A birthday. A funeral. And three pumpkins.
Today is October 20th. It is my mom’s 68th birthday. We mostly celebrated yesterday after church. Nothing huge…we kept things light and cheery with cupcakes, ice cream, and hiding each other’s shoes in the freezer. The Happy Birthday song somehow morphed into “I’ll Fly Away,” and I was struck again by the loveliness of my children’s voices blending in harmony. Mom loved it. Then we raided Dad’s tomato plants for what very well may be the last green tomatoes of the year. I guess I’ll be frying in the next few days.
Today was a Monday, but I only taught a half-day today because I had a funeral to go to. My friend Susan passed away a few days ago after battling cancer.
Susan attended the church I grew up in. Once I moved back to Birmingham and started a family of my own, we ended up at the same church again. She’s one of those people I remember at various events over my whole life, and in every memory, she is smiling and organizing and bringing people together.
My favorite memory of Susan happened one year ago this week. It was the day before Halloween, and even though my kids had been begging me to buy pumpkins for weeks, I had put it off. When we finally went to the store, they were sold out. We tried four different stores…no pumpkins. My kids were so sad. They were saying, “It’s OK, Mom. We know you’ve been busy,” but they were devastated. Designing and carving pumpkins then toasting the seeds is a tradition in our house. We tell the same jokes each year. We laugh every year as Henry fights his gag reflex every time he smells pumpkin. Then we go outside to “oooh” and “aaah” at the pretty designs flickering in the darkness.
But last year, it looked like we would have no pumpkins. I was sad, and I posted on facebook about how guilty I felt that my busy-ness at work meant no jack-o-lanterns for my kids. Within a few minutes, I received a private message from Susan. It said:
“Kelly, we are still in Houston at MD Anderson getting tests run and seeing doctors to plan the best attack strategy to beat this cancer. Looks like we will be here several more days. I have four pumpkins on my front porch just sitting there, and I want your kids to have them. Get Clint to drive over in the morning. I’ll let my neighbors know he’s coming so they don’t call the police. Love you!”
That’s Susan. Sick, scared, and in the midst of the biggest fight of her life, she helped others.
She was a force for good. I can’t believe she’s gone.
I left her funeral with eyes so red I looked like a cheesy movie vampire and a fierce headache. I should have chugged a quart of water and gone to a yoga class. Instead, I ordered 800 calories of frozen frappachino deliciousness with a side of Advil and headed to my mom’s.
Mom and I have a dirty little secret — we love to review funerals.
OK, maybe “love” is too strong a word. And perhaps it’s more of a “retelling” than a “review” per se. But for some odd reason, for as long as I can remember, after almost every funeral either one of us has ever attended, Mom and I cozy up for a long conversation where we discuss the best parts — the parts where the speaker really captured the person’s heart, the music that really captured the moment, and the prayers that truly comforted.
Of course, we have been known to find some things we didn’t like as well. Mom has said on more than one occasion, “Don’t you let anyone say something like that at my funeral, Kelly! Write that down so you don’t forget.”
When she tells me to write it down, she isn’t kidding, and as a result of years of such post-funeral chats, I have a folder of notes and instructions. Mom has basically planned her own funeral.
This is a blessing. When a family member goes on hospice, one of the things the nurses do is encourage you to find out your loved one’s wishes. Well, Mom has been telling me hers for three decades.
Still, there are a few final details we need to discuss. And interestingly, now that Mom’s death is no longer an abstract thing that will happen some time in the distant future, now that it seems closer and more real, it has been harder to have those “when it is time” kinds of conversations.
So on this day, we curled up in her bed and talked about our friend Susan — her life, her final days, and her funeral. The church had been packed, and people from the various walks of her life had all come together to sing and pray and cry and laugh. Mom said, “That’s how it should be. That’s what I want.”
On that afternoon, Susan gave us one final gift — the opportunity and encouragement to have a special conversation. I told Mom about Susan’s final days. My friends who were with her said that she would wake at times and speak of a beautiful sky, of music just for her, and of seeing her mother who was beckoning her to come.
My mom’s eyes widened at that. A few years ago, when she was with her own mother in the final hours before she died, my mom held Grandmom’s hand and told her that it was okay for her to go. Mom encouraged Grandmom to listen to the music and to look for Grandad who was there waiting and calling for her. She used words very similar to what Susan had described.
I asked Mom, “How did you know what to say to Grandmom that night? How did you know how to describe it?”
Mom shrugged lightly and said, “I don’t really know. I just opened my mouth, not knowing what to say, and those words came out.”
We looked at each other and smiled. “The Holy Spirit is good like that,” she told me. “He’ll take care of us.”
I left Mom’s before dinner because I needed to take my oldest child shoe shopping. She is going to her first high school semi-formal Friday night. Last weekend, in the most efficient shopping trip ever, she found an adorable cocktail dress in 14 minutes flat. It was Macy’s One Day Sale, and she tends to shop on the clearance rack anyway so the dress she picked cost $5.99. No lie. She has the most amazing shopping luck of anyone I’ve ever met. “If my dress cost less than $10, we can splurge a little on shoes, right?” she asked with a grin. That’s my girl.
She and I had talked about Susan off and on throughout the evening. As we walked into the grocery store before heading home, Kadie tugged my arm and pointed to the pumpkin display.
“We should buy our pumpkins tonight, Mom,” she said. “Mrs. Susan would approve.”