My mother was late for her own funeral. It’s not unusual considering throughout her life, my mother was late for everything. She made an art of it. My father said she worked on Irish time; my mother called him a silly Prussian. They made an art of insulting each other with great affection.
My mother was a teacher of seventh grade science, and she was never late for class. She was ruthlessly efficient about being on time for school, but in all other areas of her life, time was a thing of little consequence. It drove my father, who fervently believed in punctuality, crazy.
Nonetheless, she was late for her funeral. It didn’t matter that she lay in the funeral home right next to the church, dressed in her best red suit. I’d picked it because it was her favorite. I remember going with my father the day to make arrangements. The funeral director was kind. He was, in fact, one of my mother’s former students.
“Do you have a recent picture?” he asked kindly.
I didn’t want anyone seeing my mother the way she looked recently. She died of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a disease that turned her lungs to cement. When she died, she was barely ninety-five pounds. She’d hate to be remembered like that.
My father just shook his head. He couldn’t get past the thought that his Louie was gone. The morning she died, he showed up on my doorstep in a panic.
“I think Mom’s dead,” he said. “You need to come check.” Then he started to cry. I stood there in my ratty plaid nightgown and patted him. I think I said it would be okay. It didn’t seem real. Mom couldn’t be dead, yet she had been dying by inches for the past five years.
My husband came downstairs, expressed condolences and said he’d watch the kids who were still asleep.
It took me a minute to throw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.
I drove with Dad to their apartment right down the road. They had sold their massive five bedroom house because it had become too much to keep up. They now had a lovely garden apartment. My mother hated it because she missed the house; my father loved it because it was small and comfortable and all one floor.
The sun had just risen over the horizon, and the sky was all pink and orange. I thought it was too beautiful a day to die. The weather was perfect, not too hot or cold, the leaves were falling, but the trees were still bright with color—red and gold and orange. Fall was my favorite time of year, but didn’t it herald the end of life and the beginning of winter?
I knew my mother was dead the moment I crossed the threshold of their bedroom. She lay on her back, gray-skinned with her mouth slightly open.
“Please check,” Dad said, his voice trembling.
I went over and took her hand. It was cold. I put my hand in front of her face to feel for breath. Nothing. I felt for a pulse. Nothing. “She’s gone, Dad.” I couldn’t believe I was so calm.
“Put her teeth in. I can’t stand to see her without her teeth in. She’d be so embarrassed.”
“What?” I looked at my father like he was crazy, but he was serious. He wanted me to put in my mother’s dentures.
They floated in a cup beside the bed. I stared at the creepy teeth, floating in the viscous fluid and felt sick. I would have been a lousy nurse. Still, my father stood in the doorway watching me expectantly. I reached into the cup, pulled out the uppers from the slimy water, and wiped them with a tissue.
“Where’s that denture stuff?” I asked.
My father produced a tube that contained pink goo that resembled toothpaste. I spread it over the uppers and proceeded to jam them into my mother’s mouth. I suppose if you wear dentures, you get used to the whole procedure, but I don’t wear them. Further my mother was not cooperating.
She had been dead a little over two hours by now, so rigor mortis was probably beginning to set in. Trying to get her mouth open far enough to push the teeth in was hard, if not impossible. I pushed. I shoved. I climbed onto the bed until I was straddling my mother and jamming these teeth into her mouth, but the effect made her look bucktoothed.
I felt obscene. I could hear my father crying.
“Dad,” I said. “We’re going to stop messing with her teeth. I’m going to call her doctor, and the undertaker.”
We did both, and she ended up at O’Brien’s Funeral Home. Jack O’Brien was running the family business, and in the way of all undertakers was solicitous and kind. His real name was John Fitzgerald Kennedy O’Brien because he was born on November 22, 1963, and his mother thought it was a fitting tribute to the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.
The O’Briens had an indoor pool, and poor Jack fell into the pool one day when it had been drained for repair. My mother used to say he was a goodhearted boy. She often said that about pleasant students who worked hard but weren’t academic stars. “I’m not sure I want to go to O’Brien’s when I’m dead,” Mom said, more than once. “I don’t want the O’Brien boys looking at my naked behind.”
“You won’t care,” Dad always said. “You’ll be dead.”
“I’ll be there in spirit,” Mom would reply.
I thought of that as Jack O’Brien talked to us fondly about Mom. He said he remembered that every Friday she’d tell them stories about Ireland and England and Rome, or sometimes she would tell them ghost stories or legends from the upstate coal town where she was born. She always thought seventh graders would get bored with story time, but hers became legendary.
“Don’t worry about the picture,” Jack O’Brien said. “I’ll make her look like she did when I was in seventh grade, and she told us the mystery of the ninety-nine steps. I’ll never forget that. I don’t think I slept for a week.”
“That was one of her favorites.” I remembered the ninety-nine steps. We even visited them when we went to visit some of our relatives “up state.” They did lead to a cemetery, but in the daylight with small houses on each side, they weren’t terribly frightening. When my mother talked about them, they became shrouded in fog and mystery, with murderers on par with Jack the Ripper lurking in every shadow.
We shook hands and left, and Jack O’Brien kept his word. On the day of the viewing, my mother looked twenty years younger. In her red suit and crisp white blouse, she looked beautiful. I was glad for my father because at least his last memory would be a good one.
We went to the church and waited. Mass was supposed to begin at ten; the guests were seated. The organist, a friend of my father played some mournful piece. I wished he would play Chopin’s funeral march because it would have amused my mother, but he didn’t. I don’t remember now what he played.
One of my mother’s most adamant last wishes was for a piper.
“I want a piper, and I want him to play McIntosh’s Lament,” she said. “Not Amazing Grace. They all play Amazing Grace.”
My husband said he’d arrange it. I hoped the piper knew McIntosh’s Lament. I shifted my son in my arms while my daughter peered out the church door.
“Can’t we sit?” she asked.
“We have to wait for the casket,” I said.
“When is that coming?”
At 10:15, we decided to sit. We walked to the front of the church and wondered what was happening. The priest approached us as discreetly as possible and said, “We have another service at 11:00.”
“She’s right next door,” I said. “I don’t know what the problem is.”
A 10:19, Jack O’Brien and his men rolled the casket through a side entrance. No time for pallbearers. They wheeled the casket into place, and Jack came over to whisper, “I’m so sorry; the wheel jammed, and we couldn’t move it. I didn’t have another–”
“It’s fine, Jack,” I said. I almost laughed. I thought, my mother’s late for her own funeral. It’s fitting. It was her way of having the last laugh. It cheered me immensely even as I wiped away the tears. “Thank you for everything.”
We zipped through the ceremony. In a way it was a mercy because my father looked as if he was about to fall over. We had used my parents’ old church so the pastor gave a lovely talk about my mother’s many virtues. It was brief and to the point.
After the ceremony, the pallbearers at last got to lift the casket. At that moment the air filled with the unmistakable sound of the bagpipes. A piper had emerged from the back of the church in full kilt, and he played a mournful tune that, if it wasn’t McIntosh’s Lament, was surely someone’s. My husband had arranged the piper who knew his stuff.
I followed the casket out along with my children into the sunlight and wondered if having a real Irish piper made up for Jack O’Brien seeing my mother’s naked behind.