My late mother Anne and I began preparing for her death a couple of years before the actual event, which was five years ago today. This isn’t as ghoulish as it might sound: diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia at Thanksgiving 1999, Mother had been finding it increasingly difficult to carry on. A miracle drug named Gleevec did much to make the disease bearable, but it was not without serious side effects.
Periodically Mother would suffer a health crisis and wind up in the hospital for a few days. We jokingly referred to it as “Mother’s resort.” One of her sisters warned her, however, that “one day you go in and you don’t come out.” But between crises Mother continued to work at her job as an administrative assistant at the Environmental Protection Agency. She was a member of a special senior citizen program with EPA: in fact, when her contract ended after 10 years, Mother was 85 years old.
Anne loved her job: endlessly interested in people in all their fascinating variations of culture, ethnicity, and religion, she made friends with everyone, from the mail-room person to the program manager.
Three years before she died I wrote her obituary and sent it to her to approve. She made a few changes but left most of it as it was. Two years before her death, Anne began to think about the music she wanted people to hear at her memorial service. She chose the music and gathered the CDs on which it resided. Then we advertised on Craig’s List for someone to come and record the different selections on a CD.
A young Asian man showed up at her house with his laptop and the right software to do the job. When he learned the purpose of the recording, he refused to accept payment for his work. People can be so kind.
Here’s a list of the music she chose:
1. Morning, Peer Gynt Suite, Suite No. 1, Grieg
2. Polovstian Dances (No. 5), Prince Igor, Borodin
3. Träumerei (No. 7), Scenes from Childhood, Schumann
4. Chorus of The Hebrew Slaves, Nabucco, Verdi
5. Intermezzo, Cavalleria Rusticana, Mascagni
6. Meditation, Thaïs, Massenet
7. Humming Chorus, Madam Butterfly, Puccini
8. Prelude to Act III of La Traviata, Verdi
9. Evening Star, Tännhauser, Wagner
After the recording was completed Mother got so carried away she wanted to hold her memorial service while she was still alive, so she could enjoy the music and chat with the people who attended. Gently, I pointed out that although most of her acquaintances in the Washington, DC, area would be fine with that idea, her relatives from her native Texas would be deeply shocked or even outraged.
However, there were two wishes she definitely wanted carried out: she wanted a big, rollicking party, with as many friends and relatives as possible attending, and she wanted a completely secular service.
All her life Mother loved to discuss religion. She investigated several: Unitarian-Universalist, Baha’i, even participating in my rituals when I started a Dianic Wiccan circle. But she always returned to atheism, reveling in the works of Will Durant, Isaac Asimov, and Wynwood Reade. When I was about ten, mother told me of a passage she’d read in Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. He’d recounted a story about an Arab man burying his two-year-old daughter alive in the desert because he could no longer afford to feed her, and how he wept when she reached up to brush the sand out of his beard with her little hand. That passage haunts me to this day.
Anne belonged to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, subscribed to its newsletter, and attended that organization’s conferences when they were held in our area. She also belonged to The Hemlock Society and attended its annual summer picnic.
We held her memorial service almost two weeks after her death. Some of the Texas relatives refused to fly so we had to allow time for them to drive to Virginia.
“How can you plan a memorial service for someone who didn’t believe in anything?” my daughter asked, referring to my mother’s lack of religion.
“But she did believe in something,” I replied. As nearly as it could be put into words, Anne believed in truth, justice, and the American way, rather like Superman. She loved her country but hated prejudice and its root causes. No adherent of any religion could have been more compassionate than Mother—her house was open to all. One of her hobbies was writing letters to shut-ins and sending checks to people she thought needed cheering up.
We created the order of the memorial service ourselves. Although I can use word processing software sufficiently well for my own purposes, I’m completely at sea when it comes to desktop publishing. I therefore asked a fellow freelancer to create the .pdf file for me. He did a beautiful job and refused to accept payment for it. People can be so very kind at such a time.
We held her memorial service at the Fort Myer Officers’ Club in Arlington. Mother had been a member of it for years and toward the end of her life did all of her entertaining there. My nephew, who for the first ten years of his childhood lived with his mother and grandmother in Anne’s house in Arlington,Virginia, arranged the catering and the rental of the room.
Many of Mother’s colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Crystal City office attended, as well as her three surviving sisters and one of her two surviving brothers (Anne was the second of ten children). My daughter and her family flew in from Austin. In addition to Anne’s immediate descendants, numerous friends and several of her nieces attended.
After people helped themselves to the delicious food and drink, the buzz of conversation quieted as the DVD with music and photos that accompanied it played on a screen. As the
photographs of Anne appeared there were “oh’s” and “ah’s,” but even those died away as the speakers rose one by one to stand at the podium.
My nephew read “On Grandmothers,” an excerpt from Alexander McCall Smith’s The Miracle at Speedy Motors.
During the eulogy, which he and I had written together, my nephew told how Mother read Shakespeare to him after she tucked him into bed at night when he was a little boy. He also spoke of her adventurous life—besides her travels in the Far East and Europe, she'd counted dolphins from a boat in Monterey, California, met with members of the Nez Pearce tribe in Idaho to study the wolves in a preserve there, and attended cooking school in Presque Isle, Maine.
“The earth belongs to the living,” Mother would say, and asked us to make sure she was cremated rather than buried. Insisting she wanted to come back as a batch of tomatoes, she even asked us to scatter her ashes on the tomato bed. We could not bring ourselves to do that, but we did bury some of her ashes at the base of the pink lilac we planted in her honor in our backyard. A couple of years later we held a brief ritual in the cemetery of the small Texas town where she was born, and buried some of her ashes in the family plot there.
But in some sense Mother is with us still. She’s present in the dill I plant every other year, not because I pickle anything, but because she did. All summer long I pinch off a bit and inhale it when I pass the herb garden because the scent always reminds me of her.
She’s present in my husband when he patiently coaches our young Chinese friend in the use of everyday English. One of Mother’s chief joys was to coach her foreign-born friends in the use of our language.
She’s here when I visit the farmers’ market—something we used to do together—and when I entertain her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to festive meals on holidays.
She’s present in my daughter, who lives life to the fullest and is quick to help those in need.
She lives on in my elder son, who is unfailingly devoted to his family, both his original one and the one he’s about to begin.
She’s present when I visit my younger son’s house on a Saturday to find him listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee broadcast. Mother, an opera lover to the end, always listened to the Saturday broadcast too.
Following the memorial service I wrote to Annie Laurie Gaylor, president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. After describing the memorial service that had included no mention of deity, I ended, “Mother was an atheist from the age of 21 or so. We were very proud of her.”