The air in the room felt frigid and sent an icy chill deep into my bones. Searching for comfort, I lay on the rented hospice bed, closed my eyes, and snuggled under Ma’s floral print quilt. I breathed in her scent, a mixture of Dove soap, Calvin Klein Eternity perfume and stale cigarettes. The stench of death lingered in the air, trying hard to take over my senses, but I refused to let it in. Death may have taken my mother, but not her smell. Not yet.
“You little thief, I know what you did now.”
I opened my eyes and searched the room, but other than my Pit Bull, Greyhound mix Gracie, and me, it was empty. Gracie sensed my ever so slight movement, and laid her head back down. I saw my breath, which wouldn’t have been a big deal except it was May, in Georgia. I closed my eyes again.
“I know you can hear me, Angela. Don’t you ignore me.”
I opened my eyes again. “Ma?”
Floating next to the bed, in the same blue nightgown she had on when she died, was my mother, or more likely, some grief induced image of her.
“Ma?" I laughed out loud. “What am I saying? It’s not you. You’re dead.’
The grief induced image spoke. “Of course I’m dead, Angela, but I told you if I could, I’d come back. And I can so, tada, here I am.”
The image floated up in the air, twirled around in a few circles and floated back down.
I closed my eyes and shook my head, trying to right my brain or maybe shake loose the crazy, but it was pointless because when I opened my eyes again, the talking image of my mother was still there.
“Oh good grief, stop it. It’s not your head messing with you, Angela. It’s me, your Ma. Now sit up and listen to me. This is important.”
As children we’re conditioned to respond to our parents when they speak to us. We forget it as teenagers, but somewhere between twenty and the birth of our first child, we start acknowledging them again, maybe even believing some of what they tell us. Apparently it was no different when you imagined their ghost speaking to you, too. Crazy maybe, but no different.
I rubbed my eyes. “This is a dream, so I might as well go with it."
I sat up, straightened my back, plastered a big ol’ smile on my face, because it was a dream and I could be happy the day my mom died, in a dream and said, “Hi Ma, how are you?”
“You ate my damn Hershey bars."
“Hershey bars? I dream about my dead mother and she talks about Hershey bars. What is that?”
“Don’t you act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, Angela."
“But I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ma.” I shook my head again and thought for sure I was bonkers, talking to an imaginary Ma.
“Oh for the love of God, Angela, my Hershey bars. The ones I hid in the back of my closet.”
Oh. Those Hershey bars, from like, twenty years ago, at least. The ones I did eat.
“How do you know it was me that ate your Hershey bars? That was over twenty years ago.”
The apparition smirked. “I don’t know how I know, actually. I just do. I know about all of the stuff you did, and your brothers too. It’s all in here now.” She pointed to her, slightly transparent head and smirked.
She floated up to the ceiling, spun in a circle, and slowly floated back down. “And look, I’m floating. Bet you wish you could do that, don’t you, Angela? You know, I’d sit but I tried that before and fell right through to the damn basement. And let me tell you, that was not fun. It was creepy, and it scared the crap outta me. And oh, Madone, the dust between your two floors! Good Lord, it was nasty. You need to clean that. No wonder Emily’s always got a snotty nose. She’s allergic.”
“Emily does not always have a snotty nose.” She actually did but I wasn't going to let Ma have that one.
The apparition started to say something, then scrutinized at the bed. “Ah, Madone, that mattress. That was the most uncomfortable thing I ever slept on, but don’t get me started on that. That’s a conversation for another time.”
“And I hated that chair.” She pointed to the one next to the bed. “You should have brought my chair up here instead. I was dying and you wanted me to sit in that chair? What with that uncomfortable bed and ugly chair, my back was killing me.” She smiled at her own joke, but I sat there stunned, and watched the apparition’s lips move, my own mouth gaping, as I tried to get my mind and my eyes to agree on what floated in front of me.
“Ah, Madone. Stop looking at me like that, Angela Frances Palanca. You act like you’ve never seen a ghost.”
