What do you do after burying a parent?

I don’t mean for the rest of your life or next Christmas or even next week. I mean– after the funeral, after the cemetery and the platesfull of grief food that nobody actually eats. Directly after it all. The drive home. After the drive home. When it’s time for bed.

What do you do?

At this point the social obligations and quiet murmuring of inadequate words in the middle of a fake living room are done. There is nothing to do now but go on with the rest of your life.

In our case, my sister and I have lived in text tandem for years as we rotated slowly and ever more deeply from adult children to caretakers. Who was picking up the Chapstick she asked for? Hey, stop by the nurse’s station to see what they think about the swelling on her arm. Make sure to remind her that I’ll be away from my phone from dinner on. It’s the anniversary of Dad’s death tomorrow, so one of us should  make sure we visit.

It was like co-parenting, but it wasn’t. It was an ever-shifting transfer of responsibility and assignment. Once our mother signed our permission slips for immediate return like the former teacher she was; now we stood witness as she strained to complete her name on the authorization for hospice care. She was in a lot of pain for a lot of years, and mentally perceptive until the very end, when the painkillers were upped again and she began asking us why she was in a different room again.

Hospice was simultaneously very fast and very slow. When it was over, we made the phone calls we were supposed to make and found the funeral clothes we were supposed to find. The nursing home didn’t push us to clear out her room, but we returned within 48 hours to do so. We wanted her gone from that place in every possible way, utterly separated from the antibiotics and blood draws. She was bedridden and miserable and we didn’t want one molecule of her to remain in so much as the same zip code.

This required a funeral procession of her items. We finished a process that began over twenty years ago when she and my father moved from the house where they raised us. Each removal distant from the West Side cul-de-sac home– condo, assisted living, full-time care– meant that fewer and fewer items remained with her until they didn’t even fill the shallow closet of her assigned room.

We stacked her clothes and books and the shoes she hadn’t worn for over a year onto a cart and rolled it to the parking lot. A family vase she insisted on keeping in her sight was on board, so my husband slowly drove while I placed a steadying hand against it. My sister walked alongside clutching the birthday cards our mother left behind, unsigned, for her grandsons. We probably could have moved faster, but it seemed somehow unseemly.

As we passed the TV lounge, I pointed out a piece of paper that I hadn’t noticed before. The latest version of the Reds’ broadcast schedule was out, and someone taped it next to the screen. It was generally understood that this was a top viewing priority. At first I wondered why the staff was bothering to print out the spring training games at this point, but then I realized the date– Opening Day was less than a week off, and I hadn’t even noticed.

Five games of spring training remained between the day of our mother’s death and the beginning of the new season. And a gap of three empty, long-stretching days without any baseball at all took place between the day she died and the day we buried her.

At first this seemed cruel, and then, upon further reflection, appropriate. It was a little Lent of baseball, a time to sink into the inertia pulling me away from the gym or Twitter pronouncements. It provided me with a quiet space to write the eulogy instead of walking around the apartment telling myself to write the eulogy.

It meant that I could practice  right away– without distraction–the necessity of stopping myself from saving social media pictures of friends’ babies to give her two to four seconds of something approximating happiness. It was survival in the disguise of empty cruelty, a few days to force the bulbs to bloom in artificial conditions before real spring began.

So today, when the Mass is ended and the last sensible Midwestern car has left the parking lot of the reception venue, my sister and her husband will close the minivan door on their three  practically-grown boys and my husband will hand me into our tiny urban-friendly Chevy. We will drive to our separate neighborhoods. And we will not have baseball to numb us during the ride home.

With the matriarch gone, we are now our own organizing principle. She is no longer in pain, but ours has taken on a new dimension.

I have mentioned several times that I wished I were able to honestly look forward to Opening Day, but I assure you this is not what I meant. “She could not bear to watch this team in the regular season,” I’ve been telling people, because I discovered a long time ago that black humor, when served up as searing as possible, is ideal as a cauterization agent.

Now that I think of it, this team is so integrated with the lives of everyone who grows up here that when a Cincinnatian dies, a Reds representative should show up at the funeral to read out the team epochs that took place during the deceased’s lifetime. This ballclub is a group project and we should act that way more often. A roll call of this sort took place as Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was lowered into the floor of St. George’s Chapel, and it was a most effective integration of time and place. We need our own. At this point, we’ve earned it.

