“Just don’t say, ‘She fell into the arms of Jesus.'”
We were talking about death and funerals, fun topics for a 65-year-old woman and her 87-year-old mother.
When Mother described the clichés and embellished phrases of some obituaries, we both howled in recognition, eager to reduce the serious, universal, subject of death with just enough defiant humor.
Mother was expressing the most important idea she wants her funeral to convey. She wants her faith in Jesus to shine through — not in fancy language — but by how she lived her life.
It’s Holy Wednesday for the Christian church, and my mother, Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker, is with me in Virginia for her second visit since we moved here in 2010.
She brought along two new “friends” — her hearing aids and her cane.
I asked her what it’s like to be 87 years old.
Sometimes, she said, I feel like I am 39 again. Energetic. Interested in my surroundings. Looking forward to a new day and new challenges.
But when I go to bed at night, I am very aware of my age.
- I take out my “partials” that helped me chew and taste my food
- I take out my hearing aids, that (sometimes) help me hear and contribute to conversations
- I take off my glasses that still let me read (!) and see people’s faces
- I take off my elastic hose that helps reduce the swelling I get in my legs
We laughed at the image of the deconstruction of the elderly self, one item at a time, but then Mother got serious and said, “When you are really tired, you just want to flop into bed like you used to, and suddenly, you are exhausted in a deep, new way.”
During the visit, Mother enjoyed reading, writing, and reciting — three activities she started in fifth grade and has continued all her life.
We drafted an obituary — hers — and listed all the groups and interests Mother has been part of, getting lost in our attempts to remember dates of other deaths, which friends are gone now and which ones remain.
Mother looked up and smiled broadly, asking, “Where are we? Am I dead yet?”
Another eruption of laughter.
Our talk felt very healthy.
I only teared up once.
It happened when we talked about her funeral when Mother said, “I’d like Doris to sing that song. If she can.”
Her eyes grew misty.
“She can,” I said emphatically.
Then a thought struck me: “You will help her get through it,” I said, my breath suddenly constricted, as I let myself imagine life without Mother in it for just a moment.
Then I looked away.
As hard as it is, it also feels good to have this kind of “necessary conversation.”
Mother declares herself to be ready. She’s made peace with God and her fellow man, as the Mennonite Church examination required of her in her youth.
She wants all of us to be ready too. That’s why she can laugh when she talks about death. She knows who will have the last laugh in the end. She loves the Indian saying, from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”
Celebrating Easter with Mother will have a special meaning this year.
Death has been swallowed up by victory.
I now have Mother’s wishes for her obituary and her funeral written down in my own journal.
I’m not ready to let her go! But I also know that my own time is coming, and when it does, I too want to keep laughing. I will want to talk with my children about death, removing a little of the sting, creating memories which will come back to comfort them. If I go suddenly, they will have these words.
When it’s time to say good-bye to Mother, I will be like her, the person who described herself as “drunk with grief” when her mother died.
Mother says funerals in her youth contained more wailing and sobbing. Today they are more subdued, the focus being on celebration of life. “Celebration is good, but not suppression of feeling.”
Nevertheless, Mother doesn’t want her funeral sermon to be a eulogy. The focus should be on the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.
“My legacy is my family. They will sing and play for me.”
And so we will.
Have you talked with your parent(s) or children about your wishes surrounding end of life? What suggestions do you have to help make the conversations better, easier?