It’s November 1st, All Saints’ Day and the anniversary of my mother’s funeral. I originally wrote this about three weeks after the fact, and every year on this day I like to repost it, both to honor her memory, and because something happened that day that was truly, genuinely magical. At least for me it was:
There’s much in this world that’s savage and horrifying, that will break your heart and confound your understanding and shake your faith in the justice and beauty and rightness of things. But there is also magic and wonder and days when the sun bursts through the clouds and suddenly the grey is silver and the silver becomes gold as the gathered clouds are scattered and flee beyond the horizon. Days when levity overcomes gravity’s ineluctable pull and loads are lightened for reasons the conscious mind isn’t really equipped to understand or make sense of.
I had such an experience recently, and I would like to tell you about it, if for no other reason than because it happened and I can’t tell you why, though it may very well have saved my spirit and soul from the muck they were mired in. It was, perhaps, just a coincidence, something that just happened. Something for which there is and was a perfectly logical, rational explanation, that I’m making more of than is really there to be made.
The possibility is very real that that is the case and that I’m just grasping at straws for my own (understandable) reasons. I’ll let you decide what to make of it for yourself. Here is what happened:
After my mother’s death this past summer, we held a memorial service in her honor, which was well-attended and considered by all to be a success. The arrangements were mine to make, along with some help from my aunt, and we did our best to honor the spirit in which Mom had lived her life. There were pictures, and flowers, and a eulogy, of course, and I and others spoke afterward, celebrating her life and the ways she had touched us all, and afterward many of us retired to her favorite haunt and raised a glass or two in her honor. I think she would’ve been happy with it, had she been there. And who knows? Perhaps she was.
Shortly after that, I left town and went home for a couple of weeks. It’d been exhausting, all those days and nights in the hospital, all those decisions and arrangements that I had to make, and I needed more than anything to just be away from it all. It was during this time that my mother’s wishes were fulfilled and her body cremated, the cremains, as they’re called, delivered to the funeral home for me to come and retrieve.
Luckily, another aunt was able to retrieve them for me, and so they were waiting for me when I returned to begin the process of unwinding her life, of going through Mom’s things and fixing up her place, and generally taking care of the business at hand. I knew, somewhat, what I thought Mom would want, in terms of a funeral, or at least what seemed to me to be the thing to do, and who should be there, but for one reason or another, it just never seemed the right time, and so Mom remained with me there, set up on a little shrine with some pictures and other mementos. I would talk with her, sometimes, and make her drinks here and there when I was having one, and weeks and even months passed in this way while I lived and worked in her home, getting just a little crazier with each passing day.
It was a difficult time, for lots of reasons, and as the days and weeks passed the pressure inside mounted until I was sure I would burst. It got to the point where I made the decision that I needed just to go, even though there were projects left to do, and so I made arrangements to have them done and prepared to start the long drive home. There was just one thing left: Mom’s funeral.
She hadn’t said, in her Last Will and Testament, how she wanted her remains to be disposed of. Though she was clear she wanted to be cremated, she’d left it up to me the what to do with the cremains. I’d decided early on to give her back to the ocean. She’d grown up on the water in Riviera Beach, just north of West Palm, and spent her childhood on the beach and in the water, back when Florida was still an underpopulated paradise, before Disney and the developers came and turned it in to what it is today. Indeed one of the things I’m most grateful for, though it makes me cry to remember, and probably will forever, is that I was able to take her to the beach one last time at the end of my penultimate visit, before the end became imminent and she began the business of dying in earnest.
I’d thought at first of renting a boat for the day, whenever it was, and doing the whole burial at sea thing, but it didn’t seem quite right, and would have involved getting the various brothers and sisters together in close proximity with no escape for anybody. They’re a fractious bunch, and while I’m sure they have their reasons I’m also sure that that was not the vibe I was looking for for my mother’s funeral. So I decided that I would give her back to the ocean, but that the ceremony, such as it was, would be held on the beach. My aunt and uncle suggested Phil Foster park, a place where Mom and her siblings had spent a lot of time during their childhood, but when I went there to scout it out it just didn’t feel right. It’s essentially a giant, paved-over boat ramp these days, and while there is a beach of sorts there, it’s under the bridge, and dirty, and just wasn’t the place I wanted it to be.
So I did some looking around, and found John D. MacArthur park, a mile-and-a-half stretch of virgin Florida coastline just a little ways north of Riviera Beach, a place where you couldn’t see any hotels or beachfront development, without a foot of pavement or big crowds of sun-pinked tourists with their radios and umbrellas and screaming packs of kids and old folks. It was exactly what I was looking for, and I knew as soon as I set foot on the beach that this was the place.
I called the relevant people and let them know, and my uncle did a little research and discovered that the outgoing tide was early in the morning, and so on the day after Halloween we all met in the parking lot at 9 am. I’d been up very late the night before, drinking too much and talking with Mom on the patio, with the fence open so we could see the lake and the sounds of revelry here and there in the distance, but I still managed to be the first one there.
I think Mom would’ve been proud. She always did want me to get up earlier and be more on time to things.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The beach was lightly populated, and we only had to walk a few dozen yards to be away from what few people there were. We said what little there was left to say, and I walked her out into the waves, fully dressed, and laid her as gently as I could in the water. We threw a dozen roses in with her, and though the waves were wild and the ocean was rough, only one came back, washed up on the beach to await the next tide. We emerged, dripping with sea water, and that was that.
Now comes the magical part.
It’s windy at the beach. Always. The air over the water and the air over the land are different temperatures, and the differential means that the hotter air over the land rises, drawing the cooler air over the water inland. Now mind you, today was not the windiest day, but there was a noticeable breeze even down low near the ground, and I expect that up high it was even windier.
Some friends of the family had brought a mylar balloon, and we’d all written our last goodbyes on it in the parking lot. We said goodbye, and each of us touched it in turn. Then we released it, and something I can’t quite explain happened.
Despite the wind, the balloon rose, straight up into the sky. We’d all expected the breeze to carry it inland and out of sight quickly, but instead it floated, almost purposefully, straight up, until we could only just barely see it.
And then it stayed there, directly above us, lingering as we watched, as if Mom were watching us from up there, saying her last goodbyes to us just as we had said them to her. For minutes on end we stood there, just watching in wonder and amazement as it floated there above us, watching us back, it seemed. It moved a bit, yes, but there it remained, almost directly overhead, while we all stood, shading our eyes from the glare of the sun, almost unbelieving that such a thing could happen. It was a very Mom thing to do, that lingering, because we were the people she loved best in all the world, and I knew that she would want to watch us for as long as she could, just as we wanted to hold onto her.
And that wasn’t all. As the balloon rose, I felt the weight of the weeks and months that had passed since her death lift from my shoulders with it, as if Mom were taking it with her, a final parting gift to her only son. At a time of great sadness, when by all rights I should have been bawling my eyes out (as I am right now, writing this), I felt as light as the air and as free as the the wind, all the stress and sadness that had weighted me down made light and fluttered away on the breeze.
We waited and watched, the nine of us there on the beach, our grief forgotten in the sheer amazement of the moment, until some strange subliminal signal had passed and we found ourselves back on the beach, looking at each other, all of us knowing somehow that it was time to go. We looked back up, to say one last goodbye, but the balloon was gone. She’d slipped away while we weren’t looking, off to whatever was next. Which was also a very Mom thing to do.
Originally posted here, on my old blog, anticontrarian, on November 22, 2009, about three weeks after the events described. Every word of it is true.