And this is what my mother and my father bore witness to:

  • Jackie Robinson
  • Big Klu
  • Wally Post, King of the Suits
  • Three ballparks: Crosley, Riverfront, and Great American
  • Four All Star Games
  • The 1961 Ragamuffin Reds
  • The Big Red Machine
  • 4192 and the Great Banning
  • One perfect game
  • Waite Hoyt, Marty and Joe, and the Cowboy
  • The Little Red Machine of 1999
  • Opening of the Reds Hall of Fame
  • Six MLB Hall of Famers
  • Six NL Pennants
  • Three World Series victories

That, my friends, is a good life.

 

 

32 Responses

  1. David

    Baseball has marked the time, and reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again…..

    It’s been almost 46 years since my Father passed away from cancer. I doubt a day has gone by in those years when I have not thought of him at least once.
    When I saw “Field of Dream” at the theater, in 1989, it just about brought me to tears.
    When Ray turned and saw John, “It’s my father!”, he DID look like my father.
    When the lights came up at the end of the movie, about half the men in the audience were teary eyed.

    It’s been almost 13 year since my Mother passed.
    The pain doesn’t really go away that much, but it does become a little bittersweet. And after a while, the depression does go away.
    God be with you, Mary Beth.

    Love endures beyond the circles of this world.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I greatly appreciate you sharing that. I was aunt-photographer for my nephew and brother-in-law at “Family Catch” when the little one was in grade school. GABP played that scene on the Jumbotron… not a dry eye in the house. I am so sorry that you have the experience to pass on this advice, but I accept it gratefully nonetheless.

  2. BK

    Mary Beth, thank you very much for sharing you and your mother’s story. I’m very sorry for your loss. Thank you for a reminder of what is most important as Opening Day draws near.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks so much for your kind condolences. She is somewhere very happy for Joey Votto right now, as well as all the teams in the Final Four. She loved an underdog 🙂

  3. LDS

    Somehow, I missed last week’s column. My apologies.

    Sadly, I’m of an age where all those of the generations before me have passed on, the last, my mother and her brother in 2020. I’m now the patriarch, which severely conflicts with my inner child. I’d like to say it gets easier over time, but we both know I’d be lying. But we come to accept it and move on. My sympathies to you and your family.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      You know what, last week’s column was finished just a few hours before my mother died. And both my sister and I were exhausted trying to keep up with her hospice care– so it certainly wasn’t my best work. So you didn’t miss much 🙂
      How difficult to be “the adult.” I was looking at my cousins at the funeral and thinking “But we were just at the kids table…”

  4. Mark Moore

    I’ve seen death in my family what seems like too many times and in too many different ways. Some “expected” and some “sudden”. The finality of it is what sticks with me, no matter how you prepare yourself. It’s a line that gets crossed and, even for people of faith who believe in a reuniting at some point, it still sucks for those of us left behind. It’s a numb feeling that you can’t shake.

    Blessings on you and your family, MBE, as you work through your grief. May your mother Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That is exactly it, Mark, and thank you for typing what I was thinking. My mother was in hospice for several days and in long-term care for two years, and we almost lost her to various ailments before that. You’re correct that even when it’s expected, it’s still irreversible and therefore a shock to the system.

  5. Rednat

    thank you for sharing Mary Beth. I lost my dad to covid at the beginning of the pandemic.. i still get choked up everytime i go to GABP. THE reds were really the foundation of our relationship and I am not ashamed to say that.

    after each reds win that i attend ( not many anymore) I pour out the rest of my drink point up to the sky, and give my dad A high five and than shed a couple of tears. it does help me cope just a little bit

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Oh that wretched pandemic. I’m so sorry. As Phil said in City Slickers, “Even when my dad and I couldn’t talk to each other, we could still talk about baseball.” Some men’s relationship with their dads are based on far less! No doubt your dad sees you when you greet him from the ball park.

  6. Jim Walker

    I don’t recall what we did when we returned from my father’s funeral in October of 2004. However, upon our return from setting the arrangements several days prior on a Saturday afternoon, we turned on the TV and watched the end of the Ohio State vs Indiana football game, won (of course) by the Buckeyes. Someone in the room quipped this is what he would have expected us to do; and, we all shared a brief moment of natural unforced laughter.

    In the end, I choose to believe what those departed would want us to do is go
    about our normal routines and fondly recall their roles in shaping our lives as events bring forward memories. Can there be a more lasting or better legacy? I think not.

