Home Bound (Week II)

Scott takes a day off work, finds friends for the kids to stay with and arrives at my mother’s house late on a Thursday evening. We have an appointment Friday at the cemetery. My parents planned their deaths early in my life; picking out a cemetery plot, setting aside money for caskets. “We don’t want you to make these decisions by yourself,” my mother told me. Now, almost forty years later, I finally understand she worried about burdening me. She understood that, as an only child, my greatest burden would come as an adult, caring for the remaining parent. Before we meet with the pre-need counselor, my husband and I walk over to my parents’ burial plot. Their green hillside is pocked with brass memorial tablets, placed so close together it’s almost impossible to not step on the names of the dead. When my parents “invested” in their plot, this section was marketed as “tandem gravesites”; the first spouse to die is buried on the bottom. My father’s already here. Francis Walberg October 26, 1910 - December 13, 1983 Beloved Father and Husband I’ve not decided what I want the third line on my mother’s marker to say. An older Mexican man dressed in a green and gray uniform is trimming the grass with a weed eater. When he sees me, he turns off the weed eater. “Can I help you, lady?” he asks. I shake my head, no, and point. “This is my dad.” He walks to me, “Mr. Walberg and me came here together,” he says. I give him a quizzical look and he explains he started working at the cemetery the same year my father died. “Please enjoy the peace of our garden.” What a stupid, corny line, I want to say, but suddenly I feel I need to explain that peace is not why I’m here. “I came to make arrangements for my mother’s funeral.” “Ahh. Sorry,” he says. “You are an orphan.” “Yes.” “ Your father is saying, ‘oh sh*t, I get 20 years peace and now you’re bringing her here.’” I look past the old man, past his wrinkled, dried prune of an ear to the acres of brass plaque impaled grass, afraid that if I look him in the eye he’ll be laughing and I won’t be able to join him. When I finally turn back he’s not smiling; instead, his eyes are watering in that rheumy, unfocused way old people look at the world when the sun’s too bright. I find Scott and we meet the counselor to select a casket. The Casket Room is filled with dozens of selections. Above each is a sheet that gives a detailed description: “high-grade mahogany with an attractive grain pattern and natural luster, features beige crepe with a choice of panels that allow you to honor your loved one’s personal preferences.” They are lined up in order of price, most expensive first, cheaper on the far wall, the pine box model tucked in a distant corner. In the middle of the room sits the “cadillac of all caskets”, heavy, matte bronze lined in richly pleated silk with gaskets that allow it to be hermetically sealed to keep out the earth’s elements. Guaranteed for a lifetime, I expect it to say, but the owner doesn’t need that guarantee. The mortuary must’ve added the casket room in the past 18 years. When my father died, my mother and I selected his casket from a catalogue. Back then, she was more concerned with the casket I’d be picking out for her. “I want one that protects my body,” she said. “Especially from the worms.” Scott and I select a navy blue, rayon-lined casket. “She’ll want to have everything patriotic, I tell the pre-needs counselor. All red, white and blue.” My husband agrees and we pick red roses arranged with green-gray ferns to drape the foot of the casket and an additional spray of red and white carnations to decorate the dais of the funeral chapel “in case you don’t get enough arrangements from friends and family” the pre need counselor states. “Make sure you bring the flowers home,” my mother told me early on. “No need letting them go to waste at the cemetery or worse, having them stolen.” That night, while my mother’s watching TV in the den, Scott and I set up a hospital bed in her room. “I want to die in my own bed,” she’s told me so I’ve promised she doesn’t have to use the hospital bed. “Its there, ‘just in case’”. The mattress is made of thick black vinyl, the kind that makes you sweaty and stick to the sheets in the middle of the night and the bottom sheet refuses to stay tucked around the edging. As we drag the heavy bed into the bedroom, the metal legs leave a long scratch on the wood floor. I cover the scratch with a small throw rug and hope she doesn’t notice. Later that night, after my mother’s in bed, Scott and I try to make love in the twin bed in my old room. It’s been almost a month since I’ve been with him but I’m too worried my mother will hear us. I finally push Scott away, the discomfort of two adults in a child sized bed overwhelming the desire for the peace I usually find in his familiar body. “This is the room where I had the most nightmares,” I say when I’ve settled in the matching bed across the room. Scott knows first hand about my night terrors; they’ve followed me into adulthood, chasing me from sleep, awakening my family as I run from window to window, locking out imaginary intruders. In this bedroom my hands would shrink and aliens would come through the walls. I’d awaken with a loud pounding in my ears and, after realizing it was my heart, I’d call, ‘mommy, come get me, come get me,’ and keep calling until I heard her footsteps in the hallway. She’d carry me back to her bed where I’d lie in the warm dampness of her bed sheets, listening to my father snore across the room. She and I spent every night together in her narrow, single bed until the summer before I started junior high school and willed myself to stay in my own room. It’s her fault, I tell my husband. I could never sleep unless someone else was in bed with me. Scott leaves at the end of the weekend. “I should stay,” he says. “You need more help.” But I tell him this is how it should be. It’s my duty to handle this alone.


Anonymous Selwyn said...


Thank you for sharing.

5/02/2006 06:43:00 AM  
Blogger Maralise said...

Thank you for your story. For me, it's been such an awakening to realize that the burden of care now lies on me for my parents and grandparents. I don't resent it. I don't want to wish it away. It's just such a new feeling that I think it takes a while to get used to. Your post was very well written, moving, and subtle. Well done.

5/02/2006 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger annegb said...

I sat with a young friend who died of cancer until she died. She'd had cancer five years. She died at the age of 23, weighing 60 lbs.

I remember being consumed by what was going on with her, not devastated at the time, but consumed with caring for her, wanting to help any way I could.

Her mother came the last six weeks and we all took shifts, Donna never left her child.

Oh, crap, I'm depressing myself.

What you said about the hospital bed is what made me think about Stacy. I determined as I watched her thrash in the hospital bed the last few weeks that I wanted to die in my own bed, not that plasticky thing you describe.

Being with Stacy until she died was one of the most horrific experiences I've ever had. I looked on it as a privilege to help this person I loved, but toward the end I was completely wiped physically and emotionally.

And ironically, I wasn't with her when she died. We'd gone to church and she slipped away with her mother by her side.

Wendy, this is a true story, no? I was a little confused whose voice you were using, your own, or your mother's taking care of her dying mother.

You've captured that to the extent that I'm back there, with them. It feels surreal, like all that awfulness happened to somebody else.

5/03/2006 01:03:00 AM  

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