My Mom’s Funeral

This is my fourth Mother’s Day without my mom, and since my roommate’s girlfriend is visiting with her daughter, Mother’s Day has made its way into my home and it’s been an emotional weekend.

I wanted to repost (and edit) the blogs I wrote the week after my mom died because I think it explains a lot about why I volunteer and why I want to be a dad and why I am the way I am in general.

I added a few extra thoughts at the end about how I feel in the present, but it’s just a short addendum.  If you already read this in 2012, close the page and go call your mom instead.

I’m home for my mom’s funeral.
September 25, 2012

I’m also very OK and very at peace, but I wish everyone would just let me be OK and at peace.

Last week, I was having dinner with a friend when dad called.  I didn’t answer because I usually don’t answer the phone when I’m out to dinner.  A) That’s Rude.  B) My hands are usually really nasty because I don’t know how to eat all classy and gentleman-like.  But my sister called right after and I thought “Why am I being double-teamed right now?”

I stepped out of the restaurant and took the call on the sidewalk.  My dad had taken my mom to the local hospital, and as soon as she got there, she was helicoptered to a better hospital 45 miles away Charlotte.  My sister and her husband were already in the car making the 9 hour drive up to my parents’ house and I wasn’t sure if I should do the same.  To say my mom and I had a strained relationship would be the understatement of the season.  We hadn’t spoken a word to each other in nine months, and my last attempt at reconciliation was met with absolutely no response.  Besides, nothing in me thought she would die and I’d never see her again, so I took a Wait-and-See approach.  I wanted to wait for my sister to get back home and to call me and give me an honest assessment of the situation.  I went to a rooftop party to keep my mind off the situation, went back home, and crawled into bed.

Around 5:00AM, my brother-in-law called and said my mom had slipped away.  I couldn’t process that, so I stammered a few broken sentences, hung up the phone, and went back to sleep.  When I woke up again, I let the reality sink in…and I didn’t feel much.

Mourning over a dead loved one comes in three parts:  Sadness over the loss of the relationship, sadness over the ending of a person’s life and the things they didn’t get to do and the loose ends they never got to tie, and sadness over the people they touched who’ve lost a loved one.  The first one is the hardest, and I have been mourning the loss of the relationship with my mother for 13 years now.

I have been depressed and upset and crying and angry and distraught off and on for more than a decade over this relationship.  We haven’t spoken in 9 months.  Our relationship ended for good over a month ago.  I spent the week after my birthday going through every stage of grief.  I cried out everything I had left in me.  My relationship with my mother already ended and I’ve already been through that part of death.  I didn’t have any hope left that we could reconcile because that hope was what had kept me hanging on since I came out in the first place, hoping that she would come around and realize that it’s not her fault, it’s not my choice, and there is nothing wrong with me and my gay life.

That is the part that made me sad.  When it sunk in that she is really dead, those were the only tears I cried, because my mom touched so many people.  She was such a rock and a confidant to everyone around her.  She would give her last nickel to make sure you had 4 cents.  She accepted you as you were and still helped you when you stumbled, but she just couldn’t get over having a gay son.  Those are the tears I cried.  I just wanted her to feel whole and at peace and I know she didn’t.  I know she died feeling like she failed.  She told me so many times growing up that I was the reason for everything she did, and in her eyes, she never got the reap the fruits of her labor.  In her eyes, she messed up somewhere and was never able to bring me back to the path of righteousness.  She never got to a place where she realized that I’m not a bad person just because I’m gay.  The golden child she started out with turned into an evil gay atheist and nothing could make her see past that.

My mom and I were like peas and carrots growing up.  I was her little shadow and I followed her around everywhere.  I thought she was the funnest/funniest person ever and she spoiled me rotten.  She treated me like an adult and let me speak around her friends (which is a big deal down here in the “Children should be seen and not heard” South).  I hated seeing my mother sad for any reason.   When I realized I was gay, I wanted to be straight for her.  I tried so hard and prayed so long and wished so intensely all for her.  I had my own personal problems with being gay and being bullied and all that, but I just hated seeing my mom sad.  Nobody likes seeing their mom sad, and if you’re the reason why she’s sad, you want to do everything you can to change it.

