Spare Every Expense, Except One

MY MOTHER'S OBITUARY

When my mother, Patricia McGowan, died in late June, we chose the cheapest coffin for her burial. The funeral director brought the glossy album of possibilities for us to leaf through and without even glancing at it, I told him, “Mom would want the plainest, simplest, most expensive one you’ve got.” There was a small silence. “I meant the least expensive,” I said quickly. “We’ll take the cheapest.”

We wanted Mom to have the best, but we also wanted to honor her wishes. Her hero was Dorothy Day (who went out in a plain wooden box), and where coffins were concerned, best meant cheap.

For the obituary, however, we spared no expense.

Five years ago, my father had asked me if I would write their obits a little early. In those days, newspapers carried them for free and so I wrote it all—all the details of a life of power and strength and endless love, and it was important that I do that because by then Mom was deep in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Most of her grandchildren had never known the woman who had astonished the rest of us for so many years, and we didn’t want to deny them their heritage.

Because Dad had “prearranged” everything, the obituary was on file. After we chose that particle-board coffin, the undertaker looked skeptically at the essay-length obituary I had written and said, “You realize this will cost at least $2,000 to print in the Providence Journal and another $800 in the Herald News?”

“We’ll take both,” we said firmly. “All her friends will want to read it.”

It was Jim Morse, our priest, who made the connection. “Perfect!” he said, laughing. “Pat couldn’t have cared less about the superficial, about clothes or appearances or what anyone would have thought about how much her coffin cost. But words! Words were her life!”

And so we chose words to create a picture for her grandchildren, a picture to use in place of the one they had of a frail, confused old woman who frequently did not know her own name, let alone those of her children.

The obituary was the talk of the town (OK, it’s a small town). At her wake, which hundreds attended, everyone was discussing what they had learned about her: how she and her sister had run a “House of Hospitality” for homeless women in New York City in the 1950s—using their own salaries to do it; how she had gone to Washington to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963; how she had written a novel and articles too numerous to count; how she had campaigned for the United Farm Workers, picketing our local grocery store every Saturday for years because it carried nonunion lettuce and grapes. (My brother-in-law is a physician for the Teamsters; when the Teamsters heard that part of the story, they sent a huge bouquet of flowers.)

The stories are endless. Mom was famous in our city because she simply could not turn away from anyone in need. When a house burned down and its elderly owner stood on the street with nowhere to go, someone told the firemen, “Oh, take him to the McGowans. They take everyone.” That’s what they did, and Douglas lived with us until he died eighteen months later.

The obituary was long and expensive, but worth every penny. As the stories it contained were told and retold at the wake and the funeral and the Mercy Meal that followed, more stories emerged. Slowly, but with resolution and clarity, the layers of fog and perplexity that had surrounded Mom for the past fifteen years of her life began to lift.

The real Mom, the one who had graduated summa cum laude, who could recite reams of Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and the Bible, who loved geography, kites, jigsaw puzzles, and the moon, who preferred to spell grey with an e rather than with an a, reasserted herself once more. The real Mom, the one we had known and revered for her integrity, humor, and grace, the one who had brought up seven children, nursed three grandparents, fostered street kids and pregnant teens, befriended shut-ins and invalids, and who stood always with the poor and on the side of justice, returned to us as the woman she truly was.

It was strange but true: in death, she became more alive than she had been for many years. A friend of mine told me that it was as if her body was finally saying to her spirit, “OK! You win!” I feel, so strangely, closer to her now than I have felt in ages. I talk to her all the time. I ask for her help: for a child I know who is undergoing surgery, to find Dad’s lost hearing aid, for courage, for wisdom. And I will tell my children to do the same—when they are worried or confused or unsure what to do, I will tell them to pray to Grandma, their own patron saint in heaven.

Her body was carried out in the cheapest coffin we could find. Her spirit of generosity and open-heartedness lives on in the lives of her grandchildren. They will read and reread her obituary, her story of service and kindness and abiding love, and they will recognize the power of words and the glory of a life lived for others.

Published in the 2008-10-10 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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