On the chilly Easter Sunday of 2013, my teenage daughter, Kristil, and I arrived at the Joyce-Ryan Funeral Home in Madison, Wisconsin. I had my supplies ready, prepared for the task at hand. There would be no Easter brunch or church attendance; today I would prepare my mother for her final debut.
Kristil and I walked from the empty parking lot into the silent reception area of the funeral home, where faint music played. As I stood waiting for someone, a sweater-vested young man approached.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
I glanced at my daughter. “Do you want to come with me?”
“No, I’ll wait here,” she said. “I brought my homework.”
He led me down the carpeted stairs, then paused briefly at a large mahogany door. “She’s just through here.” He looked to me as if gauging my readiness to enter.
I nodded, and he opened the door.
The room — a perfect square with burgundy carpet surrounded by dark woodwork — seemed large due to its emptiness. In the middle of the room, on a rolling table, lay my mother — her hands gently laid one on top of the other, her head propped up slightly on a small wood piece. She was wearing her white blouse with the flowered collar she’d picked out.
I walked over to her, touched her gently with my hand, and kissed her on the forehead, which felt cool and stiff.
“How much time do I have?” I asked the young man.
“As much time as you need. I’m here all day,” he replied, leaving my mother and me to ourselves.
“Okay, Mom,” I said, “Let me get my supplies out. We’ll do your makeup first.”
At age 64 and deceased, Mom still had beautiful, smooth, almost wrinkle-free skin, which was surprising for a woman who sunbathed using nothing but suntan oil, smoked cigarettes for 30 of her adult years, and had just fought cancer for 18 months.
My relationship with my mother had been a complex and often difficult one. As a result of a childhood that was tumultuous and violent, I never felt close to my mom growing up. As an adult, I harbored hurt and resentment for years.
For all that I felt my mother failed me, however, she made up for with my daughter. Kristil was born six weeks after the death of my sister, Kristin, my mom’s youngest child, who died suddenly at the age of 17. Though nothing could take away the pain of losing Kristin, the presence of new life had a healing effect on us all, including my mom. Kristil and Mom bonded instantly, and over time, through the eyes of Kristil, I began to see my mom differently.
One morning, I drove to my mom’s to pick up Kristil, who’d spent the night while I was out with friends. I found Kristil watching Sponge Bob on TV, propped up in the middle of Mom’s oversized plush bed with a large breakfast tray atop her little legs. Spread before her was a feast: toast (with way too much butter), scrambled eggs, bacon, strawberries, chocolate chip pancakes, and two types of juice — apple and orange, each in a petite size glass.
Mom popped her head into the room and asked if Kristil could stay longer. She wanted to take her shopping for some special school supplies and a new backpack that afternoon. Mom doted on Kristil, and though we disagreed on many things, Kristil’s well-being wasn’t one of them. Where I’d previously only been able to see anger and abrasiveness, unable to understand my mother’s temperament, with Kristil I saw her gentleness, warmth, and unconditional love. Still, a long, deeply ingrained pattern existed between my mom and me, and old feelings of bitterness and hostility occasionally resurfaced.
Mother’s Day 2010, just a year before she got sick, was one such occasion. Kristil and I met Mom at her favorite restaurant, Cracker Barrel. While waiting for our table to be called, we shopped around the store area of the restaurant.
“Grandma seems sad,” Kristil told me.
Yes, I’d noticed something as well, but my opinion was somewhat different — Grandma seemed mad. Our table was called, and we were seated in our favorite spot near the large fireplace. We exchanged gifts and ordered our food, but something was simmering under the surface. I anticipated Mom might be upset over a visit I had recently with my father. Since their divorce, ten years prior, she had continued to have bitter feelings toward my father, and she viewed my relationship with him as a condoning of his past behavior and a betrayal of her.
“So, how was your visit with your father?” she asked.
“It was fine,” I replied. “Is that what’s bothering you?”
“I just don’t understand how it is that you can spend time with this man, not only after what he did to me, but after all he did to you kids growing up.”
I felt myself boiling inside the moment the words left her lips. I was painfully aware of what my childhood had been like. I hadn’t forgotten the violence, the police visits, the fear.
I looked her in the eyes. “Yes. And you stood by and watched it all and did nothing.”
At that, Mom methodically put down her coffee cup, then stood up, put her money on the table, and walked out.
“Well, that didn’t go very well,” Kristil commented.
“No, it didn’t.”
“Should I go after her?” Kristil asked.
“Yes, good idea. See if you can catch her and tell her we want her to come back.”
But it was too late. Mom had already driven off.
The first symptoms of Mom’s cancer started in the spring of 2011. She was living in Door County, where she had just opened her store for the season, but wasn’t feeling well. A few months later, my daughter and I took a weeklong vacation over the Fourth of July to visit both Door County and Mom.
One pleasant afternoon, I sat on Mom’s store front bench reading and sipping a glass of cherry wine. Kristil was meandering through the nearby shops and was expected back in half an hour, when we were all going to dinner. Mom came out and sat next to me. She told me she’d been thinking back on her life and feeling regret for events that occurred in the past. Though she hadn’t yet been diagnosed with cancer, I wondered if these thoughts were a result of her worry over her health.
“I need to apologize to you,” she began. “I’ve been thinking about the past — the violence you kids grew up with and how it affected you. It was wrong and it hurt you kids.”
In shock, I glanced at her and saw tears welling in her eyes. I took a sip of my wine as she continued…
“I was your mother and it was my job to protect you, and I failed. There’s no excuse, but I want you to know I would do anything to take it all back. I’m deeply sorry from the bottom of my heart. Can you ever forgive me?”
I reached over and hugged her. I knew how hard it must have been to say those words.
“Thank’s Mom”, I told her, “But I forgave all of that a long time ago.”
And it was true. I had forgiven her. Still, her words were like a healing balm to my soul, and that moment of reconciliation freed us both for the rest of our lives, even if my mom’s was to only last another 19 months.
At the funeral home, it took me three hours to finish preparing Mom. I carefully coated her long lashes with mascara and filled her thin lips with her favorite burgundy lipstick. I added a touch of bronze so she wouldn’t look too pale. I cut, curled, and styled her dark hair in the fashionable way she’d always worn it. She was perfect.
After I packed up my supplies, I gave her one last kiss. “You look beautiful, Mom,” I told her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”