Of course I couldn’t, but I still did my best to minimize the damage.  I never talked about it, never brought it up around family members, never confirmed the rumors with extended family, all out of respect for her because I knew how ashamed she was that I was gay.  I didn’t want to cause her any extra stress.  I knew I couldn’t make her happy, but I didn’t want to make her any more sad than she had to be.  

My tears were because I never had another chance to try to make her happy.  

Back when I made the internal decision never to speak to her again, if my mom had been diagnosed with terminal cancer or some other incurable illness, I would have faked it until the end.  It’s a stupid idea–I recognize that–but I loved that woman so hard for so long and I just wanted to make her smile again, at me.  I’ll never have another chance to make her smile and to give her peace.  She has now run out of time to make peace with her baby boy and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Those are the tears I cried and I cried them all before I got on the plane down here, months before.

I’m out of grief.  I’m all grieved out.  I had cycled through all of the stages before she died and you know what I have left?  Happy memories.  Memories from before my English teacher told my mom I was gay and changed our relationship forever.  How she always laughed so loud and so hard it made her cough and cry.  How her fingernail on her index finger was always longer than the rest of them, like a talon, and she would point and wave her finger all weird for no reason.  How the bottoms of her feet were so ticklish and she would kick you in the mouth if you touched them.  How she always bit her lips whenever she stirred cornbread batter.  How I’d say something really inappropriate that she didn’t want to laugh at, so she’d just say ‘BOY!’ loudly to camouflage her giggles.  How she had the ugliest hat in the world that she’d wear cutting grass, but she swore up and down that it was cute (I’m taking that hat).  How she was always trying to lose ten pounds but also always baking cakes.  How every time she picked me up from the airport, we would go to Waffle House on the way home, and Captain’s Galley for hushpuppies and baby flounder the next day.  And then she would make cheese grits the morning after that to eat with the leftover fish. How she only wanted the best for me but just couldn’t let go of the notion that Her Best was the Only Best available.

Now it’s all over.  

The funeral was today and I’m tired of everybody waiting for me to break.  First of all, why does grief has to be a spectacle?  Why are we expected to do it so publicly?

Let me explain to you how Every Black Funeral in my memory has gone.  It’s a two-day thing, which is crazy, but it’s two days.

The first day is the wake or the viewing.  I’m not sure if that’s the same thing, and if it isn’t, I’m not sure what a wake is.  Basically, the body is in a casket at the funeral parlor and people come look at it (MORBID!!!) and cry and sit around and cry and shake hands with the family and cry and look at the body again and cry and go home.  Sometimes there’s a dinner after.

The second day is the actual funeral.  The body is up near the pulpit and everybody comes in before the funeral and sits down.  I use the term “before” loosely, because Southern black people are forever late.  After everyone is seated, a choir starts singing and the family processes in, usually in a big clumps separated by branch of the deceased’s family and how close in relation.  They file in and then walk by the body again to look at it (STILL MORBID) and then sit in the front.  This is the part in all those black people comedies where some lady is bawling and trying to climb in the casket and screaming “take me with you!  oh lawd take me too!”  That’s not a parody.  That is a real thing that happens.  

The choir sings some more.  At least half an hour.  Then a preacher says some things.  Another half hour.  Then members of the family make remarks.  Depending on how old the deceased is, this can last anywhere from 15 minutes to another two hours.  Then the preacher says something else.  This is the part where the funeral turns into Sunday Church and he starts hollering and the keyboardist does that weird ‘BAAAHMM’ thing after every sentence.  Then the choir sings some more, which could be short, except on the last refrain, somebody from the audience always starts it up again.  Then the pallbearers close the casket and carry the body out.  The family and everybody else follow and they drive to the cemetery.

At the cemetery there are more remarks, more words from the preacher, sometimes more casket-crying-hysterics, and then–FINALLY–it is all over.

Unless there’s a dinner at the church after and you drive back to have fried chicken and styrofoam cups filled with iced-diabetes.  