    • Tar Heel Red

      Well put, Jim…well put. I have had my share of death in our family (my parents and both of my younger brothers are gone) and I can say from experience the best way to honor them is to remember all the good times that were had and to learn from the not so good times as well.
      And yes, when Ray and his father have a catch at the end of the movie I still (and unashamedly) cry like a baby.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Wise words– “learn from the not so good times.” Thanks so much for those. Keep crying at that FoD scene. You ain’t human if you don’t.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      You are correct, sir.
      We wound up going to the grocery.
      She would have approved. I’m glad you have bright memory to remember from a rough time.

  7. SOQ

    So sorry for your loss. When My mother was ill, I was having difficulty processing emotions of what was soon to come. On my way to work one day, I was listening to Bob Edwards on WVXU. He was interviewing a female singer (who’s name somehow escapes me). Her Mother had passed when she was very young. Edwards made the comment “It must be very difficult to lose your Mother at such a young age” The singer replied “It’s never a good age to lose your Mother”! That’s when the emotions erupted. I still get choked up when I think of those words. God bless you Mary Beth during this difficult time

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Oh I’m so glad you heard those words when you needed them the most. And as you well know, she was right. Thank you for passing them on to me.

  8. Oldtimer

    I tried to post a reply but Red Leg Nation thinks I’m a robot. That’s disappointing.

    I will only post I’m Very Sorry For Your Loss and leave the rest off.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Now I’m sad that you got spamlocked, as you no doubt had kind words and good wisdom to share. (Don’t worry; it happens to me too.) But I do appreciate the sentiments.

  9. gusnwally

    I truly want to say how sorry I am to hear that your dear mother has passed. The happy parts of the story are that you obviously had a wonderful life with your mother, not one of those horror stories that seem to be getting more prevalent all the time.The other good good is I have seen all the same things you have listed. Here is hoping we get to add a couple of super nice memories to the list. Starting this year.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Well Votto already gave us a super-nice one today, no matter what else happens. Yeah, my mother was of the “tough it out” generation, and she pushed her way forward as long as she could! Thanks for the reminder.

  10. wallyum

    Sorry for your loss, Mary Beth. I have an idea where you’re coming from as we lost our Mom on Christmas night. It sounds like she spent her final months in much the same way as your Mother did, and I understand the idea of wanting everything connected to her out of that room ASAP. I remember everything in your list from the three ballparks on, (with the exception of one all-star game,) so I’m starting to feel my own age realizing how much I’ve seen. I’m guardedly excited about the season starting, and I’m going to my first opener since the mid-80’s tomorrow. I’m wearing a 30+ year old shirt that I bought when my son still required a diaper bag. Hope it picked up a little luck over the years.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      It is indeed comforting to hear from someone who understands. I hope you enjoyed your Opening Day despite the outcome.

  11. Florence Bartels

    So sorry for the loss of your mother, Mary Beth. Both my parents have been gone for many years.

    I have written my obituary. It includes the following line: “Special passions were chocolate and the Cincinnati Reds.”

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I appreciate the kind words! And having those two things as your special passions make you my kind of person!

  12. Melvin

    I’m very sorry for your loss and praying for you and your family. I hope the Reds can do some things this year that make you smile. 🙂 May God give you special comfort and encouragement during this time.

  13. Brian Greve

    Thanks for this wonderful narrative, Mary Beth. It would have been an appropriate response to my own mother’s death in 2003. Because she was born in 1914, we would just need to add:

    —1939 pennant
    —1940 World Series Champions
    —Frank McCormick, Ernie Lombardi, Ewell Blackwell

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Oh my goodness, the things that lady saw!! My grandfather was born in 1909; aviation was only 6 years old when he was born, and when he died, people were living on the International Space Station. Thanks for contributing that 🙂

  14. Schneidlywhiplash

    Sorry for your loss. I reminded me of my mom who passed away 30 plus years ago. One of her simple pleasures was watching the Reds. Hopefully I passed along my love of the Reds to my kids . Unfortunately, the Reds me and my mom watched the Big Red Machine – are more like the little red wagon (minus a wheel)

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      One of the things I truly love about Cincinnati is that our baseball is an all-in affair– it never was just for the boys, and kids got our fandom from our mothers and grandmothers just as much as our fathers and grandfathers.
      Thank you for the kind words.

  15. Dan Z

    I’m very sorry for your loss MBE. I lost my dad a year and a half ago and your story about your mom has me thinking about my dad and all that happened in his lifetime. Thank you for sharing!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      thank you– It’s never easy no matter how far you are into your own adulthood, is it? And it mind-boggling to think she was born when Roosevelt and Churchill were in power! “When an old person dies, a library burns down.”