I know where I was at 7:30 AM on Thursday, June 21, 1984. I was a Unit Secretary, starting my shift on 6 North at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak Michigan. It was a pretty typical morning. I had taken report from the night shift Secretary, and was going through the charts that the Orthopedic Doctors had left after their morning rounds. This, along with the usual clamor of patients being prepped for OR, the phone ringing constantly, as well as directing escorts, phlebotomists and pharmacy techs to the correct patients. I had just turned 23.
There is only one reason this morning stands out, and that is one particular phone call that came in on the west bank of phones. It was for me. This was highly unusual, as nobody ever called me at work. I would make any calls that I needed to make from the payphones in the lobby. Anyway, I picked up the phone.
Hello? It was a nurse from 5 South, the cancer floor. I had met this nurse before, and her voice was familiar. Yet, this morning, she sounded tense. Nervous and rigid, she matter of factly reported that my mother had expired. Expired. So clinical. So correct. So brutal. I thanked her for the call, and told her I would be right down. My mother was only 54.
Stunned and lost, I stood up in a fog. My fellow Secretaries had noticed that I had received a personal call on the floor phones, which was not supposed to happen. They were looking at me and one of them noticed my shaken state. It was if I had heard a sound that was too loud, and hadn’t yet recovered from the blast. She asked who it was. “That was 5 South. My mom just died”. There was a brief outpouring of concern and grief that was real, and I knew these people cared about me. Not really paying attention to them, there was only one thing to do. Go to my Mom. Say goodbye. Perform last rites. Dutiful and stoic son to the end, I would see her off.
I took the stairs down one flight, and walked through the Central Tower to the South Tower. I stopped at the nurses’ station, and was met by the nurse. She took me down the hall to see my mom. I walked in the room and saw her amongst the hospital bedding. Light, thin and bald, her body was empty. The vigorous, light-hearted, joyful Ginny wasn’t there. The soft flesh shell that once held her was all that remained, and it looked nothing like the mother I had known for 23 years.
I knew innately that I needed to do something. Say something. Pray something. Perform some ritual. I knelt by her bed, took her cool hand in mine, and thanked her for all that she had done. I asked my Father in Heaven to receive her, and thanked Him for giving me such a wonderful mom. I told them both I would miss her. Well. Goodbye. I will see you again, but not sure when. I stood up, my head clearer, but numb. I called my sisters and my brother and told them what had happened. They were devastated. I also called my father, her ex-husband. That was pretty weird. Throughout all of this, I didn’t shed a tear.
The remainder of the day was a blur. We contacted Desmond Funeral Home in Troy, and started the process of planning a funeral. My uncle Jim was with us, and helped us pick out a casket, remembrance cards, and whatever else you do for funerals. I remember we picked out a yellow casket, as it was her favorite color. It’s funny how you don’t think about costs much when you lose somebody so close.
There was a day of visitation, Friday. The Funeral home was packed with people that had loved my mom, known her and were so grieved that she had died so young. Many of my friends came, and were so very kind and supportive. My aunts and uncles were all there, and there was much joy at seeing each other in the midst of such a tragic loss. I had numerous people take me aside and tell me that she had been their favorite aunt, co-worker, neighbor, friend. She was dear to many, and it brought a lot of comfort to see her remembered so fondly. My father was there, even though he was not well regarded by my aunts. (That is putting it very mildly). I appreciated the courage he showed to face all of them and be there with us. it meant a great deal to me in that place.
There was one other incident that I will always remember. We drove home after the visitation, and were heading into the house when our neighbor, Mr. Duncan saw us. He walked over to us, his trademark cigar in hand. He asked how my mom was. We told him, “Well Mr. Duncan, she died yesterday”. His face fell. He was genuinely shocked, and the weight of this hit him. “Son of a Bitch!” was all he said. Of all things that were spoken that day, I think Mr. Duncan nailed it. He said what needed to be said, and I will always remember him for his heartfelt response. He expressed so perfectly how we all felt, and it was cathartic. We got through that day, and all that was left was the funeral.
The funeral was the next day, a Saturday. My siblings and I were escorted into a black limousine at the funeral home that beautiful sunny morning, and we all drove to St. Bede’s, our family’s church. The service was a typical Catholic service, except for two elements that were added. My mother had requested that a poem be read at her funeral, and my aunts made sure that happened. It was “Do not stand at my grave and weep”. My father told me later that this was particularly jarring, as he had requested it at his funeral. The other element was a hymn that I had requested: Holy, Holy, Holy. It was not unknown in Catholic churches, but it wasn’t common. It was wonderful to be able to sing this song of praise to my Father in the midst of such sorrow. All of our family was there, and many, many friends. Much to my delight, Julie Miner was there, who I would later marry.
From the church, we drove to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. She would be buried with her parents, who for some reason had purchased three plots instead of just two. I knew this cemetery, as we had visited my grandfather’s grave throughout the years. We walked to the gravesite, left the casket there, said some prayers, and got back in the limousine. Still, not a tear was shed by me.
We had some kind of a luncheon, but I don’t remember much of that. I do remember being back home that afternoon. It had gotten overcast, and I was in the garage, working on something. I had my portable stereo with me in the garage, and I was listening to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was my favorite piece of music at that time. As I was doing whatever busywork I was involved with, Saturday Night Waltz began to play. A soft, slow, simple and sweet waltz. I thought about my mother, who had loved to dance. All of the Saturday Nights she had to miss because of the divorce. How she had to raise five children on her own. How she never complained. How I had heard her dial my father’s number on our rotary phone repeatedly on many nights, and weeping as she never got an answer. How she had made me proud to be Irish, and would sing show tunes and ditties. All of this came flooding into me, and the dam was opened. I sobbed my heart out. I wept out the sorrow, bitterness, and loss that had been pent up since 7:30 on Thursday, but went back much further than that. My mother had died. I would never see her again. The one person that would always be in my corner was gone, and there was simply no replacing her. My heart was broken.
I have visited my mother’s grave many times since that day. And every time I go, I do the same thing. I stop at the flower shop across the street from the cemetery. I buy flowers, an Irish flag, and a marker that says “Mother”. I have blatantly disobeyed the poem at her funeral, and I have stood at her grave and wept. She is worth it to me. I will gladly allow myself to be heartbroken and emotional at the remembrance of her life that was cut off much too young.
My Uncle Denny said at the Funeral Home: “You’ve got to bite grief off and chew it”. Each of us processes grief differently, and it hits us all at different speeds. Allow yourself to take it as it comes. Don’t put expectations on yourself. And remember the one you loved. Honor them. Live a life that would make them happy and proud. Your story goes on, and they are part of it. So, in that sense, do not stand at the grave and weep. Throw yourself into what remains of your life, and make it count.