The Tunnel

Mom died some weeks back.

I say, “some,” because I am not sure if it was eight, nine, or ten. It was about a month or so ago that my sister said, as we drove to the bank to close Mom’s IRA, “Can you believe it’s already been four weeks since we were sitting in the funeral home making the arrangements?” This is how time feels. I recently read a first-person article in the New York Times by a person who had cared for her own Mom during end-stage cancer. Describing the blurriness of the days, she quoted a nurse who said, “You’re in the tunnel.” That phrase stuck. Mom died of congestive heart failure, not cancer, but Sis and I (fair disclosure: Sis, mostly) had been in the tunnel while Mom went from a routine doc visit to hospital admissions to the cardiac wing to palliative care to hospice. The funny thing about the tunnel is that you don’t remember its actual threshold. Was it last August, when Mom “turned for the worse?” The triple bypass in ‘06? Breast cancer? When Dad was destroyed by pancreatic cancer 19 years ago? It’s all white tile and tubes of light.

I was at home when the news came. Bobbi called, and I experienced an appropriately magnified sense of familial guilt for a trio of reasons. One, I was not there. Two, I was very sleepy because I had just taken an Ambien. Three, I was relieved it was over. Bobbi said she was relieved, too. There were good reasons. Mom died at home. She went peacefully (if not altogether comfortably). She had experienced reconciliations. She wasn’t wearing anyone out anymore. She didn’t suffer a lengthy time of pain or indignity. There was enough money to pay hospice and have her funeral wishes met. We had already seen the will, and knew it was unambiguous and uncomplicated. And, though it may sound indelicate to mention, there was even going to be a bit of estate left after expenses.

As my shrink would later point out, we got off easy. Mom beat Murphy. What’s left is a house full of things, some cash, and a disconcerting, hazy gap where the last how ever many weeks have been. And the memories. We’re still in the tunnel.

Making the arrangements was everything you’d expect, which is to say creepy and surreal. We met a gentleman who must have been the character study for Michael C. Hall’s role in Six Feet Under, down to the expensive dark suit and limp-armed walk. They must teach funeral directors to create as little air disturbance as possible when gliding among the parlors. There will be no whooshing or arm swinging at McCarren and Sons. Be efficient, but never hurry. In one of those odd coincidences of name and appearance, his name was Clete, a thirty-something fellow with the build of a college sportsman. Bobbi and I guessed him to be of the third or fourth generation in the family business. There were several placards reminding us in trustworthy serif typefaces, “We are a family owned and operated funeral home.” We go way back.

He offered cookies. I was confounded by his name and said, trying to be pleasant but merely sounding stupid, “That’s an unusual name.” He gave a practiced deflection and added that what cookies we didn’t eat we could take with us. I continued to imagine patriarchal instruction. Once the bereaved put their hands in the box, the cookies are theirs. This led me to thinking of the rules of restaurant buffets, where one is asked not to reuse a plate when going for seconds. Next, I was recollecting the episode of 6FU where Nate reused a coffin. Clete asked if we’d picked one out from the showroom.

We’d been back there. Teaks and fine woods on the left, metals on the right and in the rear, inexpensive 12-gauge metals on the bottom row, closed, and the better 18-gauge at eye level, open so you could see the embroidered cushions inside. I found myself saying to Bobbi, “Mom wouldn’t like that color. This one has satin, it looks softer. She’d hate that artwork.” Artwork? I learned we needed a $1995 vault to put the $3995 casket in. What’s wrong with this plain concrete one, $900? “It isn’t sealed.” My mind returned to making these same arrangements for Dad in another tunnel, another funeral director solemnly nodding as Mom says, “We have to put the casket in a vault for the day the trumpet sounds and he rises and walks again.” I whispered to Sis, “Don’t you think that when Gabriel shows up God will be able to handle if it’s sealed or not? They are going underground. Miracles, right?” I don’t watch the zombie tv shows, so I don’t know how any of it works. What we did know is my uncle has a job at a funeral home in Georgia, and he’d be bringing his experienced eye to the proceedings. I felt a mild resentment. Peer pressure. What I said was, “Give us the 18-gauge Essex and the Titan vault. That one’s bronze. Can they do it in silver, so they match?”