“Ma, I haven’t ever seen a ghost, and my name is Angela Panther, not Palanca. You know that.” My mother always called me Angela Palanca, and it drove both my father and me batty. She said I was the closest thing to a true Italian she could create, and felt I deserved the honor of an Italian last name. She never liked Richter, my maiden name, because she said it was too damned German.
“And that recliner of yours was falling apart. I was afraid you’d hurt yourself in it. Besides, it was ugly, and I was sort of embarrassed to put it in the dining room.” I shook my head again. “And you’re not real, you’re in my head. I watched them take your body away, and I know for a fact you weren’t breathing, because I checked.”
Realizing that I was actually having a discussion with someone who could not possibly be real, I pinched myself to wake up from what was clearly some kind of whacked-out dream.
“Stop that, you know you bruise easily. You don’t want to look like a battered wife at my funeral, do you?”
Funeral? I had no intention of talking about my mother’s funeral with a figment of my imagination. I sat for a minute, speechless, which for me was a huge challenge.
“They almost dropped you on the driveway, you know.” I giggled, and then realized what I was doing, and immediately felt guilty, for a second.
Ma scrunched her eyebrows and frowned. “I know. I saw that. You’d think they’d be more careful with my body, what with you standing there and all. There you were, my daughter, watching them take away my lifeless, battered body, and I almost went flying off that cart. I wanted to give them a what for, and believe me, I tried, but I felt strange, all dizzy and lightheaded. Sort of like that time I had those lemon drop drinks at your brother’s wedding. You know, the ones in those little glasses? Ah, that was a fun night. I haven’t danced like that in years. I could have done without the throwing up the next day, though, that’s for sure.”
Lifeless, battered body? What a dramatic apparition I’d imagined.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes and considered pinching myself again, but decided the figment was right, I didn’t want to be all bruised for the funeral.
There I sat, in the middle of the night, feeling wide awake, but clearly dreaming. I considered telling her to stay on topic, seeing as dreams didn't last very long, and maybe my subconscious needed my dream to process her death but I didn't. “This is just a dream." I tried to convince myself the apparition wasn’t real.
She threw her hands up in the air. “Again with the dreaming. It’s not a dream, Angela. You’re awake, and I’m here, in the flesh.” She held her transparent hand up and examined it. “Okay, so not exactly in the flesh, but you know what I mean.”
This wasn’t my mother, I knew this, because my mother died today, in my house, in this bed, in a dining room turned bedroom. I was there. I watched it happen. She had lung cancer, or, as she liked to call it, the big C. And today, as her body slowly shut down, and her mind floated in and out of consciousness, I talked to her. I told her everything I lacked the courage to say before, when she could talk back and acknowledge my fear of losing her. And I kept talking as I watched her chest rise and fall, slower and slower, until it finally stilled. I talked to her as she died, and because I still had so much more to say, I kept talking for hours after her body shut down. I told her how much I loved her, how much she impacted my life. I told her how much she drove me absolutely crazy, and yet I couldn’t imagine my life without her.
So this wasn’t Ma, couldn’t possibly be. “You’re dead.”
The figment of my imagination shook her head and frowned, then moved closer, and looked me straight in the eye. I could see through her to the candelabra on the wall. Wow, it was dusty. When was it last dusted?
“Of course I’m dead, Angela. I’m a ghost.”
I shook my head, trying hard not to believe her, but I just didn’t feel like I was sleeping, so God help me, I did.
My name is Angela Panther and I see dead people. Well, one dead person, that is, and frankly, one was enough.
“Honey, it’s time to wake up.” My husband, Jake, shook me softly. “We have to go to the funeral home. Come on, your brothers will be there soon. Wake up.” He shook me a little harder.
I sat up. “Where’s Ma?”
He studied me, his expression a mix of sadness and compassion. “I know this is hard but it’s going to be okay.” He hugged me and it felt good, comforting. I let him hold me a little longer, and then I remembered the night before.
