I've always thought that the death of my mother would mean the end of my family. She was the one person who held us all together. She was the ringleader in our circus of a family. Actually, she was more like the zookeeper caring for wild beasts. And as we drove home, I wondered how long our shared loss would keep us together before we eventually parted our own ways. The truth is, I was fine that. For a long time now, I've stopped speaking to some of my elder siblings. They've done some hurtful things over the years, I didn't want them in my life anymore. This trip home had just confirmed my beliefs, that they were still just awful people and I had done the right thing by cutting myself off from them. I also suspected that with my mother gone, any arguments that went on afterwards would escalate to physical violence. And it would appear that I was right.
It started when we reached home and held our family meeting to discuss our mother's funeral arrangements. As we were sitting down, my eldest brother, Judas, declared, "It should be just our mother's 'real' children who should be present at this meeting."
That implication meant that only my mother's biological children should be involved. That didn't sit well with me and two of my adopted siblings, and we immediately launched a protest. I said, "Adopted or not, we are all our mother's children, and until we all recognize that, you can forget about having a family discussion, because we will separate ourselves and we will bury our mother without consulting any of you who think differently!" I looked Judas in the eye and dared him to say otherwise. I just needed an excuse to punch him out!
I was furious that my eldest brother would try play such a dirty trick. He never got along with my adopted siblings, who were closer to my age, and he somehow saw them as a threat to his leadership. Not that he was our leader. He may have been the eldest, but he was also a jackass! I thought, here it comes, the moment when we go to blows and knock each other out! But my eldest sister spoke up and said, "Every child Mother raised as her own has a voice in planning our mother's funeral. We are all her children. And we will all decide what we should do for our mother."
My eldest brother backed down, knowing that my eldest sister had more influence over the other siblings, and any decision put to a vote would only mean an embarrassing defeat for him. For the moment, we were at a truce.
Then my eldest brother stated, "I've been thinking about mother's funeral, and I want to bury her in front of the her house."
Bastard! That broke the truce! I led the attack. My mother has always stated that when she died, she wanted to be buried next to her parents, at her original home. I argued in favor of honoring her wishes. "Mom wanted to be buried next to her parents, and that's what we'll do. We will do as she asked."
But my eldest brother reasoned, "Mother was forgetful in her last years, and she was delirious when she said she wanted to be buried next to her parents."
That pissed me off! But before I spoke up, my hothead brother rose to my mother's defense and pointed to my eldest brother and said, "If anyone is delirious, it's you, not our mother!"
And I thought, here we go, the showdown! And I was prepared to backup my hothead brother if things got physical. My hothead brother continued, "Everyone knows damn well that Mother wanted to be buried next to her parents when she died. And she's been saying it long before any of us graduated from school. So this argument that she was delirious is bullshit! And I will not let anyone accuse Mom of being crazy; and anyone here wants to know what crazy is, I will glady show you!"
I added, "Where the hell are we going to bury our mother? In front of the house? In the drive way? By the sidewalk? Dig up her garden and put her grave there instead? Should we uproot the fields and bury her among the crops?"
I knew why Judas wanted my mother buried on the land. It was all for his personal gain. He figured that if she was buried on the land, he would have a stronger claim to it, saying that he would be the one who took care of her grave. We all knew that he was the biggest pain in my Mom's life. And I refused to keep letting him take advantage of her, even after death! He will not pick at her corpse, the filthy vulture!
But my eldest brother countered, "It would be too expensive to take Mother's body to her old home and bury her next to her parents."
And my other siblings agreed with the costs argument. Two of my elder sisters reasoned that, "We should keep it simple and save money."
I argued, "It is not about doing the simple thing or saving money. It is about doing the right thing and burying mother according to her wishes." I refused to let my elder siblings keep using my mother, not anymore.
And so we spent the next hour arguing positions back and forth. I knew that my two adopted siblings and Hothead and my younger brother would vote with me to honor Mom's wishes. My eldest brother and other two siblings wanted to bury her on the land. That just left three undecided, my eldest sister, my middle brother, and my other middle sister, the wishy washy one. So it was 5 for mom's wishes, 3 for burying her on the land, and 3 undecided. It was a power struggle that threatened to last throughout the night.
Then my eldest sister proposed a compromise, "We all know that mother wanted to be buried next to her parents. And we know that it will cost a lot of money to do as she asked. And while I don't think it should be about saving money, I do want her to be with family. And I want her close by where I can visit her and talk to her; somewhere where my children can also go and visit her. How about we bury her on the family plot, next to her brother and cousins?"
