Death at a Distance

Creative Nonfiction
David Sapp


Photo Credit: Tim Pierce/Flickr (CC-by)

Somehow, I navigated my mother’s death from a desk. Actually, I wasn’t that far away—only eighty miles or so from everyone and everything, but there was a distance between us. I got a call at the office from Rosemary. Aunt Rosemary and Uncle Perry, my mother’s phlegmatic older brother, lived on the edge of Cincinnati amidst cul-de-sacs, in a tidy, ordinary raised ranch with avocado green siding. Even at eighty-something, her thick German accent came clipped and efficient over the telephone wires.

Perry brought Rosemary back from Germany after he was stationed there in the army not long after WWII when her country was still hungry and ruined—love among mounds of bones and brick. The last time I’d seen them I was fourteen, when I stayed a couple of weeks after Mom returned from the psych ward—when Mom and Dad pretended to sort out their marriage. I rode roller coasters at Kings Island with cousins Clara, Carl, and Kevin. I never really liked them very much and never really knew why. Still don’t. I gathered the details from Rosemary, politely asked after her family, and braced myself for the funerary routine.

Apparently, funeral homes, in turns, receive the indigent or corpses with inadequate instructions. Over the phone with the undertaker, overall a nice-enough-man, I got right to it as I’d been through the checklist with Dad: forms, prices, pick-up and delivery. (Was grief on the agenda?) No, I wouldn’t be buying a casket or urn. Very cordially but evenly I said, “Waive the surcharge or I’ll walk away.” With striking alacrity, he took my credit card numbers. I never saw Dad dead. I’d taken a day off from the hospital vigil and missed the end. To comfort me, the hospice volunteer said, “Sometimes they wait.” And, oddly, “When the toes curl, it’s time.” But there on the computer screen was my mother’s digital face required for identification. I was compelled to claim her after all. (What if I didn’t?) Her image fixed and final, I wouldn’t know how she aged or what about her remained the same. Was there a gesture or expression I’d recall? I typed, “That’s her,” and I envisioned her being wheeled to the furnace. My newly re-discovered cousin Candy picked up Mom’s ashes packed in a non-descript bag and box (I wondered at the lack of advertisement printed on the cardboard to boost sales: Bob’s Funerals: Caskets for Corpses and More.) and returned her to our hometown where she sat, still flummoxing us all.

I never traveled to the Nazareth Apartments, the Catholic-run assisted living facility in Columbus (coincidentally, just around the corner from Grant Hospital where, for a short while, Dad was pumped for-no-damn-good-reason with chemo). Was it a home? Was it a good or bad place? Were her keepers kind or incompetent? The first person I talked with when I called confused Mom with another, I’m sure, much more pleasant resident. There were two deaths that day. When I explained who my mother was, the nice lady seemed to be unaware of my mother’s absence. And when the identity finally dawned on her, her condolences thinned, her voice strained—distant. Either, oh, I was the son who never visited, or she was also the recipient of Mom’s mania. I didn’t know. Didn’t ask. Didn’t care.

The second seemed to be a little more with it, an administrator in charge of something or other. From her voice I imagined a thoughtful but naïve young woman. After Mom’s body was discovered and removed, her room was surveyed and inventoried. I asked knowingly, “And what did you find?” Clearly astonished, she described a hoard of wide-eyed baby dolls glad to be rescued, precarious towers of paperbacks, and ten grand in small bills rubber-banded in rolls, some of the cash stacked in a cigar box wrapped and padlocked with a rusty dog chain—likely my dog, Smokey’s, who would not be tied and who’d died forty years before. The reliquary rattled her a bit. She sealed the room and I wished her good luck and “Do whatever needs done.”

Before the cremation, I sent an email to the Diocese of Columbus asking for a priest and last rites. I thought this would be what she wanted and what a dutiful son might do. Hopefully, they’d forgotten about how she’d sent the bishop a fetching Playboy centerfold with hard candy glued to the nipples. I was informed that no priest was available (Couldn’t they rustle up an altar boy at least?) and that last rites were reserved for those still breathing—thus, the qualifier, “last.” Maybe there was simply a shortage of holy water at the time and they were too embarrassed to confess. I dispatched a fiery email to the Vatican, I’m sure, handled by the Swiss Guard with asbestos gloves, and a cardinal’s secretary assured me that Mom was with God. I thought, so what’s with all the fuss over these rituals? What’s the point of the essential oils? I should have reminded them of Luther, his 95 Theses and the public relations disaster of indulgences. Instead, I pretended to be a good Catholic boy, felt guilty, and let it all go. There remained a distance between us.

My mother’s remains languished with Uncle Wayne—Mom in Limbo, what-to-do-with-her Purgatory. Her three brothers, a blind, morose lot, insisted on this and that: “Your mother would have wanted…” I asked how much they’d like to chip in for what she “would have wanted,” thousands to bury her grit beside their mother: hole, crypt, plaque, fees and commissions. I suggested scattering her in a field near the farm where they all grew up. To be fair, this probably resurrected memories of a hard life with their cruel, abusive father. When I offered, “How about I dump her in a ditch?” abruptly the letters, emails, and phones fell silent. How were these uncles, themselves victims, unaware of the violence she brought to our home—the flying jelly jars and coffee cups, garbage neatly tucked in shoes, Dad’s torn shirts?

After writing the obituary for the local news, I’d had enough. (I included her high school senior picture, a portrait when all was black and white, when she smiled with genuine Eisenhower-era optimism—before divorce, custody battles, the years of rage, and three decades of exile.)

For a while, the decisions and details were all mine. When my sister finally returned my calls, our first conversation in ten years, her voice was more shrill than I remembered: the ignorance, prejudice, and purposeful poor grammar more pronounced. When she commented tangentially on Obama, “that half-breed in the White House,” I nearly hung up. I could hear our mother. We wouldn’t be meeting for a nice quiet lunch. The distance remained between us. Still, thankfully, my sister took over: probate, checks, the sorting of possessions. When I spoke with the lawyer, our tone was conspiratorial. I pointedly treated him kindly knowing he was required to work for the ghost of our dead mother. There was a service. A priest blessed Mom after all. I wasn’t there.

I showed up in person a few months later. My sister found a plot in St. Luke’s Cemetery, a nice, cheap spot overlooking the blue-hazed Ohio hills. Dad was there. Mom would be a few slots down and to the right. But that was a guess as the headstone wasn’t planted yet and there were two fresh graves from which to choose. To weep, I’d need to return, but either little mound of earth was, equally, a complete stranger. Despite the popular and over-rated notion of closure, a distance remained between us.

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David Sapp, writer, artist and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence grant and an Akron Soul Train fellowship for poetry. His poems appear widely in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. His publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior; chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha; and a novel, Flying Over Erie. Email: danieldavidart[at]gmail.com