it’s packed with people of all ages. I count a
dozen women in their nineties—most struggling with walkers or canes—friends who first came to Mum’s Christmas party in the 1950s when they were young mothers in their thirties.
This is the church where Dad was People’s Warden and Mum taught Sunday school, where we took up a whole pew near the back, always the same one, as though we had reserved seats. It’s where they taught us to sing lustily and to put ten percent of our allowance in the collection plate, even if we had to pluck pennies out in change.
Despite our long tradition here, the service we’ve designed for Mum is anything but traditional. We have persuaded the minister into a service he wouldn’t normally have approved, but since Chris was once his tutor at divinity school, he’s gracefully stepped aside. He’s also found some dogwood branches, which he’s placed on the organ in honour of Mum’s Virginia roots.