The family plot was at the end of town. It consisted of my Uncle, my mother's cousins, and other relatives who were close to my mother. I knew that plot well, because we buried most of my family members there. We took another vote, and our voting block of 5 remained adamant to honor mother's wishes. But my eldest sister's compromise had turned my other siblings. Even Judas knew he was defeated, so he joined my eldest sister's proposal. So, the final vote was 5 for honoring Mom's wishes to 6 for burying her on the family plot. My eldest sister tried to play peacemaker. She had taken up my mother's role and became our leader.
On the one hand, I was furious that my mother's wishes were not honored. Even in death her children still treat her terribly! On the other hand, Judas was defeated, and my mother would not be bargaining chip for him! Still, in my head, I was planning to take my mother's body and burying her next to her parents, just as she wished. I figured I'd call the airlines in a few hours, take her casket to the morgue, then I'd accompany her body to her old home. And once I had buried her, I would return to my own home and never, ever, ever go back to my childhood home. I imagined the chaos that would result if I did all this on my own. And I have to admit that it would feel good.
But I had to take my other siblings into consideration. And while I was not happy with the compromise, it was a compromise. Still, I voiced that from this night forward, we all know who wanted to honor mother's wishes, and we spoke up for her at least. That didn't sit well with my elder siblings, but at this point, I didn't give a damn. At least I spoke my piece.
The next morning, I was sitting on the front porch with Hothead, when we heard Judas complaining to his wife that he was experiencing a painful headache. I told Hothead, "That's Mom stomping on his head."
Hothead and I started laughing. A cat wandered up and sat between us as we were laughing. A few of my nieces and nephews came to the front porch along with my other sister, wanting to know what was so funny. But I just told them we were talking about old superstitions. I started petting the cat; it was a stray that my mother had taken in and the family had been feeding. I said, "You know, I ignored the omens when they first appeared."
My nephew asked, "What omens?"
I answered, "The cat crying. It's an old family legend. The cat has been our family's guide to the afterlife for as long as we've walked the earth. When someone in our family is about to die, the cat warns us. So if you hear a lone cat crying, that means someone in our family is about to start the journey into the afterlife."
My nephew looked at me skeptically, but Hothead said, "Yeah, I heard it too when I was sitting on the back of my pick up one day. But I could never find that cat."
My sister said, "It kept crying at my window at night for a whole week. I knew that I had to come home."
My nephew and nieces had this amused look on their faces. I smiled thinking that we had passed on family legends and superstitions to another generation. My parents believed in such things; and I suppose I did, too, on some level. My experiences with the supernatural have left me believing that I should not interfere with the supernatural; leave them be and they'll leave me alone; a perfect understanding.
The rest of the week, we made funeral preparations. In addition to digging a grave for my mother, some of my siblings and I decided to renovate our mother's house. So we fixed her windows, repainted the house, and renovated some of the rooms. We figured that we'd have a lot of people coming to my Mom's funeral. Some of them might stay with us, so might as well get the place looking great. And as the week went by, I still felt uncomfortable with the compromise. I wasn't happy that we weren't honoring my mother's wishes. I went ahead and paid for her casket as well as most of the food for all the people who kept coming to show their sympathies. I ended up paying for the reception hall and most of the funeral costs. While we had discussed sharing my mother's funeral expenses, it would appear that some of my siblings didn't want to contribute the same amount we had all agreed upon. That pissed me off, because they came up with the amount, and they all agreed to it. But it would seem that they didn't want to contribute their share. They were so petty and greedy!
The worst part of the whole experience was that everyday, I would learn something new about how my siblings had mistreated my mother. It would be a revelation from either a relative or a neighbor. I found out that some of my sisters had taken most of my mother's jewelry--a lot of which I bought for her--and her best clothing when my Mom went on vacation. I found out that Judas had argued with my mother when my mother revealed that she had left her house and the land to us, her youngest three boys. The neighbor said it was like watching strangers fight--the way my eldest brother cussed at my mother. It made me angry to hear all of this. Not that I wanted a house or land. I didn't need any of that. It made me furious to learn just how greedy my siblings were. They had all relied on my mother to pay for their children's school supplies and uniforms and bills and food. Meanwhile, they went on vacations. Not once did they ever think to buy her something.
