The last words my mother said to me as she was being wheeled into surgery were:
1) Don’t run up my utility bill.
2) Take the plate back to the lady next door, but be sure to wash it first
3) Tell that nurse I take back my compliments on the IV
I ignored instruction number 3, and I’m sure it was the right thing to do. The evening she died, temperatures hovered above 90, even in the middle of the night. I decided I would ignore instruction number 1 as well, and I turned the air-conditioning down to 72. Then, I remembered that in life, my mother always had command of everything and everyone in the room, including the temperature settings. I wasn’t completely convinced that she would relinquish such powers in death, so I quickly turned the setting back to 80, lest I might discover it had mysteriously been turned back anyway when I woke the next morning.
The plate she spoke of was on the kitchen counter. I washed it as told and planned to return it to the lady next door the following morning.
I couldn’t sleep, so I switched on the TV, and the movie American Beauty happened to pop onto the screen. Of course, the scene playing at that moment was the ending, when the main character Lester (also my father’s name) was dying and thinking about his daughter. “And Janie…And Janie.”
Still unable to sleep, I wandered the house, searching for memories, I guess. Though I hesitated to enter at first, I eventually went into my mom’s room and sat on her bed. I picked up the Bible she kept on the nightstand and started to flip through it. Somewhere in the middle, I found a folded piece of paper. This is what it said:
“If I’m ever brain dead or not responding, just let me go. Don’t try to keep me alive. I want to be with Lester.” The note was dated February 28, 2006. Her 80th birthday.
I slipped under the covers, still holding the note, and fell asleep. That night, I dreamed of my mother shrugging her shoulders at me again, and saying, “Daddy’s cooking dinner for me. His famous filet mignon with the bacon wrapped around it. What do you expect me to do? I can’t stay.”
The next morning, I began the process of notifying people. My mom had already made a list of all the people who needed to be called after her surgery, complete with associated phone numbers. Most said they would be coming for the funeral. Soon, the house would be buzzing with relatives and friends, but for now, it was quiet and lonely.
As I mentioned, mom had already meticulously designed most of the details and arrangements for her death. The funeral was paid for, casket and tombstone selected and she left duplicate copies of all the documentation in the house, the safety deposit box and with the funeral director. For the most part, everything had already been planned. Ken and I just had to execute. The woman was nothing if not thorough and explicit about how she wanted things done.
My parents started attending the First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow when we moved to Oklahoma some 40 years ago. The pastor there had performed my father’s funeral, and my mother wanted him to officiate for her service as well. However, it turned out that the pastor was on a trip to Israel. We asked for the assistant pastor, and he was out sick. We went through the chain of command until we got to our only choice – Brother So-and-so who had visited mom at the hospital. This was the equivalent of asking for the President and getting passed down to the Congressional Committee Chair on Aging. Brother So-and-so had never preached at a funeral before and was way out of his depth. But that’s who we got, so we proceeded. We can also equate this to one final karmic smack-down for Janie before my mother officially takes her leave.
Brother So-and-so met us at my mother’s house to plan the service. “I haven’t done this before, but I think I’ll interview you and take some notes. Just know that if I write it down, I might say it in the service, so if you don’t want me to say it, make sure I don’t write it down.”
He asked us to talk about my mom, our memories of her and growing up in Broken Arrow. We told him the story of how my parents met back in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They married when mom was only 17, but she lied on the marriage certificate and said she was 18. No law ever got in her way, I assure you – which led us to the story of my parents adopting Ken after they couldn’t have children, and then me ten years later.
When my parents adopted me, mom was 40 years old and daddy was 42. I was an infant who had been born into an orphanage, placed with another family who abused me, and then taken back by the orphanage when they found out. The social worker at the Crittenden home in Houston, Texas called my mother and father and asked them to take in another foster child, as my parents had volunteered to do from time to time. When I was 21 years old, I got access to the adoption papers which included all the case worker notes about the day my mom came to the orphanage to pick me up.
“Mrs. Gideon went directly to Jane’s crib, like she already knew which one was hers. When we asked her to complete the paperwork for foster care, Mrs. Gideon indicated that she did not wish to take the infant girl as a foster child. She wanted to adopt her. Mrs. (head caretaker of the orphanage) explained to Mrs. Gideon that her age unfortunately exceeded what was an allowable range for adoptive parents so she could not adopt a child this late in life. Mrs. Gideon simply replied, ‘Watch me.’ She took the adoption forms along with the infant girl and marched out.”
“Marched.” That was the case worker’s words, not mine, but it sounded exactly like my mother. As I said, the woman always had full command of her environment. Given that I’m writing this story, you can all conclude that my mother overcame Texas law and was granted permission to adopt me later that year.