In the days between Mom’s death and the funeral I caught a stomach virus. I guess that’s what it was. I was baffled. I always thought that “stomach virus” is what lame people say when they’re too hung over to show up for work. I don’t remember anything about the day before the funeral, a Monday. I had planned to go into work—sitting at home sounded like a terrible idea—but bam, there I was, laid-up and home alone. I finally dragged myself out to the north side Kroger to buy canned soup, cheese and crackers, and I remembered why I don’t eat much processed food. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, all packaged up and ready to microwave. I sound like a conspiracy documentarian, but my mother came of age when agriculture exploded into agribusiness and Kraft and Kellogg and the Jolly Green Giant figured out we’d eat anything if it has enough salt, fat, and sugar in it. I grew up eating Van Camp’s Pork and Beans, Frosted Flakes and Little Debbies. We baked Spam and fish sticks and damn near anything else advertised on daytime TV. I once told my trainer I ate Vienna sausages as a boy on car trips and he looked stricken. We drank sodas by the case, too, in returnable bottles, three cents each.

If food contributed to Mom’s death, it wasn’t what got her in the end. By then, she was eating mostly fruit and nuts, having long ago given up her daily coffee and two packs of Tareytons. And if it says congestive heart failure on the death certificate, it was loneliness that closed the lid, taking hold when Dad died 19 years ago at the age of 60. She chose to spend those years alone. It was as certain and slow as anything RJ Reynolds could have marketed and sold. Mom wasn’t a complete hermit—she would see Bobbi and her husband, a few friends, and me—but for the most part she divorced herself from human community. She also suffered from untreated depression, manifest long before she shut herself into her dilapidated home on highway 41. It’s easy for me to be judgmental about her being an isolationist until I remember it’s also my default setting. Going to a shrink, meetings, exercise classes and Whole Foods would have been as alien to her as moondust. She even stopped attending church.

When we finally moved Mom to Nashville five or so years ago, I actually did talk her into trying some senior training sessions at the gym. I ran on a treadmill while she did them. She bagged it after about a half dozen, saying nothing was happening. What I’d hoped was that she’d make some acquaintances, but I let it go. I remember her saying on our first visit, “Don’t you put me in there with the old people.” I completely understood. When I walk past the boomer yoga class at the Y and see a pot bellied guy straining to touch his silver sneakers, I think the same thing. Please. Anywhere but there, God. Then I run downstairs and do burpees so I can pretend 30-something girls might think I’ve still got it.

. . .

The funeral was exactly as Mom wanted it, which was very Southern, very Christian, and a credit to the McCarren and Sons training manual. Mom wasn’t necessarily a traditionalist, except in spiritual matters, where her convictions were far more Pat Robertson than Joel Osteen. It used to bother Bobbi that she watched those nutty preachers so much, sitting in the dark and underlining Bible phrases with a ballpoint. At least she never sent them money.

My stomach was still queasy. Traditional southern funerals are drawn out affairs, and this one was no different, except for the fact that no one brought any food. I briefly hid in the kitchen with a Clif Bar, banana and coffee from an urn that may have been rinsed with embalming fluid. I was practicing slow breathing when Sis stuck her head in and said, “Bill Herndon is here,” and I thought, “OK, I remember him, a friend of Dad’s, but I wonder what I will say to him. ‘Thanks for coming?’” People often remark they don’t know what to say to those who’ve lost loved ones. Next time you think this, remember the person to whom you’re saying whatever it is you’re having trouble saying has no fucking idea what to say back. Mr. Herndon was very gracious, repeating several times, “There are so many great memories,” and while I didn’t doubt it, they were his memories, not mine. I smiled and nodded and tried to keep my banana from bouncing around in my belly like a gestating alien, then went to find a settee.

Variations of this scene repeated for two hours, which seemed like 20. My cousin Harry arrived from Cincinnati in work boots and an electrician’s shirt to inform me “She was a nice lady.” I overheard Aunt Yvonne say to Uncle Waddell, the funeral home brother, whom she calls Charlie, “I took a picture, Charlie. I’m sending it tomorrow. Look at those flowers. They are not fresh.” Meanwhile, other women made remarks about “how good she looks” and flipped the cards on the arrangements to see who sent what. An old girlfriend arrived, once a bartender at a steak house, now a real estate agent. She offered condolences and observed “what she got for that old place probably wasn’t what it was worth.” A convenience store with gas pumps is there now.

All the while, wall-mounted wide screens showed generic scenes of sunrises and streams, since I had put my foot down at the notion of a $500 slideshow of snapshots with Ken Burns effects. We used actual photos pinned to boards on easels. We did buy the guest book: $295. It was a particular sticking point for Sis, who thought it robbery. We all have our triggers.

We were led into the chapel where Cousin Duane spoke before the closed casket. Behind him, another screen showed a loop of a babbling brook in a garden with a screen prompt in the corner I wished someone would make go away: “Press escape.”

