Nights of the Living Dead - Lake Erie Ride Part 5
About five years ago, when Nell and I were in India, my Mother died. This trip around Lake Erie was the first opportunity I took since India to visit my parents’ graves. Holy Trinity Cemetery (my parents attended Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Niagara Falls all their lives) is one of three contiguous cemeteries located between the Robert Moses Power plant and the Lewiston Bridge, very close to Lewiston, New York, where we were staying. All three cemeteries are manicured and contain many mature shade trees overlooking the lower Niagara River Valley gorge with its densely wooded slopes, sun warmed rocky outcrops, and ribbon of swift silver water.
Mom was ninety-two when we went to India, and although she was in relatively good health, we knew the time of her death at this age was a crapshoot; we even talked to her in her assisted living home about death and she encouraged us to go to India. Mom had been widowed almost forty years and the notion that she would ever have a relationship with another man, let alone remarry, was ludicrous: God no longer made men tough enough. Her eyesight was poor and she could no longer knit and crochet. She had lost her driver’s license (something she would never forgive me for) and all her friends were dead; therefore she couldn’t add to the dozens of throws and afghans already bestowed on us. And she no longer could travel. Mom loved to travel and was upset when we suggested postponing any of our own travel until after her death. Mom said, “Joey, do you know the day I’ll die?” When I said I didn’t, she said neither did she, “So go on your trip.” Then she said, “Can I have the kitchen fix you something to eat?”
We made sure our son Alex knew what had to be done if Mom died before our return from India; he knew Mom had long ago purchased burial insurance from a Jenison funeral home (“I don’t want to be a burden to anybody after I’m gone,” yada, yada, yada). I told Alex I spoke to the funeral director at the time Mom purchased the insurance and was assured everything was covered, including inscribing the gravestone with Mom’s date of death — her birthdate was already there, along with Dad’s birth and death dates.
Nell and I were in the Himalayas, in northern India, when we received the following email about Mom (Babci — Polish for “Grandma”) from our son Alex:
Dad and Mom,
I awoke this morning to my phone ringing, which is odd; the only people who call me on Sunday are my parents. The feminine voice on the other end said she was a nurse from Hospice and that Babci had passed away this morning. She said that she would be at OakCrest in about a half hour. I told her I would meet her there.
I got out of bed, not yet awake, and got in the shower. Somewhere between lather and rinse my eyes started to tear, and I felt a sadness that was unexpected. I knew she was dying, I knew it was where she wanted to be, but somehow it is still very sad.
I drove as fast as I could to Jenison, retrieved the information from your house for the funeral home and people to contact, and proceeded to OakCrest. Upon my arrival Pam, the ward nurse, gave me a big hug and expressed her condolences. She stated it happened very quickly and peacefully, I assume they tell everyone that. I always imagine someone dying sitting upright, suddenly with a terrible look on their face, and then slumping back down while exhaling their last breath.
When I got to her room she was reclined in the chair, mouth open, eyes closed, hands neatly folded on her lap. She had a small multicolored afghan across her legs; she did look peaceful, or at least more comfortable than she had in the previous few days.
I knelt down beside her and held her hand as I always do when I visit her. I told her I love her and that I was happy that she had reached her goal. After a few minutes the hospice worker came in and asked if there was anything she could do for me. She told me that she had not contacted the funeral home yet, and said that she would whenever I was ready. I said she could.
I sat in Babci's room with her for about an hour, thinking about the times that she and I had when I was younger, washing her car, frosting cakes, and making cookies. It's strange to see someone who was very energetic and independent so completely still: no breath, no twitching, just there.
Sarah, a woman in a white oxford shirt with black slacks and a black blazer, came into the room and said she was from the funeral parlor. For some reason I expected a large man in a Hearse not a thin girl in a minivan. She was very polite and friendly, she stated that I could have as much time as I wanted, and when I was finished she would transfer Babci to a cot and take her to the funeral home. I thanked her and stated that she could take her now, and that I would be leaving. She scheduled an appointment with me for Monday morning so I could go over all the arrangements with the funeral director.
Driving away I felt a little relief. I am glad that her life is complete, and quite a life she's had.