Black funerals are exhausting and weirdly hilarious.  My mom used to talk so much shit about them and I hate them too.  But most importantly, my dad HATES big funerals.  

Mom’s Funeral
October 4, 2012

My mom’s mom’s side of the family (keep up, because I’ll talk about my mom’s dad’s side later) knows how to throw a funeral.  They know how to do everything black churches do because they are black church people.  I’m not knocking any of it–just making a distinction.  Black church people do things bigger than everybody else, especially in the South.  My mom and I never officially belonged to that church (because my mom believed in “church on Saturdays” and “don’t eat shellfish” and all those crazy Seventh Day Adventist things) but sometimes I would go with my Grandma.  I was definitely out of my element and I always felt like I wasn’t singing loud enough or shouting hard enough.  

But I totally learned how to fake speaking in tongues and you could not tell me I wasn’t sanctified and holy in that moment.

Anyway.

One of my fears when I heard my mom died was that her mom’s church would bogart the funeral and run all over my dad.  He’d be distressed and they would turn the whole thing into a traditional black funeral spectacle that none of us–me, my sister, my father, or my mom–wanted.  The last time I was visiting, my parents and I actually went to a black funeral.  Afterward, we had dinner at a seafood restaurant and talked about how unnecessary and extra all the dramatics were.  I really didn’t want to sit through that for my own mother’s funeral.  

I was afraid for no reason though because my dad was not having it.  He told everybody we were having a short graveside service–no wake, no church funeral–and that was that.  The funeral director asked him exactly what he wanted.  “Do you want there to be a song?“

“Nope.  Once somebody starts singing, they don’t know when to stop and somebody picks it up at the end and it keeps going until somebody is shouting and falling out on the floor.”

Funeral director scratched that off.  “Do you want anyone to give remarks?“

“Nope.  Somebody says something, then everybody says something, and we don’t need to spend two hours listening to people talk about how they picked blackberries with Dianne when they were two years old.”

Funeral director scratched that off.  Paused.  And said, “Oh y’all having a whitefuneral!”

I guess if that’s what you want to call it.

At the last minute, my dad changed his mind and decided to hold a viewing of the body the day before because my mom’s family was annoyed there wouldn’t be a service (and they wouldn’t get their show).  Everybody would get to see my mom all dressed up in her white suit with her hair done and go home happy, or whatever emotion they were looking to get out of viewing a dead body.

I had no desire to see it but everybody was really hellbent on making me.  For what?  Why do I want to see my mom dead in a box?  I don’t get it.  I don’t get the fascination.  Is that supposed to be closure of some sort?  Some kind of last goodbye?  I know one thing, anybody who needs to see me up close and personal better do it while I’m alive, because I’m getting cremated immediately.  

Viewing for the immediate family was at 3, then the funeral home was open to everyone else from 4 to 6, and then the immediate family was scheduled to return to the funeral home and receive the guests and let them pay their respects.

I didn’t want to do ANY of that.  I was so over people asking me “How are you?  Are you OK?  She was a good woman, wasn’t she?”  Over and over and over.  So many people crying in my face and looking at me like a psychopath because I refused to view the body.  My mom and I had a rocky relationship, but the last time I saw her face to face, she was SMILING.  Cheesing hard too.  I got this big toothy grin straight from my momma, and her whole face lit up when she smiled.  That’s the last time I saw her, over a year ago.  Let me keep that image if that’s what I want to do! I don’t want an image of her dead in a box anywhere in my consciousness.  If I wanna remember my momma smiling, then let me do that and stop asking me if I want to come back later to pay my respects or if I wanna view privately.  No I don’t.  Leave me alone.

Gosh, I’m so messed up and heated, I’m changing verb tenses all up and through, but you know what I’m saying.  

So the viewing happened, and the next day we had the graveside service.  Some sweet ladies from my mom’s church (the old Saturday-going church) came by to set up a buffet for everyone at the house.  There was a tent outside and some tables and chairs for folks to sit and chat with their food.  I thought it was really cute.  The weather was perfect and I was just trying to make it through the service so I could get back and visit with the family I never get to see.

