It may just be possible to communicate with loved ones long gone.
"I'm not in there," mother says as I walk up to her body lying in the viewing room at Hamilton's Funeral Home.
"I know," I said aloud.
"Did you say something?" Pammie whispers.
"No," I lie, realizing that admitting I might still be hearing my mother talk to me, now a body lying in a funeral home, is probably not something I should share.
"If there's anything we can do," the director says, his voice barely above a whisper, "just let us know."
I wonder how he's able to talk so clearly, be heard, yet still be whispering. And why does he always use the royal we? Wondering about the funeral director isn't really what I should be focusing on I remind myself. "Geez, mom," I say.
"I'm not in there," she says, louder now.
"Got it," I assure her. "Still," I continue talking to her in my head, realizing that verbalizing the conversation isn't necessary. "Everyone else thinks you are."
"Not really," she says. "Pam is thinking about her own mother; your brother is thinking about how much he'd like to have a cigarette, and your father is wondering if he killed me with that last dose of Haldol."
"Oh God," I blurt out. Immediately I feel dad's comforting arm around my shoulders.
"It's okay Maggie," he whispers. "She's with her people now; she's at peace."
"Dad killed you?" I silently ask, conscious now of the need to keep this clearly crazy conversation to myself.
"I didn't say he killed me," she says so clearly that I glance to my right to make sure there isn't some ghostly image standing beside me. "I said he thinks he killed me. He didn't. It was time, so I left."
"What do you mean you left? You decided? How'd you just leave? And where are you?" I fire off in rapid succession. I can feel my own common sense rearing up, yelling, you're talking to yourself. You're making this up, and I'm beginning to worry about us.
"I don't really know," mother continues. "I thought I'd know things once I got here, but I don't know any more now than I did before."
"Of course," I think. "This is exactly what I would make up in my head. Mom is dead, but I think she's still talking to me. I don't have a clue about life after death and so neither does the mom in my head. This is perfect. Mom's gone; I'm crazy, and I can't call her and tell her that I'm crazy."
"You're not crazy," she says.
"Right." I say. "And isn't that exactly what I would tell myself?"
"Maggie," she says, more clearly now than ever, "It's me. I'm here."
"Here?" I ask. "Exactly where is here? Here in this room? Here on earth? Here where?”
"Yes," I hear.
"Yes. That's it? Yes?" I wait to hear more, but the voice inside my head is suddenly quiet.
"Right," I think. I need to be quiet for a while. "Don't talk," I say to her. She doesn't.
"Don't go away," I add. "Just stay here. Not here, but with me here or with me where ever."
"Got it," she says.
"Maggie. Are you ready, honey?" dad whispers, taking hold of my elbow and steering me through the double-doors into the large parlor of the funeral home. "We'll need to sit here for a while as folks come by to pay their respects." He motions to a dark burgundy wing chair overlooking the back lawn of the funeral home, now covered with a fresh layer of snow. I sit.
I don't recognize most of the people who come by. It's been twenty years since I lived at home. Even the ones I once knew had to reintroduce themselves. Outside of this funeral home, I'd have never recognized any of them. The evening passes slowly; eventually dad decides we can leave.
Back at mom’s house the kitchen counters are covered with food--cakes and cookies, casseroles and crock pots filled with food, ready to eat, a veritable smorgasbord of comfort. For once I'm not hungry. It's too late for me to eat any way. I know if I lie down too soon after I eat I'll be up all night with heart burn and reflux, and the thought of sitting up into the wee hours of the morning silently conversing with my dead mother just doesn't sooth me like you might think it would. I head to the back bedroom.
"Night dad," I say as I pass down the hall.
"Oh," dad says, caught off guard a bit, "night Maggie. Do you need anything?" he asks.
"No, dad. I'm good," I say. Leaning back into the hall from the bedroom, the door nearly closed. I give a final, "good night," and close the door.
"So who's there with you, Mom?" I ask as soon as I’m alone.
"What do you mean?" she replies, answering my question with a question just like she'd do whenever we got into an argument about my using her car or dating the neighbor's nephew who'd been in prison. She never followed her own rule about not answering a question with a question. Geez, maybe this really is my mom.
"What do you mean, what do I mean? You know what I mean" I continue. "Other dead people. Are other dead people there with you? Is Aunt Helen there? What about Grandpa Gene. Is he there? Is Portia there?”
"Portia's here," she finally says.
"And?" I continue.
"I was with Aunt Dottie when I first passed over, but she's not here now. There are others, but I don't know who they are."
Portia, the cat's there? I think. Well, what do you know. Guess Grandma Evans was right about that.
"Mom," I say, "waiting for her to radio in.
"Uh huh," I hear her say in my head.
"What about these other people? Are you in some kind of weigh station or something? Do you know where you are?”
The sound of tiny bells ringing lightly fills my head.
“What’s with the bells?” I ask.
"Bells?" she asks. "Oh, is that what you heard? I was laughing.”
“Laughing?” I question.
"It's probably coming across as bells; yes, I guess so."
I ponder this for a moment, thinking that there must be some kind of translator going on in my head, or I really am losing it, although I've pretty much given up on the I'm crazy notion. Still, I'm not certain enough to ask my dad or my brother if either one of them can hear her. Not yet any way. Not to mention that my plan of not sitting up into the wee hours of the morning has not turned out well. I glance at my cell phone; it's 2:26 a.m.
"Mom," I whisper out loud.
"You don't have to verbalize," she says.
"Oh," I say and stop and think about this for a minute.
"How do I know this is you and not me?" I ask.
She's quiet. A full minute passes. I wonder what she's waiting for. Maybe this is the question that pushes my creative imagination back down into my subconscious where it belongs--repressed like all the other crazy notions I've thought up.
"Are you still searching for my book of poems?" she asks.