Mom wanted words from the Book of Revelation to be read. Duane read them. He’s a sweet, service-oriented man who loves baseball and knows in his heart there’s only one way to get up out of that Titan vault on Judgement Day. He shared anecdotes and made gentle overtures to those of us who’ve not accepted Christ as our savior. He didn’t overdo it, for which I was grateful. He said Mom had been “discombobulated,” which got a laugh, it being a word she would have used. I approve of vocabulary humor. A scratchy speaker system played Judy Collins singing “Amazing Grace.” (I would’ve opted for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” sung by some big black women, but it wasn’t my call.)

We pretended to carry the casket out to the hearse, though it was on a draped dolly. Then we set out with a police escort for Crofton, Kentucky, pop. 900, for the interment.

I drove alone in a Lincoln I’d reserved to motorcade in something more appropos than my Honda Fit. I figured if Mom was going in the Essex, I could at least have a Town Car. I have automobile shame. Clete had hung a great big cardboard “FUNERAL” sign on its rear view mirror and advised me to keep the blinkers on. A hearse with aircraft-grade strobe lights preceded by state troopers isn’t a big enough hint. Kentucky thing, I suppose. After a couple miles I yanked the sign down and turned off the blinkers in a tiny act of defiance. The ticking sounded too much like time. I managed to figure out how to turn on the radio without rear-ending my sister.

In an example of life imitating life, NPR ran a piece on the casket business. Did you know that funeral parlors are legally obligated to use any casket you buy, even ones bought online? Maybe I’ll keep one handy in the attic. You know they’re only going up.

It was muddy and snowy at the cemetery. Plywood had been laid over slicks of cold mud, and the funeral pros wore rubbers over their square-toed comfort dress footwear. The vault and the casket matched. More gentle words were said in the chill air. Then Clete said we were “free to go” and handed a packet of flower seeds to each of us. I slid them in my jacket pocket without looking at them. You just know there was a logo and phone number. Marketing never dies.

Here is a thing we Southerners are not good at: breaking up and getting the fuck on. We dawdle and chat even after we’ve been together for hours hashing and rehashing recipes, relatives and meteorology to a crisp. I was less than talky. We lingered so long I saw them seal the Titan. There was no vaccuum whoosh or click, and I felt robbed. Maybe the seal was just caulk. Down it went, and I heard the diesel engine of a backhoe rev up. The dirty plywood was lifted and a flatbed loaded. A cousin shook my hand and remarked, “Don’t think I’ve ever been to one o’ these where they don’t wait for everyone to leave before they start all ‘at. How you like your Lincoln?”

It is traditional after Southern funerals to gather at the home of a relative for an endless buffet of cold fried chicken and congealed fruit salad. For various reasons of geography, no one had stepped up to coordinate this. I certainly hadn’t; I have a white rug. Word passed that we were to gather at a restaurant in Hoptown. Reservations were phoned after some discussion of the number of guests in our party, which I knew would be over by one. A place called Corral, Sizzlin’ or Barrel wasn’t in the cards. I don’t eat at places with double consonants. Sis wanted to put a giant lily in the Lincoln to take back to Mom’s place after we all had dinner. I said no, that I wouldn’t be joining, following or ferrying. One advantage to being in the immediate family of the deceased: you get a little leeway for antisocial behavior.

I ended up stopping at a Subway. At least there was no buffet. As I draped my jacket over the back of a booth and unwrapped my 6″ turkey, I reflected on a tiny indignity I’d discovered with age: the inability to eat anything with a condiment without wearing some of it afterward. When does that start? A young couple sat in the corner eating sandwiches and saying little, nary a crumb on them. Neither looked as though they’d missed many opportunities for a hoagie or a visit to a tattooist. She displayed a flowing script above a plunging neckline and her gentleman friend wore a flat-brimmed cap above dull, suspicious eyes and a beard tickled by neck vines. I mused about their lives in a mildly judgmental way, remembering how at that age in small town America all I wanted was to get my own place and make grownup decisions about having sex and acquiring permanent body art. Now I’m a 50-something who avoids his family and tries not to get Gulden’s on his good dress shirt.

. . .

I repeat: loneliness killed my mother. Almost every time I called her—less often than I should have—she’d launch into an unbroken sentence that made me feel as claustrophobic as a dentist’s chair. How windy it was and how Aunt Wee Wee was staying with Taylor nearly 24/7 because of his dementia and my fluid is going down but that lasik is killing me and I read in the warnings on the package the side effects get worse with potassium so I can’t eat bananas do you think you could come over and look at the crepe myrtle by the porch the lawn guy is late and he never trims it like I asked. I always recognized those verbal hemorrhages for what they were, both a release and a grab at an opportunity for conversation; what I also understood was how badly isolation had distorted her ability to experience reality. She was aware and more lucid than many, but she also believed the next door neighbor had sacrificed a cat. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that the worst human disease is loneliness, and he was right. It reminds me of a thing I’ve been told on my own journey. “Your head is a dangerous neighborhood. Don’t go up there alone.”

