We flew down on my birthday. The funeral was the next morning.
There are few things as consistently lovely as the Southern California weather in November. We had to be at the staging area at exactly 11:31 AM. Not 11:30…11:31. National Cemeteries are both beautiful and run with military precision. It had taken weeks to secure this time. The rapid pace of the passing of the greatest generation makes a National Cemetery a busy place.
The current Blackwoods have a tenuous relationship with our various religions. There would be no church service, just a small commitment ceremony in one of the many concrete gathering places scattered around the cemetery. Mom wanted it that way.
I come from a long line of storytellers. Hillbilly roots easily blend the taciturn and talkative. Long ago, I decided that we are all just our collection of stories. In the weeks between my mother’s passing and the family gathering, four different stories about my Mom played in rotation in my head. In the shower, as I meditated, sitting at stop lights and every night as I tried to sleep, I told those stories to myself. Honing those stories became the quiet work of each day. I never wrote them down, just a few prompts on a piece of paper lest emotion overwhelm me.
Two days before we departed I threw out one of the stories. Three was all I needed to honor my Mom. I wanted to help people laugh. Describe my folks as a couple. Give people an intimate picture of my relationship with my Mom.
My Dad was very much the paternal master of the day. His steadfastness in meeting my Mom’s wishes and embodying his deep love were our guiding light. I will admit that as I sat there looking at the polished wooden coffin that my brother and I had just helped roll into place I had a hard time following his words. My brother had typed the pages for Dad’s script he read but what was most striking was how he broke from that reassuring script to tell the story of his great grandson running to meet him the day before. This story telling thing is deep in the genes.
He turned to me. I stood next to the coffin, not sure if I was next to Mom’s head or feet. I think I laid my crib sheet on the coffin. Strange that. First I thanked my Dad and brother for the loving care they provided for years. Barely got that part out. And then the stories came. In the telling I realized I was calm. I watched people, especially my nieces, laugh and well up with tears as I spoke. One of the most unnatural things I have ever done felt natural…right.
The last story was tough to start.
My Mother called me her space boy. I was born at the right time to grow up with the American space program. I knew everything a kid could know about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules. I had a poster of a Saturn 5 rocket, the one that would take us to the moon, on my bedroom wall. Besides Willie Mays my other childhood hero was Ed White the first man to walk in space. I can still summon sadness thinking about him dying in a fire on the pad in Apollo One.
Mom was right there with me about space and the race to the moon. It was this shared love that gave us a ritual…our ritual.
The rockets mostly launched in the early morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida. On launch days, it was often still dark on the west coast. Mom would wake me and we would turn on our black and white TV to watch the launch. For me, this experience always smelled like my Mom’s fresh brewed Yuban coffee.
We’d sit next to each other on the couch and hang on every minute of the countdown. I dreaded halts to the count as I still had to go to school, launch or not. Then the NASA launch control announcer would count down from 10. Mom always stood leaning toward the TV, hands tensely balled in front of her.
Lift off! The bright light from the rockets blurred the television image. Then it happened. She would say, “Go…Go…Go…Go…” I would then join her in the chant. She often made this high pitch sound, that of joy like what you hear when girls gather on a playground. We chanted until the rocket became a small white dot on the TV screen.
When I told that part of the story, I first told everyone what I had felt for the last years of my Mom’s decline with dementia. For me, it felt like she was trapped here on earth and that now she was free. In the story I told, I wanted to say the word “Go” three times. Without thinking, I slapped my hand on the casket with the first “Go.”
Suddenly, I was brought back to earth by the loud sound of my wedding ring hitting the casket. I was shocked at the sound. Solid. Metal on wood. I turned to look at my hand on the casket like it was a foreign body making that noise. “Did I do that?”
I tried to cup my fingers for the second “Go.” Still, that jarring sound. I kind of looked up at everyone, thinking, “Are you hearing that.”
“Don’t do that again,” I thought. I almost didn’t but in the infinite the speed of a racing mind I knew I had no choice. “No. Go ahead. This is what this is. That is your hand. This is Mom’s coffin.” I slapped the wood one more time and finished what I had come there to do.