I told this story to Brother So-and-so. He did not take notes. He asked my brother what other memories we had. My brother talked about us joining First Baptist Church when we moved to Broken Arrow, how the family used to travel around to watch my brother play football. We talked about my brother’s numerous athletic scholarships and the one that was offered from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Brother So-and-so: “That was when they were called the Redmen, right?”
Ken: “Yes, that’s right.”
Brother So-and-so: “You know they had to change the name to the Riverhawks. Something about being politically correct.” (he held up his fingers to form virtual quotation marks around ‘politically correct.’) “If you ask me, everyone’s gone a little bit nuts with this politically correct business. I think a Redman is much scarier than a Riverhawk. Should have kept the original name.”
Brother So-and-so was writing on his notepad.
Me: “DON’T WRITE THAT DOWN!”
Brother So-and-so: “Why not?”
Me: “Do not say the Redmen comment during the funeral. That is so inappropriate and has nothing to do with my mother.”
Brother So-and-so: “So you’re the trouble-maker of the family.”
From then on, Brother So-and-so deferred to my brother and pretty much ignored my comments. Just as my mother would have wanted it.
Once Brother So-and-so left, I remembered I had to return the plate to the lady next door. The lady next door greeted me in Western clothing, no longer dressed in her burqa. She had acclimated to the Broken Arrow attire – polyester, cotton and no head scarves, I’m sad to say.
“You come for visit?” she said. She kissed me several times on my cheek as she hugged me. “So happy to see you.”
I told her that I was returning her plate.
“Where is Lucy?” she said.
My mother had never taught the lady next door any words related to death. I tried several versions – died, passed away, and a few ridiculous gestures that made it look like my mother was sleeping not dead, but I couldn’t quite communicate what had happened. The lady picked up her phone and called her son, who spoke English. I explained to him everything that had happened and handed the phone back to the lady next door.
As she listened to her son, she dropped to the couch, hand on her forehead. Then she began to cry, and she kept saying in English, “Lucy dead?” then she would listen for a bit and say it again, “Lucy dead?” And finally, one sobbing, pain-filled word, “NO!”
She hung up the phone and stood up to hug me again. Through her tears, the lady who first frightened my mother in her black burqa and with her strange middle-eastern accent said to me, “I loved your mama. She like my mama. She was my friend. I hurt so much.” In her final year, my mother had let go of her unwillingness to change or embrace anything unknown and in the process, found a real friend.
Having completed at least one of my mother’s final requests, I went back to the house to make further arrangements. My brother and I wanted to place framed pictures of mom at the church. People would be able to view her at various ages as they awaited the start of the funeral service. I went to the cabinet where we keep all the family pictures and found a note sitting on a stack of photos.
“Use these pictures for my funeral.” My mother had even selected her own funeral pictures. The woman left no death-related stone unturned. I would continue to find other notes around the house that day. There was an envelope with cash in it and a note explaining that this money was to pay the preacher. There was another envelope with cash and a note to buy food for the arriving guests. There were paper plates, napkins and cups already set out in the garage with a note to use them instead of the dishes. She had even written out birthday cards for the year and left them in a neat stack on her dresser. (I hid the cards and quietly sent them out as each person’s birthday came this year. Though, it did cause one of my cousins to think her mom was going senile when my Aunt told her, “I got a birthday card from Lucy today.” My cousin rushed to her mother’s house, worried that she was hallucinating. I guess it did sound kind of crazy.)
The more notes I found, the more I began to believe that either my mother was extremely morbid, or she knew she was not going to live through the surgery.
The note I didn’t expect to find was the one I discovered in an envelope marked, “Janie.”
“I know I never told you this, and I should have, but I’m very proud of you. You make me proud every day. I don’t know why I couldn’t say it all these years. I want you to know you were special to me from the start. I was always happy to call you my daughter. I guess I wasn’t prepared to have such a smart little girl and so beautiful too and I didn’t want you to get too uppity or think bad of me because I’m not as smart as you. I’m sorry. You are a wonderful daughter. Mom.”
That is just like her to give me a note like that and then DIE so I don’t have any way to respond!!! Well, I don’t care if she’s dead or not, I wasn’t going to let her have the last word.
I called my brother and told him that I wanted to give a short eulogy at the funeral. But I knew Brother So-and-so would not take me seriously. So, I asked my brother to, once again, intervene on my behalf and tell Brother So-and-so that I would be speaking. My brother made the call and Brother So-and-so agreed to the request.
