I picked up my mother’s ashes from the mortuary today.
Before that I had breakfast with a friend who told me he was diagnosed with skin cancer and had surgery scheduled on Friday. Before that I spoke with another friend still in her hospital room after blacking out, falling, and breaking her arm. The tests have all been negative, so no one knows why she lost consciousness or whether it will happen again. Last night there were calls from a mother whose daughter may lose her children in a court battle the next day and a girl we helped place in a rehab center who I could actually feel shaking through the phone saying she didn’t know if she could keep on with her treatment, that she was ready to run. She always runs…
I haven’t written here in awhile, but I hadn’t realized how long because sometimes life comes in clumps. Too much too fast to process. Only time enough to breathe and hope to God I helped a little in some way not immediately apparent.
I picked up my mother’s ashes and brought them home in the paper bag the woman at the mortuary gave me. Plain white bag with handles like you’d get at a nice department store. The woman was very sweet. Very calm, very deliberate: called me sir in almost every sentence. I watched her watching me, and I could only imagine the reactions she’s seen from people she’s watched in that room. I gave her my check and walked out with my bag and came home and put the bag next to the hallway door and didn’t touch it all day.
I remember a forgettable movie I saw a long time ago. A man and his wife are involved in a car accident in which the wife is killed, and after the emergency vehicles and lights and frantic work, the sirens and trip to the hospital, the police and questions and statements, he comes through his front door with her blood on his shirt. That’s the part I remember. Coming home alone with blood on his shirt. Because at the end of everything anyone else can do, you just come home with a bloody shirt. Or a white bag.
It seems like there should be more to it. That at least you would get a clean shirt.
Coming up the stairs, my wife gives me a long look and asks me how I’m doing. But after all our years, I know that like a good lawyer, she knows the answer before she asks. Later she makes a good dinner, uses a lot of pots and pans–maybe all of them–while our eight year old buzzes around alternately asking me to pick a card and reading green eggs and ham out loud until I reel him in on the floor, my little human ballast…his fifty pounds or so somehow perfectly balancing all of the last twenty four hours. Down there on the floor he whispers he loves me daddy, and I tell him that’s only fair because I loved him first. I can still make an eight year old laugh. Even today.
What do you do when you come home with a white bag or a bloody shirt? With surgery in four days or court tomorrow or a doctor’s report any minute? Details endlessly vary, but I think you just use every pot and pan you own, eat a good dinner, reel in anyone close and begin the days of balancing whatever’s gone with all that’s left.
I turn out all the lights downstairs and make sure the front door is locked. At the foot of the stairs next to the hallway door I stop, then kneel and take the urn out of the white bag and place it on the shelf next to pictures of our kids and a little African sculpture we bought on an anniversary vacation. I close the glass door until it clicks. The white bag is empty now. There is still the memorial mass on Friday and then the cemetery, so I will use it once more. But I won’t bring it home again.