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The Final Act

The final call finally came. It was at 10:07 Wednesday night when the phone rang and the Caller ID displayed for the last time the words ‘Roman Eagle Memorial Home.’ The nurse in charge of the second shift of the Middle East Ward, a highly-competent young lady who never failed to impress me with her unfailing devotion to duty always carried out with a welcome cheerfulness, was to the point. The conversation consisted of her informing me, “Mr. Alderson, your mother has just stopped breathing” and my thanking her. It was over.

The final act had begun that morning around 9 o’clock. I had entered my mother’s room to find nursing home personnel hovering over her. Her breathing was ragged and loud; she was emitting a guttural noise that I was independently informed was referred to in the nursing profession as ‘chain logging,’ otherwise known as a death rattle. Time was drawing short and unlike the false alarms that had occurred over the last three days, there was likely to be no returning from the brink.

It still took a while. Mom, who had become some what of a medical marvel and legend among the nursing home staff for her ability to hang on long past any timetable predicted for the end of her life, was not quite ready. She spent a last day drawing increasingly shallow breaths while her blood pressure and pulse began slowly falling. At 7 that evening family members that had gathered were told that this might still go on for another day or so and advised to go home and get some rest and had. Three hours later she took her last breath.

Thus ended a six-month period of dealing with various doctors, two hospitals , two nursing homes, a surgery [my own] and mostly watching helplessly as a life went steadily downhill, finally becoming a nightmare to all involved, including her. When the final call came, it was received with a sense of relief that she would no longer have to exist in a state she had long dreaded and we would no longer have to observe it. There are indeed fates worse than death and since last early April I have had a bird’s eye view to them.

Following a death there is generally a funeral. That would be the case this time and it was kicked off in a fairly interesting manner. I had visited with the principal of a local funeral home a couple of weeks ago when it became obvious that the inevitable was going to become inevitable. Much of the groundwork had been laid, or so I thought.

This gentleman had called me shortly after 9 the Thursday morning following my mother’s death. We set up a noon appointment to finalize things. We were quite surprised upon arriving to discover in the intervening 2 ½ hours that the principal’s own father had unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack and we would be re-directed to someone else. We were off to a rousing start. There were to be other surprise twists that would add an element of farce to the whole proceeding, including the funeral home spelling my mother’s last name wrong in the obituary. I will get to another in a bit.

Our new man at the funeral home had us added to his already not unsubstantial workload [four bodies already on premises, augmented by the addition of the principal’s father]. He seemed up to the challenge.

He received us with his funeral game face on, beginning by informing us of how terribly sorry he was for our grievous loss. He quickly discovered that he was dealing with people determined to celebrate a long life well-lived rather than mourn the passing of a woman who for the last few months had bore little resemblance to the one of whom we held such fond memories. We were not exactly grief-stricken.

He doggedly persisted in the somber tones, however, carrying them on as he later escorted us into what is known as the Merchandise Room. The first thing that greets one in this area is what I assume is the most expensive casket to be found in the house, one that retails for more than ten thousand dollars. We were past it in a flash as my uncle took me aside and advised me to moderate my choices somewhat, since, as he said, money spent here would be “buried money.” It made perfect sense to me.

A moderately-priced casket was chosen, neither the most expensive not the cheapest, but one that seemed to fit my mother, a woman not known for her extravagance.

The funeral guy made one more attempt at ‘selling us up’ as we moved on to the vault selection. He, naturally, started with the most expensive one, a little number also carrying a price point of over ten grand. He sounded much like a Tupperware salesman as he described how his top-of-the line model, once sealed and, presumably burped, would keep Mom high and dry, or, in this case, low and dry for all eternity.

He finally threw in the towel when, as he was explaining how this baby was warranted for fifty years against leakage, I interrupted to ask how many warranty calls has been received and how many times they were checked. He knew when he was beaten and took our order for a more moderately-priced one. I doubt very seriously that in fifty years I will be digging up the grave to determine moisture content.

With the arrangements out of the way, we returned to my mother’s home to begin what is known as the wake. It involved serious amounts of food. While those unfeeling scoundrels Larry and Clota were unable to cook for us, as they were heartlessly heading south on I-95 towards Miami when Mom breathed her last, others pitched in to pick up the slack.