We did the whole slow-riding-in-the-limo-with-lights-flashing to the grave site and everyone else was already there.  At the few funerals I’ve been to, I’ve often wondered what the people sitting right in front were thinking.  I just felt like everyone was staring at me waiting for something to happen while I sat listening to the two pastors read/say things I didn’t believe.  

Then it was over and people wanted to cry on me and give me more hugs.  The service was too short to get anybody all wrapped up in hysterics, so nobody fell out….except ONE LADY, who was laid up on the casket crying, boo-hooing about “Dianne what I’m gon do without you!”  She was also the one at the house the day after Mom died, laid out on the floor crying, grabbing at my dad’s pantleg like a puppy that has to pee.  She was also the one who, when asked “Are you Dianne’s daughter?” by one of the mourners, responded with “Yes” and I had to set her loopy ass straight right there at the cemetery.

That’s not the only time I had to get a smidge ratchet.  My mom’s dad’s side of the family set me off as well.

My grandma never married my mom’s dad, who became a drunk and had a gaggle of kids by some other woman he married.  Grandma married a different man and had two more kids.  That’s the family my mom grew up with and those are the folks I recognize as my aunt and uncle and grandfather.  I don’t have any memories of my mom’s bio-father and I only knew one aunt and uncle from that side.  His wife, my step-grandma I guess, is sweet, and I met her a few times as as a child, but on the whole, I have no contact with that side of the family.  

After the funeral, I was pretty delighted to see so many of my mom’s friends from my childhood coming back to pay their respects and tell me how big I was (and talk about my hair of course).  I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so those adults are who I remember most from being a little one, and it was so good to see them all again.  I was talking to a group of my mom’s classmates (they were the last all-black graduating class in South Carolina and stayed really tight, even now) when this ancient old lady grabbed my arm and said, “Lemme borrow you for a minute.”  I went along as she guided me away from the crowd so we could speak solo.  She looked up at me and said, “You remember me?”

She coulda been Sojourner Truth for all I knew.  “No ma’am, I can’t say that I do.“

She smiled.  “Well that’s cause we ain’t never met.”

::side eye::  Already, I was peeved because some stranger is pulling me away from people I actually knew for some unknown reason.  “Oh ok.“

“I’m your aunt, your grandaddy’s sister.”  I thought about my grandfather and she didn’t look like any of them.  His whole family is light-skinned with freckles and fairly tall, while she was more my color, and tiny.  She must have seen my confusion, because then she mentioned my mom’s biological father was her brother, not the man I grew up with and considered Grandpa.

“Oh ok, it’s nice to meet you.”  I wanted to excuse myself and go back to the folks I was talking to.  The group was starting to break up and I hadn’t seen everyone I wanted to see.  I wanted to exchange contact info and do the Christmas Card List thing that people do when they turn into adults.  She had other plans.  “Come on over here and lemme introduce you to your aunts and uncles.“

Introduce me.  To my family.  At my mom’s funeral.  Are you kidding me.  I went along, shook some hands, let some names go in one ear and out the other, but ain’t nobody got time fah dat.  You had two and a half decades to meet me and get to know me.  For half that time, I was living less that 15 miles from all of you, and you want to INTRODUCE yourselves at my mother’s funeral??  Why are you even there?!  You clearly haven’t seen her in 30 years, if that.  I was cordial.  But I told them how it was.

“Thank you for coming and paying your respects, but you’ve had 20 years to come and be a part of my life, and I don’t think we can squeeze all that time into the 20 minutes after my mother’s funeral.  So, if you will excuse me, I need to reconnect with some people whose names I actually know.”

And then I went back to the familiar faces in the crowd.  Let me know if you would like for me to attend you next funeral, because clearly I know how to make it interesting.

After Mom’s Funeral
October 9, 2012

This last part is the hardest to write.   My head needed time to put all my thoughts in order before I could express them logically.

My dad and I went through a lot of my mom’s files and papers to check for outstanding balances or other pressing business.  I wanted to help out while I was there so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed with tasks (and memories) all alone after I left.  He asked if I knew my mom’s passwords (facebook, email, etc) and I told her she probably wrote them down somewhere, because that’s just how she was.  We found her passwords in a recipe box and he had me check her email for anything important.

