“Do you want to start a pool?”
My uncle paused his video game and looked up at me. “What?”
It was Monday, November 7, 2016, and my mother’s funeral was that afternoon. I wasn’t really looking forward to it. For one thing, I’d written three different eulogies and thrown them all out. For another, I don’t like hugging strangers, and every person there was going to hug me while they told me how sorry they were. Since my mom wasn’t married at the time of her death, there was no husband to soak up any of the attention, and that was going to make me the “star” of the funeral. Hurray.
Even more than that, though, I just knew that everyone was going to come up to me and say, “At least she’s with Eldon now.” Eldon was my father, and he died when I was a teenager. I really didn’t want to hear that all day long, so the only thing that made sense was to manipulate the situation so that I’d think of something else instead. Something funny. Like a bet.
“Do you want to start a pool?” I repeated. “For how many times we hear she’s with Eldon now?” By my estimation, there was about a 50 percent chance he’d say no and a 25 percent chance he’d think that was too inappropriate—he’s a Roman Catholic priest, after all, and would in fact be officiating my mother’s (his sister’s) funeral. So when the look of consideration turned to one of approval, I admit I was a little surprised.
“Yeah. We’ll probably hear that a lot.”
“I bet around ten.”
“I’ll go under.”
“Should we include Uncle Mark?”
“Yeah, get him.”
I called him upstairs, and of course he wanted in, too. We established a set of rules (obviously it can’t count if one of us says it) and agreed to keep it among just the three of us—partly because other people knowing could affect the outcome and partly because it was just a deeply inappropriate game to be playing in the first place. Alive-mom would have disapproved, but I have a feeling that after-death-mom has loosened up a bit. None of us caught fire, anyway.
Family slowly started showing up and we made our way to the church, where I was immediately accosted by this little white-haired lady. “You wouldn’t happen to be [my first and last name], would you?” I could immediately tell by her…enthusiasm…that I would soon wish very hard that I wasn’t. She had all these questions and statements and it all seemed like stuff that should have been figured out already. “And you’re sure the Father (my uncle) knows you’re giving the eulogy?”
“He’s my uncle…so yes.” I did not like this woman. Not one bit. Thankfully, she finally wandered away to irritate someone else.
No sooner did she walk away, though, than another lady appeared. “We need your approval to open the casket.” It’s very uncommon for a Catholic funeral to have an open casket, and we weren’t going to keep it open for the whole ceremony, but we did arrange to have it open for about half an hour before the service as a viewing. I gave her approval. She opened it. I immediately regretted giving her approval.
She looked…wrong. There was a lot of fluid in her body when she died and it…showed. Her makeup was perfect, they’d painted her nails, they’d adjusted her outfit to cover as much as they could, but there was clearly only so much they could do. Her face…everything was in the right place, but it looked like the skin had sort of pooled down around her neck (an area my mother felt particularly sensitive about). It looked nothing like her, and this became the third time in two weeks that my mother looked like a corpse to me. I added it to the other unsettling images that have seared themselves into my brain.
I stared down into the casket, and I could almost actually hear her telling me, “You close that right now!” The lady who opened it asked if I’d like her to change anything. I voiced my only concern while acknowledging that there wasn’t much to be done. She helpfully tried to fluff the pillow a bit more to maybe cover the neck area, but it didn’t do much.
My family and I briefly discussed whether or not to leave it open. Part of me felt like we had to because we said we would, and what if people wanted to say goodbye to her and get closure? But…I mean, if that’s what you were hoping for, you were going to be disappointed either way, because this wasn’t her. We finally decide to close it after all. I felt a little guilty, but I think I would have felt worse leaving that as the last image in a lot of friends’ and family’s minds.
I was grateful that not too many people came up to see her while we were standing there deciding what to do. Apparently the family huddled up, looking into the casket with furrowed brows and panicked whispers is universally acknowledged code for “there’s probably something wrong with the body; maybe give that a minute to resolve.”
For my eulogy, I ended up just talking about how I’d written three eulogies and thrown them all out. Everyone told me it was very nice.
The bet? No one said it! All three of us lost! No one bet on zero.
But since the whole point was that I didn’t want to hear it at all, I’m still counting myself as the winner.