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November 7, 2014

Remembering My Mother, Part Five: Fighting Over the Body


In the last few episodes you met my mother’s new priest who had decided I was the spawn of Satan.  He (the priest, not Satan or the spawn) was determined to protect my mother from me.  I was just as determined to limit his influence. Read on:

The day after my mother and I received the news that she had about three weeks left to live, she was moved to a care center. I canceled my students and drove to Olympia to see her settled.   When I arrived I found that the priest had checked my mother in and had given his name as the only person to call in an emergency and at death.  I nearly fainted.

“My god,” I thought. “This is a battle of powers and principalities.”

After a long talk with the social worker, the priest’s name came off every form.

“He can visit her all he wants,” I said. “Bring her the Eucharist, pin crucifixes to her pillow, hang garlic around her neck. But he cannot be in the loop.  He intrudes and interferes.”

When I visited my mother in her new room, she said, “The priest wants to talk to you about the funeral.”

“Do you want a funeral?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

I wrote a letter to the priest:

*        *        *        *        *        *        *


Stop calling me.

Stop ordering me and my family around.

Stop bulldozing your values and opinions into a family you do not understand.

You are making an already intractable situation more painful by your interference and stunning obtuseness to the fact that the relationships within this family do not include you.

My brother and I will not attend and will not pay for any service you put together.

And now I want no further contact with you.


*        *        *        *        *        *        *

Reader, I mailed it.

“Anyone who needs a letter like that is probably not going to understand it,” Alex said.

“Do you think he knows what obtuseness means?”  my friend Nina asked.  “You are my favorite confrontational letter writer,” she added

My brother’s assessment was correct. Before long the chaplain at the care center was telling me that the priest wanted to do my mother’s funeral.

“She doesn’t want a service.” I said to him.

“That’s what she told me but she seems to be telling the priest something else.”

“Well, THAT’S BECAUSE .  .  . that’s because.  .  . he is pressuring her and she is anxious and inclined to say whatever will make her less anxious.  She’s mentally ill.”

There. I had said it.  It was the first time I had put it that way.  It seemed the most efficient way to maneuver through the complications.

I thought the chaplain was a bit of a nincompoop but he did have some familiarity with the behavior of the mentally ill. At first I mistakenly assessed him as having actual power in the care facility when in reality he was an overly earnest fusspot.  Still it was a good exercise for me to have one person to not antagonize.

Really, the only clergy I could talk with during this entire episode was the hospice chaplain who was a Unitarian.

“And that’s because you’re not a real minister,” I told him.

He laughed.

What I thought of the care center chaplain paled beside what he must have thought of me after getting an earful from the priest. I knew he was trying to make a decision about where to place his interference units: in my path or the priest’s.  To that end, he asked for a meeting with me and my mother, which I immediately characterized as a trial.

So I brought my counsel, my friend Terry and the most diplomatic person I know. I sat on the bed next to my mother.  Some exceedingly weird young man from my mother’s church and Lisa, my mother’s next door neighbor were visiting.   They remained as witnesses.   The chaplain in his new role as district attorney quizzed me about things the priest had told him: had I actually said to leave my mother in a house with no electricity in the middle of a winter storm?  Had I allowed her to stay alone in her house after coming home from the hospital?

I was uncharacteristically calm as I tried to widen the picture for him: the priest had never asked how he could help with our complicated family situation.  He gave orders to my brother and me with no interest in our limitations as people or of the relational land mines that exist in a family where the mother is mentally ill and the father was an alcoholic.  Neither he nor his wife had accepted my offers to interpret my mother’s behavior or to explain the choices Alex and I had made.  He had bulldozed his way into our family as though he belonged there.

I looked at Terry, the most diplomatic person I know. She knows how to say just about anything without resorting to insult or sarcasm.  She smoothly re-phrased what I had said, making me sound more sane and reasonable than I felt.  She also pointed out that it did not matter what the priest thought or said about me or what stories he may have told about me.  He was not family and he had no authority with which to be interfering.

The chaplain, switching to the role of judge, asked my mother did she want a funeral?

“No,” she said clearly. “I have already arranged everything with Mills and Mills.  I don’t want any fuss.  I just don’t want to be cremated.  I want to be buried.”

“So ordered” said the judge. He looked at me.  “I will tell Father.”

My mother had sat through the entire trial nodding like a Kewpie doll. Finally she asked what we were talking about.

“We’re fighting over your body,” I said.

The weird young man looked askance, but Terry, who knew me and Lisa, who knew my mother didn’t bat an eye.

My mother laughed, “I’m not going to care.”

The chaplain was gathering himself to leave when my mother said softly, “I’d like a small service.”

I almost choked on the hysterical laughter galloping up my throat. I looked at the chaplain and took a deep breath through my nose.  “I told you she would do this.  Just leave it,” I said.

To his credit, he did. I was acquitted.  However, it still was not the end of it. The following week my brother called to tell me that he had just talked with the priest who was still beating his drum about the funeral, hoping to wear down a family member.   He had outlined to my brother what an orthodox funeral entailed– as if this was somehow going to be an enticement. First, the priest expected to be at the bedside when our mother died. He would take possession of the body, and take it to the church where there would be an open casket viewing.  The congregation accompanied the body to the cemetery to say eulogies, throw flowers and dirt, wail and carry on like a bunch of moirologists.  It was an ancient ceremony that must be performed exactly as specified; there could be no deviation.

“Is the family even invited?” I asked Alex.

“If there are people who want to have a service for her, I would like to accommodate them if we can,” he said.

“No one is stopping anyone from having a service. They can do anything they want.  They just can’t have her body to do it with.  What part of No Fuss doesn’t he understand?  I mean, geez, if he talks Mom into this, I wouldn’t go.  Would you?”

“No,” Alex said.

While in theory I wasn’t against such an extravagant ceremony and being a death junkie, I was interested in ancient rituals. I objected to the way the priest was coldly trying to impose it on Alex and me who, to understate it, needed special handling.   At the very least we needed to be consulted.  More pertinently, it was exactly what my mother said she did not want. Privately I thought that my mother would have enjoyed the idea of the fuss, no matter what she said.  It was the expense she objected to.  She wasn’t to know that I wouldn’t have paid the priest a cent.

“I wish he wouldn’t come around so much,” she said to me.  I knew she enjoyed the attention so I interpreted this to mean that she wanted him to stop pestering her.  My mother was too weak and doped up to be any clearer than that.

Under Washington State law, no outside individual can override a person’s end- of-life wishes. But I was afraid the priest, with his constant badgering, would succeed in getting what I was now calling his freak show by wearing down my mother and ambushing her with a notary.   I knew she might okay the funeral just to get the priest to leave her alone.

I was hysterical the afternoon I called Joan, my friend with the theological chops (and sister of Terry, the diplomat.) While I was sobbing over the phone, she looked something up on her computer.

“Write this down,” she said.

“What is it?”

“It’s the name and number of the Bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the U.S.”

I sobered up. This was impressive stuff.

I caught the bishop going into a dinner in Dallas, Texas. He was annoyed at being bothered but he gave me the name of the appropriate hierarchical entity to appeal to.  Within 24 hours I had the most gracious of letters from said hierarchical entity.  He had reigned in my mother’s priest; there would be no further talk of a funeral.  The congregation would have a Panikhida for my mother at a later date.

I was so relieved that I sobbed spontaneously for the rest of the day and all of the next. It was important to me to have won this last competition.  I wanted my mother’s body.  A burial meant something to me and I wanted the ritual.  More than that, I wanted a ritual I designed, not one imposed on me with words that meant nothing to me.

Next: Hospice




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