“No,” I told him, pulled away, and rubbed the sleep fog from my eyes. “Ma. She was here. Last night. I know she’s dead, but she was here. I saw her.” I grabbed his shoulders, trying to show him how serious I was and whispered, “She told me she’s a ghost.”
His eyes widened and all of the sadness and compassion flew right out the dining room window. Jake was a fantabulous husband, and supported me in ways that often tried his patience, but to see the gray area of what he considered to be only black and white was asking too much. Fantabulous and all, he had his limits.
“Ang, it wasn’t Fran. It was a dream. I’ve read that kind of stuff happens. People dream about the person who died and think it’s real.” He made a small attempt at comforting coos, but they just sounded like our cat before she died.
I pushed away from him and got up. “Stop it. You sound like a sick cat, and I need coffee.” My mind barely worked without a good night’s sleep, but without coffee, even the simplest conversations were practically impossible. Besides, it wasn’t the time to get into a debate about the hereafter. I walked to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee and said a silent thank you to Jake for making a pot. I would have said it out loud but I was a little miffed at him for discounting my ghostly experience.
Jake was kind enough to get our two kids, Emily and Josh, off to school while I slept. I felt a sense of relief for not having to deal with them and then felt a little guilty for that. They left me a handmade card near the coffeepot knowing I’d be sure to see it there. It had red hearts and sad faces drawn all over the front, most likely by Josh, because he drew eyes with eyelashes. The inside of it read, “We’re sorry for your loss. We loved Grandma and miss her.”
They weren’t here last night. I knew it was Ma’s last day, and Jake and I didn’t want them to see her die, so we made arrangements for them to spend the evening with friends. Jake picked them up after the funeral home took Ma. I lacked the energy and courage to talk to them, so Jake asked them to give me some alone time.
The card was sweet, and I got a lump in my throat just reading it even though I was sure they’d never work for Hallmark.
“What time is it?” I asked, and then checked the clock. “It’s ten a.m. What the – we have to be at the funeral home at eleven fifteen.” I finished pouring my coffee, took a huge gulp, and cursed myself as it burned my throat, then rushed upstairs to get ready.
We arrived at the funeral home just before eleven fifteen. My long, blond hair was pulled into a ponytail since I didn’t have time to style it. I didn’t have on an ounce of makeup and was dressed like a typical soccer mom heading to a yoga class. Normally I wouldn’t go to an appointment like that but considering the fact that my mother just died, I didn’t really give a crap.
We walked in through the front doors into a sitting area I’m sure was meant to seem comforting and inviting but instead felt like a grandparents’ family room, old fashioned and overstuffed. The couch was a ridiculously huge, twenty years outdated, 1980s floral print of mauve and gray, flanked with humongous pillows in matching solid colors. There were two matching and equally uncomfortable looking chairs and ugly, ornate tables that didn’t match, intermixed with the seating. A few magazines and tissue boxes sat on the tables. I grabbed a couple tissues just in case I needed them later. Overhead, soft music played, and I was sure they thought it made someone in my position feel better, but mostly it was just annoying.
Carnations in various colors sat in vases on stands around the lobby, attacking my nasal passages like an old woman drenched in White Diamonds perfume. Almost instantly I had a sensory overload headache. The entire room smacked of old people, but I guess it should since it was really mostly old people who died. Jake crinkled his nose at the smells, too. We both moved quickly as we followed the signs to the assistant funeral director’s office, almost like we were running from a skunk. I silenced my cell phone, knowing my best friend, Mel, would probably text. I’d talked to her just after Ma passed but not since. I was sure she’d check on me sooner rather than later.
Before Ma died, we talked about what she wanted, and I promised her I’d honor her requests. They were simple. She wanted to be cremated and buried with my grandparents in Chicago. Since we lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, we’d have her body cremated here but her memorial and burial would be handled separately.
