Last winter, I took my mother to see a dead body. This is much less “Stand By Me” than it sounds. A friend of hers from church passed away and she wanted to go to the viewing. I tried to explain to my teenage son why people do this (actually, I think I’m going to have him read my friend Jen Violi’s excellent novel, ‘Putting Makeup On Dead People’).
“Ew,” he exclaimed. “Why would anyone want to go see a corpse?”
I didn’t have a good explanation. “It’s a thing people do. This is different than the funeral, where people talk about the person who died and share their memories, and there’s a mass. The viewing is where you just kind of spend time with the . . . body, and you know, say goodbye.” He was understandably creeped out. I remember, vividly, seeing my own grandfather’s body laid out at the front of the church when I was nine. Layered on top of the grief was a vague, panicky horror at having to approach the coffin to pay respects. His mouth looked wrong. For some reason, that particularly disturbed me. I now realize his lips had been glued together.
The recent deceased was one half of an elderly couple – two women in their 90s. They’d been together for 60 years. The surviving woman, Eva, was understandably lost and bereft. How do you go on after losing someone you’ve spent two-thirds of your life with? When Eva called, disoriented with grief, to tell my mother her partner had died, she repeated, over and over, that she couldn’t live without Carla.
My mother immediately swung into action, calling the church and arranging for a volunteer to go check on Eva. My mother is great at things like this. She is an expert at propriety and all things churchy. However, this was her first mainland funeral, so she was a little thrown off. In Hawaii, where she was born and raised, funerals are large and celebratory. People give money along with condolence cards to help defray the cost of the grand send-off. She wasn’t sure if that would be appreciated here. Eva assured her that all she wanted were prayers, so mom compromised. She paid for a mass to be said in Carla’s honor. She thought Eva would like that.
Eva and Carla were from back East. They’d come to California together in the 50s. In my imagination, they came to the free-spirited San Francisco Bay Area to escape a repressive society that frowned upon their forbidden love. But who knows; maybe they just wanted warmer weather. Not a lot of family made it out. The Polar Vortex had grounded many flights. The viewing was small. It was a good thing she went, my mother said, because she was the only one who’d come from church. Eva requested she sit next to her during the viewing. I find it rather touching, both beautiful and sad, that Carla and Eva were devout Catholics. They were regulars on Sunday, and when my mother moved from Hawaii to California to live with us and started going to mass, they were the first ones who talked to her.
Note: I don’t go to church with my mother, although I will gladly take her and pick her up. Sometimes, lots of times, I feel like an asshole because I know nothing would make her happier than for me to start going to church again, but I can’t do it. Orgasm and faith are things you shouldn’t fake. No good comes of it.
When the viewing was over and after the priest had led everyone in the rosary, my mother came out to the parking lot where I was waiting for her. Eva, who was disabled physically, and now emotionally by grief, had quite a few people willing to help her. This was a relief to my mother, who worries about people not being squared away. Carla had been the caretaker in that relationship, and Eva didn’t even know how to deal with things like bills and paperwork. How was she going to manage?
“I hope she’ll accept the help she needs,” Mom fretted. “She doesn’t want to leave her house, and she won’t talk to a counselor. She just asks me to pray for her. She’s very religious, so she’ll be all right there.” I think she meant spiritually.
“Yes,” I said, “but prayer won’t wash her dishes or cook her dinner.” That sounded a bit too pragmatic, even for me, so I softened it. “Carla would probably want her to be helped.” My mother agreed. I reminded her of the joke about the man who is stranded on the ice and prays to God to save him. An Eskimo comes by, scoops him up onto his sled, and rescues him. Later, the man berates God, saying, “Why didn’t you save me?” and God replies, “I sent you an Eskimo.” Perhaps Eva should accept help from one of the many Eskimos God had sent her, I said.
“YES!” agreed mom. “She should. I will talk to her.” Eva is still deep in mourning. Her grief is fresh and raw. In the meantime, perhaps my mother could just be there for her as a friend. “Oh, yes. And I’ll keep praying.”
I felt only a little duplicitous. As an atheist, I don’t believe in heaven-sent Eskimos. But I do believe in the inherent goodness of people and the resilience of the human spirit. I believe that sometimes you sink all the down to the bottom of the pool but then you push off and rise back up. I believe that help (or God or abundance or whatever you want to call it) is around us and in us, and that all you have to do is be willing to accept it.