I nod. I need them for the funeral, but I don't want to tell her that. It suddenly occurs to me that she might be able to read my mind. How creepy would that be. What if she's always around, Really always around like when I'm in the bathroom or in bed with Harry and . . .
"Mom. Can you tell what I'm thinking?" I ask. "I mean, are you always with me, like I'll be with you always?” I ask, emphasizing “always” as much as possible.
I think I hear her laughing again (the bells), that quick spurt of inappropriate laughter I'd always found so embarrassing when she was alive; she would find something too funny to be ignored and it always occurred in public.
"No, I can't read your mind, if that's what you're thinking. I can hear you in my head."
"Don't be so literal. I can hear you, but it's not in any way that I have words for."
"But," I argued, "you heard what Pammie was thinking at the funeral home and Michael and dad."
"Those things weren't in their heads any more. That's why I heard them."
"I don't get it." I said, feeling somewhat defeated. The idea of words existing outside of my head was just something I couldn't quite get my mind around. I was getting sleepy besides.
"I don't get it either," she said. Silence, and then, "In the top, left-hand drawer of that old desk in the basement there's an orange folder of my poems. Don't use the one about Haight Ashbury."
"Okay," I say, feeling the weight of the day descend upon my eyelids. I wonder why they’re in the basement, but am now too groggy to form the words. Just as I drop off into that mindless place of easy slumber, convinced that this day is a delusion, I murmur, “good night, mom,” and when she answers, “good night, Maggie,” I fall asleep completely convinced that I’m two hundred miles away in my own bed and will have to call her in the morning to tell her about this crazy dream.
"Maggie." A moment of silence followed by light tapping and another, "Maggie."
"Ya," I groan without opening my eyes.
"I thought maybe you'd want some breakfast before the funeral?"
I roll onto my side and reach for the handle of the door without having to leave the bed. I turn the handle, opening the door just far enough to see dad's concerned face.
He looks like he's sat up in his chair all night.
"I'll be right there, dad," I say.
"I'll put on the hot water," he replies. I can hear his slippered feet pattering down the hall toward the kitchen. I lie back on the bed trying to focus, reawakened to the heavy weight of knowing that mom has died. Today is the funeral, and I need to get up. I need to go down to the basement and get those poems. I suddenly remember how I know where those poems are.
"Mom?" I say, keeping my eyes closed so I can hear her better. But there's nothing. Nothing inside my head but me. I've suddenly, overwhelmingly never been more certain of being totally alone and never so sad.
The funeral lasted just over an hour. I gave the eulogy, ending with her poem, “Love Lasts,” that I’d retrieved from the basement desk. As we sang the closing hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” dad grasped my hand as tears fell for both of us.
The next few hours were spent with family and friends, mostly retelling the same, familiar stories, recalling mom’s ability to tell the same story over and over, each time adding a twist or funny anecdote that she’d left out of the previous version.
Surrounded by the laughs and taunts of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, I suddenly feel alone, overwhelmed by a sense of abandonment and of being alone in the universe. I excuse myself to the bathroom. Once inside, I stare at myself in the mirror, noticing my eyes darkened by my ruined mascara. “Mom, what am I going to do without you?” I ask aloud to the me in the mirror.
“You’ll do fine, just like always.”
“Mom?” I ask.
“Who else?” she answers.
“Where have you been, mom? You missed your funeral.”
“I was there.” she said.
“Mom, now that you’re back from, well, wherever you were, will you always be with me?”
“Not always, dear, but whenever you need me I’ll be with you.”
“Does that mean I won’t hear you anymore?” I ask, barely able to contain my tears.
“You’ll hear me sometimes, but not always. Sometimes I’ll be on the other side of the moon.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I’m not sure, really. It’s not anything that I can explain except to say that death, the way I used to think about it, doesn’t exist. Isn’t that cool?”
“Cool?” I ask. “Seriously, mom, cool’s the best you can come up with?
“For now, anyway,” she laughs. “Maddie,” she begins more solemnly, “do you remember that old movie starring George Burns, Oh! God?”
“No, mom. Way before my time.”
“Well anyway, at the end of the movie Burns, as God, is leaving Jerry Landers, the store manager he’s been talking to throughout the whole movie; Jerry asks if he’ll still be able to talk to him after he’s gone. God replies, “You talk; I’ll listen.”
“Are you trying to tell me something I’m not getting?”
“You’re getting it, dear.”
“Are you telling me I’ll never feel you here with me again?”
“Well, it’s like when Eliot has to say good bye to ET at the end of The Extraterrestrial.
“Really, mom, another movie reference?”
“Just listen. ET lights his finger and points to Eliot’s head and says, ’I’ll be right here.’ And that’s where I’ll be if you need me. You talk; I’ll listen. Now go visit with Cousin Emily; she’s sitting in the corner by herself again.”
“I love you mom,” I say, and leave the bathroom to locate Cousin Emily as I’ve been told.
I find her in the corner of the living room, right where mom said she’d be. I take her arm and direct her to the display of family photos. I notice one of mom and me playing cribbage at the lake.
“You know, Cousin Emily, I never could beat mom at cribbage. I’d love to know how she did it.”
“She cheated,” Emily said.
“What! No way. She didn’t cheat.”
“Yes she did,” Cousin Emily said with great conviction. “She and Aunt Dottie cheated all the time. How do you think they always won the cribbage tournament at the reunions,” she said.
I was stunned. “What do you know,” I said more to myself than to Emily. “I wonder what else I don’t know” I said.
“You okay?” asked Emily. “I’ll bet you miss your mom.”
“Yes and no,” I said. “It’s hard to explain, but I really think I’m going to be okay. I may even learn to play cribbage,” I continued. “Just like mom.”
Then I heard it again, that sound like the tinkling of little bells.