There are sounds from my childhood I’ve all but forgotten until something triggers a memory. The sharp ding-ding! when driving into a full-service gas station, a metal slinky walking down the stairs, and a Styrofoam cooler squeaking in a car packed full for vacation. As a kid, my mom would dispatch me to the way-back of our green, wood-paneled station wagon to find the cooler and stop that confounded squeaking!
To me, the sound always signaled an adventure. A picnic, a family barbeque, or best of all, a week at the lake with a cooler stocked full of burgers and hot dogs for the grill, and Hershey bars and marshmallows for s’mores.
I was convinced the distinct sight of a Styrofoam cooler couldn’t be confused with anything else. Until I saw the white domed container my brother carried out from the funeral home. My mom’s ashes were inside that container. Missing were the ridged sides of a cooler, and the indentations for drinking cups on the lid, which doubled as a serving tray. But in every other way, it could’ve been that childhood cooler, albeit signifying an adventure of a very different kind.
He carefully placed the container into the trunk next to a bag of birdseed and in front of a box of geraniums I’d bought for the gravesites. I knew full well that my mom was not in that box, but I instinctively reached in and put my hand on the smooth surface of the vault.
When we arrived at the gravesite, there next to my grandparents’ grave was a green outdoor rug, on which sat a ridiculous looking small end table. I’m not sure what I was expecting but certainly something a little more somber than an old wooden table on a fake grass mat.
Most recently, my mom had been recovering in a long-term care facility, the last two months of her stay under quarantine due to COVID-19. After significant fluid developed around her lungs, she struggled to breathe the last few weeks of her life. The fact that she had always been as mentally sharp as anyone I know made the confusion she experienced the last couple of weeks that much harder to accept. Her jumbled thoughts were a symptom of the toxic levels of carbon dioxide in her system. Levels that could only be reduced by advanced life support systems which she had expressly made us promise not to allow years ago.
By the time she was transferred to a hospital, she was already gravely ill. I struggled to reconcile the fact that she was dying with the undeniable joy of seeing her again after so long.
Each day was a little different when it came to her capacity to interact, but the one constant was touch. I kissed her upon arriving, held her hand, rubbed her shoulder, touched her cheek as I told her I loved her when I left. It was not lost on me that taking her hand was the first time I’d physically touched anyone in over two months. Living alone during a pandemic, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d touched another person. Like so many things these days, that isn’t how we’re meant to live.
She knew us the first two days—we talked, smiled, and prayed together—and she mostly slept the next two days, but responded to the sound of our voice and focused on us for a few minutes at a time. She died a few hours after we left, her fourth day in the hospital.
After her death, I was aware that the Touch Clock had been reset. Part bargaining stage of grief – if I don’t touch anyone else, can I still hold on to her? – part silly denial, as if I’d shook hands with a celebrity – I’ll-never-wash-my-hand-again – I tried to seal the memory of those touches into my fingertips.
But this day, my hands felt clammy as I tried to process standing at my mother’s grave, wearing a mask on an otherwise beautiful day, along with my brother, uncle, and aunt. I had gathered some prayers the day before but without anyone’s direction, we were lost for what to do. The cemetery groundsmen, pseudo officiants, stood back and waited for a sign that we were ready.
I wanted to yell at them that I’d never be ready and that they needed to get this wannabe funeral bier out of my sight. Fearing that I’d spoken my thoughts aloud, they came forward and set the table aside. Next they lifted and tossed away the artificial turf to expose an old, stained piece of plywood. They removed the board and revealed a surprisingly shallow square opening in the ground. The man got on his knees and placed the urn vault into the hole, and it didn’t squeak even once.
My brother and I each placed a small memento on top, and after a while, I opened the prayer document on my screen and asked if anyone wanted to read along. My sweet uncle stood next to me and choked out, “I won’t be able to,” as he softly cried.
We prayed aloud, and I broke the rules and held my uncle’s hand. A few phrases stick out:
we celebrate the life…
come together in grief…
hope in resurrection…
into your hands we commend…
He maketh me to lie down…
eternal rest, grant unto them…
but each moment was separate, like the individual photographs in an old reel of film. Advancing frame by frame, we managed to keep moving forward until our service was over. The flag on my grandfather’s grave flapped in the wind like the tail of the film as it slaps against the projector once the movie has ended.
The men quietly returned and they each picked up a shovel and filled it with dirt from the back of a small utility vehicle.
Rather numb by then, the reel in my mind switched to every funeral scene I’d ever watched and so I stepped forward and reached for a handful of dirt. My brother borrowed the shovel from one of the men and scooped up a mound of dirt. The soil in my hand felt dry and warm after sitting in the sun all morning. I opened my hand, the dirt thudded on top of the vault, and I told my mom I loved her as my brother emptied the shovel full of dirt into the grave.
The men filled the hole, replaced two small pieces of sod, and tamped them down until it looked as if the ground had never been disturbed. The sun shone warmly in a clear, blue sky, and a beautiful breeze rustled through the towering trees. My mom was gone.