Only my eldest sister seemed to have taken better care of my mother. She would take Mom on vacations and buy her clothes and gifts. The other sisters seemed to just take and take and take whatever they could from my mother. It made me mad to learn that they were basically stealing from her. And though I had planned on changing my ticket so I could be there for my mother's funeral, I just couldn't do it. The anger was building up, and I was starting to snap at my elder siblings, the ones who caused my mother pain. I was all ready calling them out for mistreating my mother and for stealing from her. I knew that come her funeral, I would knock out some of my siblings into the very grave I had dug for my mother! I just couldn't get over the fact that we were not honoring my mother's wishes. I may have dug her grave, but I refuse to see her buried in a place she didn't want to be buried. So, I left three days before they buried my mother.
As I was packing, a niece asked me why I was leaving and couldn't I stay for the funeral. But I told her that I couldn't. I knew my siblings could hear me, so I said, "I'm not happy with where they're burying Mom. It's not what she wanted. And I will not take part in dishonoring her memory by ignoring her wishes. Besides, I paid for most of the funeral all ready, so I really don't see any more reason to stay here."
I knew that it hurt my other siblings to hear that. But it was true. I had paid for most of the funeral. And I wasn't happy with where they were burying my mother, and I would keep telling people why I wasn't happy and why I wasn't at her funeral. A day after I returned to my own place, Hothead called me. He said that my elder siblings were quiet the rest of the week, and he could see the guilt coming off of them. We laughed about that. He told me my elder siblings were distressed when people asked where I was, and my nieces and nephews would just tell them the truth. I had left because I wasn't happy that we were ignoring grandmother's wishes, and that I had paid for most of the funeral.
Ah, yes. I was always honest with my nieces and nephews; I was much closer to them than I was to some of my siblings, their parents. And as horrible as it was dealing with my siblings, I'm so glad to have had the time to reconnect with my nieces and nephews. I told them that if they ever needed to get away or escape from our small town, just call me, and I would help them out. Some of them had real promise and were really smart, hardworking kids. But their parents held them back, discouraging them from leaving. But I recognized the wanderlust and the dreams of wanting something bigger, something better, to see the world. And I was going to help them get started. And my nieces and nephews knew this. I am going to be their underground railroad to freedom!
I took a few things from mother's house. An old, scattered foto album and her hymn book; I thought, huh, the only things the other vultures didn't want. But really, there were the things that meant a lot to her--pictures of loved ones gone and her faith. As I sat there in the living room, waiting for my ride to the airport, Hothead came in and asked if I wanted to head out to the funeral home and say good bye to Mom.
I knew my other siblings were in the kitchen and dining room, listening in, so I said, "No, I don't need to say good bye to Mom. I said good bye to her a long time ago, when I first left home. We parted on good terms; we settled things between us, because I didn't know if I was ever coming back. Everything I needed to say to her, I've all ready said. I made my peace with her a long time ago."
And it was true. I had made peace with my mother a long time ago. I went back into my old room one last time to look around. As I sat down on the bed, I detected a faint, familiar sweet scent. I looked out the window. There it was, the gardenias. They were blooming. They were always my favorite flower. As a child, I remember their sweet smell. Their scent lulled me to sleep late at night with the starry skies outside my window. They always made me feel happy and safe and serene. It was first time I had seen them flower since I arrived two weeks before. Now, they were blossoming beautiful white flowers and sharing their cherished, enchanting scent with me. It was as if my mother was saying good bye to me again, telling me once more to go forth and live my life, and I truly felt at peace.
As the plane left that night, I looked down over the small lights of my old home town. I said good bye to my mother as the plane flew over the town. I watched those lights get smaller and smaller until they were no longer in view. I had originally thought that with my mother's passing, I would have no more reason to go back to my old home. But I was wrong. I did have a reason to come back. I had several. My nieces and nephews were still there, and I was going to do all that I could to help them find their own way into the world. I want to give them the same encouragement my mother gave me when I dreamed of leaving home. I want to give them a chance to find their own dreams and seek out their own futures. My mother was a true gardener, tending to the plants and flowers that needed her care; some had thorns and some required more work than others. But she kept them alive and she made them thrive. Now, that she was gone, it was up to me to keep her garden growing. I will continue her work. I will help my nieces and nephews thrive; I am going to make sure that they flower and blossom in the garden of life.