“Carol when the time comes, remember what I told you: Your mother won’t be buried in a shroud.”
From experience, when my mom referred to herself as “your mother,” I knew I’d better listen up. We had just left an attorney’s office where my mom had signed her end of life directives: no feeding tubes, no ventilators, heroics, and Do Not Resuscitate orders.
The day before, I was holding my mom’s hand when her doctor gave her a harsh double diagnosis, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. My mom’s initial reaction to the grim news was delivering the punchline to the classic good news/bad news joke, with extra irony: “Well doctor, the good news kinahora, is at least I don’t have cancer.”
For the previous year, my mother had masked her growing anxiety about her fading memory following the old adage: You can’t change your luck, but you can pick your perspective.
So, for instance, if someone greeted her in the supermarket or maybe the synagogue, and she couldn’t place the person’s name, she quipped: “I have proper noun disease. So tell me, was it you or your sister who just died?”
My mom was acting out of Jewish tradition. Historically Jews didn’t have weapons. They had a sharp wit.
Initially I misinterpreted my mom’s reactions as premature doom and gloom. I didn’t get that the macabre humor meant that she was exerting some existential control over a massive bodily betrayal.
But I finally understood that and so much more after she died.
A few months after that l, we held my mom’s funeral. She was buried in a glitzy gown of gold lamé and hot pink satin. The dress had an interesting origin. My mother in law had once bought it for me to wear to my sister in laws wedding. Then I wore it to my sister’s wedding and my mom wore it to a formal affair, describing the style of the gown, excuse the expression, “drop dead.” Those were happier days.
Back then, I described the gown as “Bronx Baroque” but wore it because I didn’t want to hurt my mother-in-law’s feelings. And then when my sister picked hot pink as her bridesmaids; color , I wore it again. By the time my mom passed away, all her formal dresses had been donated to charities—but the hot pink “getup” she admired was still hanging in my closet.
Suddenly, it seemed like the right choice.
So why didn’t my mom want to wear a shroud? She told me before she died she always dressed to make a statement. And wearing a shroud, she would be like everybody else. So in her hot pink gown, my mother remained unique, even at her own funeral. It felt like the most fitting tribute we could imagine.