I suppose it is no surprise, then, that when Mom died I did what she would have done. I only told a few people. I tried to trick myself into believing I needed no condolences, company or advice. Who knew there is an actual grieving process? Normal grownups. They even ask about it by name. They ask, “How is the grieving process?”

“Relieved,” I’d say. Surprise! You actually still must do it. I told my business partners and my shrink, but to my usual support group I said nothing. This denied them the opportunity to be helpful and me the support that would have helped me make better judgements. Then I discovered my physical resistance was impaired. I caught a common cold along with an upper respiratory infection and suffered a wicked onset of allergies. Unadvised, I kept going to work and the gym anyway until I fell into an exhausted pile in my bathroom floor. I lost seven pounds, which sounds like a blessing or permission to eat a bacon double cheeseburger until you realize I’m normally a whopping 157-pound guy stretched over a 5’10” frame. I still don’t know if I forgot to eat chocolate or just threw up a lot. If I had been talking to other human beings, maybe one would have said, “Don’t you want to take a day or two off, go to the Belcourt, have a steak and buy a half-dozen totally unneeded shirts at UAL? Soup for you?” All this, of course, was me following the isolationist playbook I learned better than any of the advice I’m giving now, which can be summed up in two words: call somebody.

. . .

The healthcare system is better than you may think.

This will be heresy to many people. I’m supposed to observe what’s wrong. I’ve done that a lot in the tunnel. I can quickly make a list of things I’d like explained, aside from the big issues of Who Has Coverage and How It Gets Paid For: why hospitals are laid out like drunken rat mazes, why nurses speak in first person plural so much (“How are we feeling today?”), why the food looks worse than anything a healthy person would ever put in her mouth, why there are so many overweight people hanging out back of the hospital smoking cigarettes. I can list some peeves, too, the main one being the gaggle of med students following the doctor around trying to look smart and making comments about the sick person as if the person wasn’t lying right there.

Everyone knows the healthcare system is so bonkers only politicians and moneychangers can make it worse; what often gets left out of healthcare “debates” is that there are a lot of people doing hard and heavenly work down in the tunnels. By “heavenly,” I mean what Christians commonly call “the Lord’s work” and agnostics call “service.” Almost all the people I met along Mom’s journey were pretty damned kind, working challenging and impossible hours for nowhere near as much as you’d charge if you had to do it. It’s easy to think going to the hospital ought to be as easy as using Airbnb on an iPhone, but people and diseases are messy. Meanwhile, the rat-maze hallways are staffed day and night by folks who are not getting rich and must explain and re-explain very complicated things to people even more freaked out than the sick ones they love, day in and night out. They are patient, and they are brave.

Case workers outlined what could easily have been an Excel spreadsheet’s worth of end-of-life scenarios while I interrupted and asked abrupt questions. A lady from a company that places people in assisted care facilities arrived within two hours of a phone call to help Sis and me draw decision trees on napkins in the hospital cafeteria without charging a dime. The palliative people were extraordinary. One brought Mom a stuffed dog, one of the few things that made her smile toward the end. We put it in the casket. If anything, I wish the system would help those people do their work more easily and be better rewarded for it, instead of stockholders and executives who get the good parking spots.

I do have a soap box to ascend, too, but it’s not about the healthcare system. It’s about us. Here is my testimony to everyone with elderly people in their lives for whom they may have to decide things: make a plan. Learn the labyrinth now. Make decisions now. Figure out the fucking money now. And if you are old (or even if you’re just middle aged), tell the people who will have to make decisions on your behalf what you want. Making them figure it out on the fly because it makes you feel squirmy is selfish. (For the record, Mom was more buttoned up than we realized in some ways; in others, not at all.)

Wills and powers of attorney are just the beginning. For instance, you may have to learn what a “sniff” (skilled nursing facility) is, where they are, if they have any room, and if you can afford one. These are different from assisted living facilities, which are different from hospice, which is different from professional nursing care, which is different from care-taking. Maybe you know all these things already. We sure didn’t. There’s more. We learned what “POD” means, probate, letters of testamentary. Poor sis learned that constipation is common in the dying and that laxatives should be carefully administered. We learned that you have to wait for someone else to say the dead person is dead and fill out the papers. When you have to learn these things quickly, it is very, very hard. You may think, “I’ll deal with this later.” You sure will. And you will need someone to help you, because your brain will feel like an overripe cantaloupe. Let me reiterate my previous advice. Don’t try this alone.