Nothing was in her inbox, so he went back to the living room.

After he left, something made me check her outbox, and there was an e-mail to me.  She had sent it to my old e-mail address so I never saw it.

I wrote my mom this email before my birthday, around mid-August, explaining to her why I had stopped speaking to her the previous December, and she didn’t respond.  I heard secondhand from my sister that she was pretty upset about it and we were basically at a stalemate:  I wasn’t talking to her, and she wasn’t talking to me.  I guess she had time to think, because a few weeks later, she wrote me an email…an “I’m sorry” type email, asking me to call her so she could hear my voice, offering to fly up to see me so we could talk in person.

I read the first paragraph and everything in me collapsed at once.  She had written it on the Sunday before she died.  She tried to reach out to me and fix our relationship, and I never responded.  I couldn’t make it through the rest of the email.  I managed to make it to the bathroom before I threw-up, but I couldn’t finish it.  I forwarded it to myself to read one day in the future, but I can’t deal with it right now.

She tried to fix it.  She realized I’m not a bad person and she tried to fix it.  All the grief I didn’t go through when she died hit me all at once because we could have had a relationship.  We could’ve fixed it–it could’ve been like old times.  She didn’t die feeling like a failure for having a gay son.  She died missing me and wondering why I didn’t email her back, and I can’t process it.  This pain is worse than any kind of grief, because I know she was sad, and I could’ve made her happy, but I never got the chance to.  

I pulled it together before my dad could realize anything was wrong, and I’m still trying to deal.  We still don’t know exactly why she died.  She had just had a physical–perfect health, perfect tests–and she went from healthy to dead in a couple of days.  Her blood pressure bottomed out and never went back to normal.  Everything in me thinks I did it because I broke her heart.  I know intellecutally that’s not true, but I don’t know what to tell myself to make me believe it.  I feel like I broke my mommy and couldn’t put her back together.

Now, everything sets me off.  The most innocuous things will hit me strangely and I can’t stop crying.  There are people I can’t talk to and places I can’t go.  Foods I can’t eat and shows I can’t watch.  I just wish I could do it all over again.  I wish I would’ve left when my dad first called and then maybe I could’ve seen her one more time and she could’ve told me in person.  We could’ve had our reunion and said ‘I love you’ and I wouldn’t feel so much guilt.

I’m sure she knew.  I just wish I could’ve told her.

Today is Mother’s Day…4 years later
May 8, 2016

My roommate has been seeing a girl from the west coast for a few years now and she comes for a long weekend every couple of months or so.  I knew she had a daughter, but I guess they’re getting really serious now because she brought her daughter on this visit.  They’ve been here since Thursday, but today while I was making a shake I heard the little girl telling her mom “Happy Mother’s Day.”

I avoid this holiday every year.  One of my good friends lost his mom not long after I did, so we’ve spent this holiday together, but on the whole, I block it out, turn off social media, stay away from television, etc.  And now there’s Mother’s Day in my house so I have to get out.

I wanted to post these blogs again because Friday night I had a dream about my mom and then posted a picture of her on my personal Facebook page.

I got a lot of questions about our relationship, and in lieu of answering every message in my inbox, I have these blogs I wrote over the week after she died.

If my guilt and distress was a 10 back then, I’d say it’s dropped down to a 4 now.  I still have moments, but they’re fewer and farther between.  I still haven’t read that email, but it’s still starred in my inbox.  I try to read it on my birthday and on hers, but I still can’t manage to get past the first paragraph.  Maybe I never will.  And maybe that’s OK too.  Maybe all the resolution I need is just the knowledge that she did reach out.

Anyway, I don’t have anything else valuable to add.  Everyone’s relationship with their parents is unique, as was my relationship with my mom.  I can’t change the past, but she taught me a lot.  When I’m volunteering with my kids – or if I have my own kids one day – it makes me smile when I realize something I’ve said came directly from her.

And nobody can beat my cornbread, thanks to her.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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