Family started arriving later that day. My cousins, who I hadn’t seen in years, had stopped at the Wal-Mart before coming to the house. “There sure are a lot of brown people at the Wal-Mart today,” my cousin said when I greeted him at the door.
This statement suddenly sent a streak of horror through me. Not simply because of the horrific thing he had just said, but because I remembered that my good friend E was at that very moment on a plane from LA bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma…and she would be classified as a brown person.
I’ve mentioned E before on several posts. She is not only a former model, she is a triple threat – excruciatingly beautiful, wicked smart and physically, mentally and emotionally strong enough to knock you out as she sees fit – with words, a stare or a sneak physical attack. She also happens to have an eclectic blood-line. Her mother is Columbian, her father Croatian and her grandfather Nigerian. She looks strikingly similar to the actress Morena Baccarin, who plays the alien Anna on the TV series “V.” In fact, when we walk through the streets of LA, she is often stopped by people who ‘love her in V’ or ‘think she’s a great actress.’ She has gotten tired of trying to convince people that they have the wrong person, so she simply says, “Thank you” and keeps walking like any Hollywood star would. Still, there are definitely shades of brown associated with E’s skin. While I couldn’t have been more grateful for her willingness to come to a foreign land for the sole purpose of supporting me, I began to grasp the potential conflict with the locals…mainly, my relatives.
Sure enough, when E arrived later that day, many of my family members were in awe. Here are some of the comments she endured:
“Can I touch your hair?”
“You sure are purrty.”
“Are you that alien on V?”
“I just miss my mother so much! Can I give you a hug?” (This comment was not made by me or my brother. No, this request came from my cousin, who had started calling MY mother ‘mom’ after my dad died. His real mother was actually my dad’s sister who was alive during all these years that my cousin insisted on calling my mother ‘mom.’ Of course, his mother’s name was Lucille and my mother’s name was Lucy, and Lucille had passed away a couple of months ago while Lucy had passed away that week, so one could easily understand his confusion, right? Therefore, I offered to help clarify.)
“You mean you miss your mom, my Aunt Lucille?” I said.
“Right, Aunt Lucille?” I said with a little more anger.
“No, our mom, silly.”
There were so many levels of disturbing wrapped up in this whole exchange, that it’s hard to separate them all, but one very creepy part was that his quest for a hug from E came off as an attempted hit…at my mother’s funeral. Now, I’m not saying he was flirting with her for sure. I’m just saying he wasn’t seeking comfort from anyone else in the room. E has already demonstrated by showing up in Broken Arrow that she is a generous, loving and loyal friend, but one should never forget part 3 of her triple threat. She is not one to trifle with, and that includes messing with people she loves. I happened to be one of those people, thank God! She offered my cousin a courtesy light tap on the shoulder in place of a hug, and glanced my way. It was only a brief look, but it communicated so much: “Now, look what you’ve made me do. I’m going to have to kill your cousin. Say thank you and open a bottle of wine while you’re at it.” I went for the cork screw. Might be handy for both purposes.
Conveniently, my friend Debra’s mother also died the same week as my mom. Debra and I had grown up together in Broken Arrow and now both live in California. We decided that our very practical, frugal and controlling mothers had decided it made sense for them both to pass in the same week so Deb and I would only have to make one trip home. We also found ourselves shopping for wake food and supplies together, sharing funeral dresses and of course being a great support to each other. We had to agree that our mothers’ plan to die together made the whole funeral thing a much more convenient and tidy affaire.
The morning of the funeral, Debra showed up with trays of left-over food from her mother’s funeral the day before (because that’s what you do in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, people). She also took the pictures of my mom (the ones she had chosen herself for display at her own funeral) and went to the church to set them up for me. Despite her own grief, Deb was willing to apply her newly-acquired funeral knowledge to my mom’s set-up.
E, the brown one, came to the house early carrying my favorite drink, a grande soy chai tea latte. She did not obtain this drink from Starbucks. Instead, she found a local coffee shop on her way to the house. She apparently caused quite a stir.
Barrista: “Well, look at you! You’re not from around here.”
E: “Why, no, I’m not. I’m from Los Angeles.”
Barrista: “I could tell. You’re just so brown. “
E: “Well, thank you.” (what else was she going to say?)
Barrista: “You know Los Angeles means ‘dem angels.’ It was named by your people.”
E: “Actually, Los Angeles was named by Mexicans since California was once part of Mexico, and I’m not Mexican, but yes, it’s a Spanish name.”
Barrista: “You speak English real good. You ain’t even got no accent.”
E: “That’s because I’m American, born and raised in Los Angeles.”
Barrista: “Well, they sure did teach you to speak good English there.”
E told us of her encounter with the local barrista when she got to the house. My nephew was horrified.
