It’s the flight back and I’m wishing I’d have brought my laptop on this trip. Instead, I’m actually engaging in the ancient art of the Scribes and inking the thoughts of the day on some scratch paper. The small window of the jet frames my face. Looking out is breathtaking every time. I’m awe struck as usual, by this new perspective on clouds, to be in clouds. Towering mountains masquerading as concrete or limestone, surrender their soft innards to our little band of weary travelers. I’m equally astonished at how few people on board pause to appreciate the beauty laid out beneath them like a grandma’s quilt. Inviting and comfortable, the earth peaks up at us in an ancient design. Our moon hangs motionless, a pearly gift. Looking at the moon, I think about how many other people may be looking at it too, at the very same time and wonder if they feel a connection like I do. A grand hub of communication, a big phone switch in the sky, a secret meeting place for lovers and lost souls. From the window of the jet, it pauses above a silky milk bath of mist, hovering there, afraid to lower itself for fear of getting lost. We’ve just entered another cloud. Only the bucking of the plane lets me know that we’re moving forward as the familiar whiteness swallows us whole. I imagine where the horizon is to keep my equilibrium and stave off any motion sickness that might try to creep in. The little light at the end of the wing outside blinks happily as it bounces along with the turbulence.
The captain announces we have to fly around some thunderstorms. I lost my fear of flying long ago. I don’t remember exactly at what point that was, but if I thought about it and absolutely had to, I would say it was at the same time I lost my fear of death.
When you’re five years old, obviously death is a concept impossible to grasp. I was five, and it was my mother’s mother’s funeral. Grandma Neva was already very old by the time I was self-aware and on this day, I could only remember having seen her a few times before. I had never seen my mother cry. I had never seen any adult cry except for an occasional old movie out of the corner of my eye while busy playing. I couldn’t understand what all this was about. Why were my aunts and uncles crying too? My mother sobbed and did her best to explain it to me. I will never know to this day, why she had me there. Then I saw “Grandma” in her box, like a present from some very expensive store, wrapped in her best dress. Her expressionless face looked to me like the face of my sleeping baby dolls. At once everyone stood to leave. I was glad we would be getting out and away from sadness, something I didn’t really understand either. My mother grasped my hand tightly. “We’re going to say good-bye to Grandma.” I was horrified as we filed closer and closer until we stood right next to her lying there. In utter terror, I watched Mother dutifully bend over my grandma’s shell and kiss her on the mouth. I wrenched my hand away but my father was right behind and he caught me up. “Becky, give Grandma a kiss good-bye.” If I could have formulated an adult thought it would have been something like this. “Are my parents insane?” I shrieked and struggled in my father’s arms and burst into tears of my own. He relented and carried me out, my face buried in the shoulder of his wool suit. From then on I carried a fear of death, but I was too young to understand it wasn’t death that I was afraid of. I had been so poorly exposed to it because of how really little my family and people in general knew of it.
As an adult, through much prayerful study and searching, I came full circle and by the time my own mother died, I was ready. It was December 17th, 1997. There was snow on the ground and my brother and I had flown home from Tampa. I knew instinctively that I would have to be the strong one and that Mom was relying on me to see to it that her wishes were met. Dad and both brothers were wrecks. They wept on and off as we met to make the decisions. It always came down to the same thing. I would step in and decide. Only when I was satisfied that everything was exactly as she intended did I relax. My grief was very personal and I maintained my stoic exterior, like she would have wanted. I knew there would be a time when I’d give her a fitting farewell in private.
She had been cremated, per her will and her beautiful brass verdigris urn sat atop a pearl white pedestal with her graduation picture, her first swan of many she would collect over the years, and cut flowers. The service was simple and short. They moved the vault (not much bigger than a cooler made of green marble, (green being her favorite color) to a little adjacent room and set it on a round walnut table in the center of the parlor. We had each brought something special from our childhood to place there with her. My brothers began crying uncontrollably while helping my father stand nearby, as I carefully picked up her little urn and gently set it in the bottom of the vault. The mortician placed the lid and the seal that would remain there for eternity. I instructed the many flower arrangements sent by friends and family to be donated locally to brighten someone else’s day. Besides, the flowers would quickly die in the cold anyway. But before we left for the cemetery, I took one flower from each and crafted a lovely bouquet of fresh cut flowers, her favorites, tied with a single ribbon.
At the graveside, I placed the flowers on her tiny treasure chest. It was perched on a small platform above the pit that would be her final destination on this earth. A few words were said by the officiate. I didn’t hear them, they weren’t intended for me anyway and I needed no consolation. Everything was unfolding exactly as it was meant to. The mourners each said their good-byes and made their way back to their cars. I waited for the last to leave and no one questioned what I was waiting for.
Now there was only she, and I, alone together, in the cold. I knelt down beside her and I thought my chest had been sliced open and the frosty air was engulfing my exposed heart. Out loud, and witnessed only by nature, I said my prayer. The few birds that stayed the winter, the flowers laying above her in sweet rest, the sound of the wind flapping the tent we had gathered under, kept me company as I blessed her life and all that she had been and all that she would become. The gates holding my calm exterior together opened and I wept and wept with sobs from so deep down they seemed they weren’t mine at all. I’m not exactly sure how long I cried there until I looked up to see my father had returned. He stepped around the side of the tent. His prior weakness had been replaced by his usual quiet strength. “Come on Sissy, we have to go, everyone’s waiting at the house,” he said almost in a whisper. “I can’t leave her here Daddy.” The thought of her there, alone in the cold ground was more than I thought I could stand. He bent down and helped me to my feet. “She’ll be ok”, he said as he hugged me, and I knew he was right.
The next day before leaving for the airport, my brother and I went to the grave site to make sure it was prepared correctly. It was about 20 degrees but the sun was shining. As we approached we could see, as if they were made of fine porcelain, lying on the newly replaced frozen ground, her bouquet of flowers. Just as perfect as when I picked them for her. It was odd that the cold had not burnt them, and I wondered at her spirit. We stood there silently together for a few minutes, with the cold, clean winter breeze reddening our cheeks. Then it was time to go. There she remains and where my Father will join her. It was at that instant, on my knees, in the dead of winter, alone except for my mother’s ashes and the world around me, that I accepted my own mortality. I realized that I was now the oldest living female on our side of the family, the Matriarch, the Alpha female. At that precious, painful flash, I understood my place in the divine plan and I lost my fear of death. We just came sailing through the thunderstorm and the captain has turned off the seat belt light. The white veil is gone revealing in the window a view just as splendid as I remembered it from an hour ago, a simple joy in a sweet, wonderful life. It was a good trip. I learned a lot. We’ll be landing soon. I love coming home.