When I wrote last, I was cranking on research for the updates to the new edition of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. I’d survived my dad’s death and planning his funeral, trying to sort out his bills, and lining up people to watch over my newly widowed mom. I’d come back home to San Francisco and was trying to settle in to my real life again, the life where I wrote every morning and tried to unpack every afternoon. I had my work cut out for me.
Real life lasted until April 19. I called my mom that afternoon, but she didn’t make any sense. She could only get two or three words out before she couldn’t think of the next one. It was as if she couldn’t remember any nouns. She’d gone for a walk, but she couldn’t tell me where. When I guessed destinations, it only made her frustrated.
Finally, I asked if she thought she’d had another stroke. (Backstory: she had one during the first year of the pandemic, but it hadn’t really seemed to have affected her much. In retrospect, I think that was because she knew immediately that something was wrong and called an ambulance right away.)
Mom said she was happy. She meant she was fine, but couldn’t remember that word. She told me to call back in an hour and she would be better. Instead, I called the neighbor across the road, who is a volunteer firefighter, and asked her to check on Mom. The neighbor called a paramedic friend, who insisted Mom go to the hospital.
Long story short: Mom had had another stroke. But since no one could tell when it had happened — she might have been talking strangely at church on Sunday or it might have caused or come about after she walked a mile and a half to a cousin’s house on Wednesday — the hospital wouldn’t treat her for it. It took five days to get a MRI. When they didn’t see any new damage, they released her suddenly to me, on the condition that I get her into assisted living.
So I spent the first half of May packing up the house I grew up in and moving my mom to an apartment where her meals are provided and someone makes sure she takes her meds three times a day.
Then I came home to polish up and assemble the new entries for 222 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. Even though it was hard as hell, I made the extension on my deadline.
Last week, I tried to relax for the first time in months. I cleaned out my email inbox. I unpacked more of the office I moved into in November. I took long walks with my husband and tried to not feel guilty about my life in San Francisco. Every night, every single night, I had a nightmare about something I needed to do for my mom.
On Saturday, the De Young Museum hosted a movie called “Homegoings” about one of the last African American mortuary owners in Harlem. After the movie, Professor Angela Hennessy and Minister Marvin K. White were going to lead a discussion informed by the Kehinde Wiley exhibit at the museum.
I really wanted to see the movie. I’ve been fascinated by Angela Hennessy’s work since I heard her speak at the Death Salon in Seattle the fall before 199 Cemeteries first came out. My family came with me to the museum, but they went to see the Wiley exhibit while I went to the movie.
When the audience came into the space, two greeters spritzed my cupped hands: one with salt water for sorrow, the other with rose water for sweetness. There was a guest book with black pages — and a black pen — in which I wrote my name. There were bouquets of white flowers and a spread of snacks.
I found a chair, settled in, and wondered why I felt so anxious.
The event opened with the audience being invited to call out the names of those they’d lost, so the ancestors could be welcomed into the room with us. I didn’t want to add my father, even though he’d just died in February. Let him rest in peace, wherever he was now. I was fascinated by the names and relationships other audience members called out. Hennessy said something beautiful about meeting people and seeing all their ghosts arrayed behind them. I don’t think my dad would ever be standing behind me, since he never chose to in life.
The movie was lovely. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be scenes of the mortician talking with a woman about how she wanted her hair colored if she died before she was able to get her hair done. He was so gentle as he applied lipstick to a corpse or dropped rose petals into a grave. So many scenes of funerals and families, grief and joy.
What broke me was when one of the funeral singers sang “I’ll Fly Away,” one of the songs from my dad’s funeral.
I couldn’t allow myself to cry. This event wasn’t about me or my grief. I was wearing a mask, as I always do in public, and I didn’t want it to get wet. Any other time, I would have loved this event and the sense of community that it created, but three months after losing my dad, it was too much.
I made it to the end of the movie but fled before the discussion started. It felt disrespectful, but I couldn’t hold myself together.
Angela Hennessy is going to lead two more events at the De Young in the upcoming months. The August and September workshops will consist of “writing, reflection, conversation, and looking at specific works of art in relationship to death and grief.” I would like to think that I am strong enough to go, but I’m not sure.