Nephew: “Now, that’s just embarrassing. It’s not like Broken Arrow isn’t surrounded by the Creek and Cherokee nations. There are brown people everywhere.”
E: “Maybe they don’t venture off the reservation too much for some reason?”
Truly, Broken Arrow was once a very white, suburban town, but like most of America, the place was now populated by people of many races and nationalities. Why being brown was suddenly at issue, I have no idea. Probably because I invited my friend E, the brown alien, to visit. Alien invasions of any kind don’t tend to set well with Middle America.
Though I was enjoying E’s tales about close encounters of the Broken Arrow kind, the inevitable was upon us. It was time to go to the church and say our final goodbyes to Lucy Gideon. When I walked into the church foyer, I saw my friend Debra standing in front of a table which displayed the photos of my mother. She had done a beautiful job arranging the pictures, yet she had a nervous look on her face. She pulled me aside.
“I didn’t know if I should call you about this, but I’m not sure the sanctuary set up is exactly what you had in mind,” she said.
Upon entering the sanctuary, the first thing I noticed was a big, real-life covered wagon on the stage. The second thing I saw was a wooden frame around the podium. The top of the wooden gate said in Western-style letters, “Welcome to the Saddleback Ranch.” And the most horrifying item was a round, Starbucks-like sign on the podium that had “Saddleback Ranch” written around the outer circle and a picture of a cattle prod in the center, like a logo. Said sign with the cattle prod was positioned right above my mother’s casket, making it look like she was about to be branded and sent out to pasture.
I went to Brother So-and-so and mentioned that there was a problem. The Saddleback Ranch theme was clearly not going to work for my mother’s funeral.
“Oh, it’s vacation Bible school this week, so that’s all for the kids,” he said.
“Yes, but this is not vacation Bible school. This is my mother’s funeral and I can tell you with absolute certainty that she would not be pleased.”
“There’s just not enough time for our volunteers to take the set down and put it back up before school tomorrow,” he said. “Don’t worry. No one will notice.”
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the lady next door arrived unescorted to my mom’s funeral. She had apparently never been to a Western funeral, and her English was still in progress. So when the funeral director instructed the family to go into the family waiting room, the lady next door went with them. When I returned from another unsuccessful conversation with Brother So-and-so, the family was sitting in the family room, staring at the brown lady from next door who didn’t understand English. No one knew what to do. So, I waved for E to come help. E knew exactly what to do. She took the lady next door’s arm and asked her to come and sit with her. I told the lady it was ok to follow E and I would see her after the funeral. E and the lady next door used E’s iPhone to translate Arabic to English and had a wonderful time getting to know one another, just two brown aliens at an old white lady’s funeral.
Brother So-and-so welcomed guests as he stood under the Saddleback Ranch wooden gate. He began the sermon with the story about how my mother and father met and married. He talked about them adopting Ken and how proud they’d always been. He mentioned our family trips to watch Ken play football and, yes, he made the very inappropriate and embarrassing attempt at the Redmen joke despite my objections. Then he said, “Lucy and Lester also found it in their hearts to adopt Janie. I don’t know why. After all, she is a girl and we all know girls are nothing but trouble.” That was about all he had to say about me until he came to the end of his sermon.
“Janie wanted to steal the spotlight for herself today, so she asked if she could say a few words about her mother to y’all.”
Right. That’s exactly what I wanted – to steal the spotlight at my mother’s funeral. Apparently, he was unaware that the ‘spotlight’ at a funeral is on the deceased, not the person behind the podium. Though the podium was hard to miss in this case. For this kindly treatment, I would have to hand him an envelope containing a tip of $100 after the service. I was beginning to understand why the cattle prod had been selected for the logo.
Truth was, as I walked up the steps to the stage, I couldn’t remember what I was going to say. All I could see was the stupid Saddleback Ranch sign and worse, I could hear my mother who had been so specific and particular with her funeral instructions, screaming in my head, “There’s a Saddleback Ranch sign above my head! ABOVE MY HEAD!!! I don’t even like the outdoors! Oh, for cryin’ out loud! CAT HAIR!! See what you made me say? I said Cat Hair in church! And there’s a covered wagon over there! Of all things…man alive!”
I opened with the only thing I could think of to say. “There’s a Saddleback Ranch sign above my mother’s head. All of you who know her also know that she is not happy about this.”
I don’t recall much more of what I said, thanks to my mother yelling in my head, but I did select a passage from her Bible to read at the end of my talk. This is how I wanted her to be remembered:
From the book of Proverbs, chapter 31: “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her, ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman of valor is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”
And with that, I have the final word. So there, mama.