“Don’t bury me,” says my mom.
“Okay,” I say. “What do you want to happen instead?”
Mom stares up at the ceiling and thinks. She is so frail she looks like a scrawny newborn bird.
We’re practicing our newly discovered art of looking right at death and talking about it openly. It takes all my will and energy to have this conversation, and she’s tiring by the minute, but the relief is greater than the pain. We’re learning about freedom.
“I want to be cremated. And I want you and David to throw my ashes into the wind off a mountain in the park.” David is my brother. The park is the national park she’s volunteered at for years.
“Yes, we’ll do that.” We look at each other and as we both start to cry, Mom says, “That’s enough for now. What have you brought for me today?”
For the next two hours, we lie next to each other on her narrow hospital bed at the care home and watch a romantic comedy on my laptop.
We hold hands and lie close because there’s so little room in the bed and because it feels good.
Mom was the first dying person I’d been around, so I started reading about dying. I learned that often when people are dying they need to talk about it but have a tough time finding someone they’re close to who’s actually willing.
I decided to be the person I wished I was and begin that conversation with Mom. At the time, I had no idea how much it would free us both to accept ourselves.
“I don’t know what to believe,” Mom confessed to me one day, as fear and desperation filled her face. “I need something to believe in.” The religions of her life had let her down and now, when she needed something to hold onto, she felt adrift.
Because I wasn’t willing to not have an answer for her, I closed my eyes and prayed, in my own way, for something to come out of my mouth that could help her.
“Well,” I finally said. “You love me, right?” The sadness in her eyes shifted into clear love that filled the space between us. She nodded.
“So believe in that,” I said. “Believe in love.” She closed her eyes and smiled herself to sleep.
A few days later, I asked how her visit with a friend had gone. Mom shrugged and said, “Oh, well.” When I asked her to tell me more, she said, “I just got frustrated. She didn’t want to talk about death.”
My framework for freedom changed that day and during those weeks. I’ve come to believe that freedom comes from daring to choose conversations that take us beyond walls or pain.
Freedom comes from being willing to breathe questions into the still air between us. Freedom is the willingness to talk about death.
When we talk about the hardest thing, the thing we think no one wants to hear or share, we crack our hearts open, allowing new beliefs to rush in and free us.
Within a few weeks of that first conversation about death, Mom is gone, her body converted into ashes in a box.
My brother and I drive to the edge of Mom’s national park and set out on a path into the woods. We’re worried because there’s no wind and today is the only day we have to do this before I fly home.
“Where’s the how-to manual for this situation,” I say, trying to lighten the mood.
“Well,” David says, “how hard can it be?” He stands up and looks around. We’re on a steep, wooded slope. “Let’s get to the top.” We bushwhack up to the ridge and stop under a big tree.
After we share our thoughts about Mom and how much we loved her, I open the thick cardboard container and we peer inside.
Sure enough, it looks like ashes. But there’s no scoop, and we didn’t bring one. I reach into the box and grab a handful of ashes.
“Be free, Mom!” I yell, flinging her ashes up into the air and away. They immediately rain down all over us. Zero wind.
I freeze and look at David in horror. “Crap,” I say, “we’re going to screw this up.” His look of alarm twitches into an attempt to stop a grin.
Then we both start laughing. We really can’t help it. Doubled over, guffawing into the wide forest, we spit ashes from our mouths onto the dried leaves.
For thirty minutes, all the while hoping no one else comes along, we get up to all sorts of loony ash-spreading antics. And we still can’t stop laughing, so we stop trying.
Wiping tears from our faces, holding our aching sides, brushing ashes out of each other’s hair, we gallop around slinging ashes and generally doing our very best to honor our mother by having fun doing something very serious.
Mom continued our conversation about freedom by inspiring me and David to love and honor her as our true, goofy, uncertain, unconventional selves. She most definitely would have approved.
“When you face your discomfort, you open the door to personal transformation. You create an opportunity to put scarcity in perspective.” – Maria Nemeth
When talking about the tough stuff, I’ve found that it helps to focus on the freedom of it, on the relief of being known and saying out loud what matters the most. Think about how nice it would be to share what you’re grappling with.
A simple way to start a hard conversation is to ask a question. Would it be helpful to talk about dying? Do you ever feel like you don’t know what to believe in? What are you most afraid of?
The answers, yours and theirs, open a door where there wasn’t one before.