. . .

Mom’s house is full of things.

It’s unbelievable. What to do with it all? You’ve never seen so many clothes. Mom had style to the end. She was getting compliments on her PJ’s in the hospital. She was a terrific seamstress, too. She had taken a tiny spare bedroom and turned it into a sewing room with fancy devices that make chain-stitches on hems and whatnot. You can barely stand in there. She was also a collector of worthless dishes from yard sales. When I moved her to Nashville five years ago, she asked me if I’d pack her “kitchen things,” and I thought, easy, some china and her precious cast iron skillets, two hours max. I discovered she’d been hiding dishes all over the house, stacked not only in and on buffets and sideboards, but beneath them, behind them, beside them. None of them were worth a hoot. They were what her generation called dime store dishes—plates with big yellow borders and renderings of cartoony fish, ugly earthenware, baby blue melamine. There were incomplete Anchor Hocking glassware sets, random soup tureens and chipped gravy boats. I would hold up a dish from a box buried under a chair and say, “You don’t want these, do you?” She would burst into tears and say, “That’s my turquoise picnic set!” It took me eight hours, three giant rolls of bubble wrap, and every empty liquor store box in Clarksville to pack them up. I was madder than a wet hen. I had thought all the dishes would be liquidated in the estate sale I’d arranged, but she refused to sell any of them. So they made it to her new home in Hermitage, where they remain, stacked in the garage floor to ceiling. Her old Honda Accord will barely fit.

I am learning that the things we leave behind are not necessarily the things we treasure. They take on outsized meaning when we go. For instance, if I die right now someone will discover I have kept a little cedar box shaped like a chest, the kind you find in cheap souvenir shops. It says “Clarksville, Tennessee” on it, and its hasp is broken. Inside is a silver dollar, a piece of quartz, and some coins I didn’t spend when I visited Ireland. The silver dollar came from my maternal grandfather, but the rest is meaningless, including the box. I’ve just never thrown them away.

Things lack context without the people attached. A forgotten key ring or dime store brooch are sudden treasures, while intended heirlooms vanish in attics and vacation hotel rooms. Each of the first four years of my granddaughter’s life, I purchased her a charm on Valentine’s Day from Tiffany and Co. What are the chances she’ll have them at 80 instead of a Walgreen’s hairband? Once, I had Dad’s class ring, Crofton High, 1951. I lost it in an armed robbery. Now I have cheap tie pins and cufflinks he’d probably not thought about for 20 years when he died.

Bobbi keeps going through it all, asking if I want this or that. It’s a search for clues. Why was Mom the way she was? Why are any of us? Parents are a mystery to their children. When Dad died, I went through his truck, and a handful of faded nudie Polaroids of Mom dropped out of the visor onto my lap. That should have left a psychological mark, but I had enough presence of mind to throw them away. I thought it was great that Dad kept Mom where he could just reach up and see her all naughty in whatever Florida roadside hotel they’d been, but I knew it wasn’t a memory that should have passed to me.

I should have known Bobbi would find something. There are birth and death certificates of a sister who apparently died soon after birth. Her name was Jenny. She is buried in Hopkinsville, Kentucky instead of Crofton, where Mom’s Titan was lowered into the ground. According to the dates, Bobbi would have been a year old and I would have been seven when whatever happened happened. I have no recollection of it. The odd thing: it was never mentioned to us. I can only guess that Jenny is another memory we were not intended to have. Was our Dad her Dad? Was it SIDS? What color was her hair? There is no context, just yellowed papers in a shoebox, and somewhere in Hoptown a grave we’ve never seen.

Bobbi sorts on. I accepted two pocket knives and a straight razor made by W.R. Case and Sons of Bradford, PA. Some relatives have held up their hands for this or that piece of furniture. It’s hard for me to see a Barcalounger invoking a meaningful memory, but maybe it will match someone’s decor. I wonder if more surprises are still to come. I picture a scenario: Bobbi is making dinner. She lifts the lid on a soup tureen and discovers a picture of Dad wearing a black leather thong. “Oh!” It would be a perfect reminder of our imperfect histories, shoo out some of the magical thinking about the bits and bobs, show the tarnish on what we clasp so closely. And I picture Sis doing something in a way I have never pictured, a memory not for me. She says to her own husband in an offhand way, “Shall we skip dinner, dear? Let’s go upstairs, and bring your phone. Would you like to take a photograph? Soup will keep.”

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