P.S. Happy Birthday Mom
Any lingering doubts I had about whether or not Alex could handle things were dispelled by that email. Alex’s relationship with Mom was occasionally fraught with tension stemming from her need to control every aspect of our lives — periodically we all battled her — but he was mature enough to separate the bullshit from the care and love with which she always embraced him. Still, having never myself dealt with funeral homes, I didn’t know what problems lay hidden.
The first hint of trouble was when I received another email in India from Alex saying the funeral home people maintained the policy did not cover transportation mileage from Jenison, Michigan, to Lewiston, New York. I said that’s crazy, what does “transportation” mean if it doesn’t include mileage, and that Mom would never purchase a policy without a provision to ship her body to be buried next to Dad. Alex said he didn’t see anything specific about mileage in the policy and what did I want him to do? We still had three weeks before we were to return from India. The funeral home had me by the nuts: If I had them hold Mom’s burial until Nell and I returned and could deal with them directly, I would incur storage costs far in excess of the mileage costs. I told him to write a check for the mileage and get Mom buried, and to make sure the funeral people knew to get her date of death inscribed on her headstone.
The day of our graveside visit, John and Jill stayed at the motel while Nell and I rode the short distance to the cemetery. When we got there we parked Big Ruby on the edge of the cemetery access road. I scanned the immediate area and noticed some of the gravestones were flanked with small urns containing splays of artificial flowers. Isn’t it strange how artificial flowers look deader than dead flowers? We located the Abramajtys headstone and I immediately said, “Mom’s death date isn’t on the stone. Son of a bitch! All this time I thought Mom was dead!”
That night Mom came to me: she wore a pink ruffled blouse buttoned to the throat and tucked into her pale blue ratty polyester slacks, and had on those cheap canvas deck shoes that are lousy for her bunions. She sat on the edge of my bed and said, “Are you going to take care of my headstone?”
I told Mom it was going to be a real pain in the ass doing so long distance from home because I didn’t have an extra day to stay in Niagara Falls to make arrangements. I said it was one of those tasks where I’m likely to encounter recalcitrant people and end up pissed off. I’d have to start with the funeral home and they would sandbag me and I had no leverage. I was going to have to rely on the charity of strangers, and that never works out for me.
“I will haunt you for the rest of your life if you don’t take care of this.”
“I know you will,” I said, noticing she wore her ubiquitous flowered apron that I’m sure she showered in.
“I’m not kidding.”
When I awoke in the morning I told Nell about my dream and Nell said, “She will haunt you forever. You know how she is.”
“I know. I’ll deal with it when we get home.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“Yeah, she asked if I was hungry.”
From Lewiston, New York, we set out for Buffalo and on the way passed by the infamous Love Canal EPA Superfund pollution area, crossed the upper Niagara River onto Grand Island, took the Island’s scenic river drive to view the bulk and strength of the upper river one last time, and again crossed the river onto the Buffalo Skyway from where we renewed our friendship with lake Erie and had a panoramic view of the busy Port of Buffalo located where Erie enters the Niagara River. Today’s destination was the Clarion Hotel in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Lake Erie’s southern shoreline, like the Canadian side, can be viewed continuously because the road is between the lake and any buildings. A taut breeze blew off the lake requiring us to wear all our gear for warmth though the sun winked from wave tops. We passed many miles of grape vineyards and I remarked to a Gas Station Counter Lady at one of our fuel stops that I didn’t realize this was such a big wine area. I also noted that we saw few wine tasting and sales rooms compared to the number we saw when traveling around Lake Michigan. The Counter Lady said most Lake Erie grapes were made into juice and shipped to other states where the juice is blended with a particular area’s indigenous grapes and sold under a vintner’s label. “You don’t grow enough grapes in Michigan to make all that Michigan wine,” she said. “You use some of our grapes and call it Michigan wine.” As a longtime fan of Michigan-made wines, I felt violated.
We reached Erie, Pennsylvania, and checked in at the Clarion Hotel where a friendly front desk lady helped us get much needed laundry done. The Clarion has a large atrium with an inviting pool where we soaked away the day’s riding grime. I floated on my back with closed road-weary eyes and once again Mom came to me; this time she was younger, I’d say only in her seventies, and looked her lifelong robust self as a woman who had never been sick a day in her life, or if she was she didn’t admit it.
“You know Joey, you probably should start by calling the funeral home.”
“I know Mom. I know.”
“What did you say?” Nell asked, bobbing next to me.
“Nothing,” I said.