It seemed that immediately upon receiving the news of Mom’s passing, the entire congregation of the Fairview United Methodist Church headed straight for the kitchen and shortly afterwards began showering us with food. Enough chickens, cows and pigs were slaughtered to feed us that there may soon be additions to the list of endangered species. Whole supermarkets were stripped bare of produce.

Food rolled in. We scarcely had time to polish off an entire side of beef before someone showed up at the door bearing a whole hog. A potato casserole made a brief appearance, a dish so delicious that very soon family members were dueling with kitchen knives and attempting to stab each other in the eye with forks in order to get at the last of it. Pitched battles worthy of the WWE were staged in the kitchen with the prize being possession of the vast selections of desserts that must have consumed this year’s entire worldwide production of sugar. Upon returning from the grave side finale of the funeral, we discovered that the wonderful church ladies had prepared a feast for us that resulted in several tables laden with so much food that there was serious concern that the concrete floor of the church’s basement social hall would be of insufficient strength to bear its weight.

Gluttony ruled and I stuffed myself much as I do at gatherings of the Clubhouse Tailgate. As I also do at tailgates, I crammed food into my mouth secure in the knowledge that I had contributed none. At least this time, I had a fairly plausible excuse.

It was an unusual weekend. That fact was driven home Saturday night when at a post-funeral gathering at my house, I found myself more interested in chatting with my ‘girl’ cousins I do not see nearly enough than I was in watching the Tech-Miami game, although I was kept reliably informed of what was going on by shouts from the menfolk who, unlike me, were glued to the television. I was paying close attention late when Adibi intercepted the pass that led to the winning score that enabled Tech to win yet another game in the Orange Bowl. That befuddled look on the face of Uncle Fester was priceless as he pondered just how his defense could have played so well yet his team lost. He should have plenty of time following the season to dwell on it.

The Saturday evening spent with family and friends talking, watching football and working through gallons of tequila, rum and vodka was a most pleasant time for me. I am very fortunate to have large numbers of both family and friends of such a high quality, especially what I have always referred to as my ‘girl cousins.’ I continue to wonder why these young ladies seem to be so fond of me, especially after I stuck them Sunday with the task of writing thank-you notes.

I mentioned earlier there was one more farcical item to be discussed. A few days following my father’s funeral eighteen years ago I fell and broke the patella of my left knee. I was in a cast for eight weeks. Little did I know at the time that a pattern was being established.

Thursday night while heading down outside stairs that I have gone down many, many times before, I somehow carelessly neglected to watch where I was going and missed the bottom one. The resulting twisting of my ankle when I landed elicited a string of profanity that was most definitely not suitable for the funeral service. I spent the rest of the weekend hobbling around like Chester in Gunsmoke and still am until I get around to heading to a doctor.

That hasn’t happened yet, although I swore I would to the girl cousin who later clucked over me like a mother hen, ordering me, in tones that I am sure are pleasurable to her small son, to rest, get my foot up and submit to the bag of ice she applied to the swelling right before she ironed the white shirt she determined was entirely too wrinkled for me to wear to the funeral.

I am indeed fortunate with family and Kathy, I will get to a doctor sometime soon, mainly because it still hurts like the dickens and the purple hue my foot took on hasn’t entirely faded. Any medical procedures called for involving more than an ACE bandage will have to wait until after football season, however. I plan on playing through the pain.

I now have two injuries to punctuate my remembrances of both parents’ passing. It is just as well I am now out of parents as it should greatly reduce my chances of serious injury.

The weekend spent burying my mother was perhaps devoid of most of the grief one normally associates with these kinds of things. For the last six months, a rampaging dementia had robbed of us the woman we all knew and loved, leaving an altogether different person in her place. There was nothing that was going to bring back the woman she had been, so when the life finally ebbed out of the one that remained, the primary emotion was relief. No apologies are offered or, in my opinion, necessary. Her family was one that has always enjoyed laughing and over the years has done a lot of it. For the most part, that is what we did over the weekend as we remembered a remarkable woman. Mom would have approved.

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