My brothers, John and Paul, were already in the assistant director’s office. There was a spread of coffee and its fixings set out on the conference table, and I made a beeline for it. I’d have an IV of caffeine inserted into my wrist if it were socially acceptable. Actually, forget socially acceptable. I’d do it even if it weren’t. Coffee for me was like sex to a twenty-year-old man – never too much and never too often.
My oldest brother John lived nearby, and was with Ma and me when she passed. Paul lived in Indiana and didn’t make it here in time to say goodbye. I could see the angst and regret on his face. I said hi, hugged both of them, and turned toward my chair so I wouldn’t cry. Crying in front of my brothers made me appear weak and I refused to let that happen.
“Ma wanted to be cremated and buried with her parents,” I told the assistant funeral director, a short, squat man, with a bad comb-over and a blue paisley tie that didn’t quite fit over a mid-section that rivaled Santa’s.
“Yes, your brothers told me,” said Comb-over. “It is our policy to return the remains to the loved ones for proper burial if our services are not being used.”
We all nodded in agreement, and then Paul asked Comb-over if he could see our mother.
Comb-over gave us what must have been his really sympathetic face. “Oh, no. No. I’m sorry. It is against our policy to allow family back into the crematorium. You understand.”
Paul nodded his understanding.
“Excuse me. My brother wasn’t able to see our mom before she died. He lives out of state and couldn’t get here, so I’m sure you can make an exception. I mean, it is our mother and we are paying you after all.”
Jake smirked in my direction, liking my passive aggressive technique, and I gave him a quick smile.
“Well. ” Comb-over back-pedaled. “I’ll see what I can do.” He then gave us what was obviously his, I am not making enough money for this job face, excused himself and closed the door behind him. A chill filled the air, and I hugged my arms to my chest for warmth.
My brother's mouths gaped. “Well, it’s a stupid rule and someone had to call him on it.”
Paul nodded. “Thanks."
I nodded and then saw my mother floating behind him, smiling, too. I shook my head to clear the image but it didn't work. She was still there.
“You’re such a good girl. I knew you loved your brother."
“Uh, I guess I do.”
Paul tilted his head. “You guess you do what?”
Well, crap. For a brief second I considered saying, sorry I was talking to the ghost of our mother, who, by the way, is floating behind you, but instead went with, “Look behind you,” as I pointed behind them.
They did. “What?” Paul asked.
Ma winked at me and laughed. They couldn’t see her.
“Oh, nothing. I thought there was a spider or something on the wall, sorry.”
Probably it wasn’t a good time to tell my brothers I could see our dead mother and I wasn’t sure there would ever be a good time for something of that nature.
Paul started to say something again, but Comb-over walked back in. The man may have been a fashion nightmare, but his timing was impeccable. He coughed lightly and straightened his tie. “We don’t normally allow anyone into the crematorium, but given the circumstances, we’ll make an exception.”
We. Uh huh. We, as in the big boss, I bet. I smiled my I won smile and thanked him. Comb-over explained since our mother was being cremated, they didn’t prepare her body as they would for a traditional burial. I assumed that meant she’s not made up and nodded my understanding. He walked over to the closed door behind my brothers and walked right through my mother.
She shuddered. “Oh, Madone, that was creepy.”
I concentrated on the wall and searched for the imaginary spider and tried to ignore her.
Through the doorway I saw my mother lying on a gurney, the mother that wasn’t floating in the room with me, that is. My eyes shot back and forth between the horizontal Ma and the floating Ma. This was all a little confusing. First I had one Ma, and then she died. Now I had a dead Ma and a ghost Ma. If they both started talking to me, I’d get right up and drive myself straight to the loony bin. I stood up and shook off the crazy. “Ah, Paul, you can go first.” He did.
The fact that I took control of the meeting was not lost on me. As the youngest of the siblings, my brothers always considered me the baby, never quite aging me past a toddler in their mind so for them to acquiesce authority in this situation was surprising. I wrote it off to their shock and grief at losing Ma and expected the newfound respect to burn out quicker than a birthday candle. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying it just a little.
We all said our goodbyes to my mother. I couldn’t hear their private whispered words, but I could hear Ma responding. Not the Ma lying on the gurney, the ghost one. As I said, it was confusing. Like the loud Italian woman she was in life, her raspy, I’ve had one thousand too many cigarettes, voice enveloped the room, for me at least, since apparently I was the only one who could hear her. “Oh Pauly, it’s okay. I’m not mad that you weren’t here. Don’t be upset. It’s okay.”
I always knew he was her favorite.
Paul and I haven’t always had the smoothest of relationships. In fact, as a child he wanted me dead. No, really. He tried so hard to make it happen he actually pushed me in front of slow moving cars three times. I was lucky to suffer only emotional, not physical, damage. Attempted murders aside, my heart ached for him now. The guilt of not being there when Ma passed would haunt him forever, though I couldn’t help but wonder if that was easier than being haunted by her ghost.
An hour later, the four of us sat with coffee in hand, at Starbucks. Coffee made everything seem better, if only a little. Before we left the funeral home, Paul asked Comb-over to let us know when Ma’s body was cremated. I preferred not to know, but everyone handles death differently and Paul needed what he needed so I didn’t argue. Admittedly, backing away from an argument with Paul was a new thing for me. Ma’s death had really messed with my brain.
We were discussing the arrangements of her burial when I got the call. Comb-over told me they’d started, and as I nodded to Jake and my brothers, a heavy sadness filled the air.
I disconnected from the call and stayed on task. “Okay. When should we go to Chicago?”
“That’s a good question,” John, the over thinker of us siblings, said. “I’ll call the cemetery later today and find out if we can bury Mom with Grandma and Grandpa. If they won’t let us, we’ll have to figure out what else to do. I was thinking maybe we could each take a portion of her remains and do something with our kids to honor her.”
Oh, no. No, no, no. That was not going to happen. I promised Ma I’d do this for her and I’ll be damned if I didn’t do it right. Especially since she was haunting me. There was no way I would to spend the rest of my waking days with the ghost of my mother pissed off because we didn’t honor her final wish. No way.
“It’s okay,” I blurted out before Paul agreed with John. “Ma was worried about the same thing, so we called the cemetery a few weeks ago and found out that it’s fine.” I took a quick breath and hoped God wouldn’t strike me dead for lying.
“They told me that as long as we’re not getting a stone, the plots are ours to do with as we please. Except for digging up our grandparents, that is.” I checked the sky, but still no lightning. Phew.
My brothers nodded. “Okay.”
Dodged that bullet. What’s wrong with a few little lies? This was what Ma wanted and eventually I’d tell them the truth, once she was buried and we were on our way home. Or maybe next year. What’s the saying? Ask for forgiveness, not permission. That’s what I’d do, eventually.
I offered to make the memorial arrangements even though we all knew they’d have asked me to do it anyway.
I filled them in on my call to our cousin. “I already called Roxanne, who said she’d make the rounds of calls, and since the funeral home here said they would put the obituary in the Chicago papers, that’s covered. Does the weekend after next work? That gives us all time to plan accordingly.”
“I don’t see a problem with that, but I’ll have to check with Elizabeth and see what her schedule is,” John said.
Jake nodded in agreement with his eyes still glued to the screen of his iPhone.
Paul nodded too. “Let’s go through all of our pictures of Mom. I can make a video with music, and we can show it at her memorial.”
We all agreed that was a great idea and made plans to confirm the date over email by tonight. My brothers left Jake and me there to share our addiction to the warm, smooth taste of coffee. We got refills before we headed home, too.
The rest of the day I was on autopilot and truth be told I couldn’t remember much of it. One minute Jake and I were getting coffee and the next it was after ten p.m. I kissed Jake goodnight and went upstairs and checked on the kids, who were already blissfully sound asleep.
“It’s done,” I texted Mel after I settled under the covers.
“I’m sorry,” she texted back. “Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m okay. Going to bed. I’m tired.”
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