Working through grief can be hard as an atheist surrounded by those who believe in heaven. Humor helped me cope.
Shortly before my mother went in for surgery to correct an issue with her bowels, I drove up to her rural northern California home to help her prepare. I sat on the piano bench in her living room and waited for her to retrieve something she just had to show me. She returned from her office with a set of x-rays looking like the proverbial cat who just swallowed the canary.
She holds up the x-ray of her stomach and says, “Can you see that?”
I could not see, or at least I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be seeing.
“It’s poop!” She says, before laughing like a ten-year-old.
I was grateful then, although I would later change my mind that my own eight-year-old son was not with me. Two children laughing at poop on an x-ray would have been a little too much to bear.
Raised a strict Catholic, she married my father when she was 18. My parents separated right after I was born. She was left with six children, but the split was amicable. Her entire life was turned upside down, and she entered a dark period.
She created a cocoon out of her love of music. My early memories include waking to her playing her piano in the middle of the night. When she finally emerged, she had transformed herself into a musician and lover of off-color jokes. Having been denied the freedom to practice either as a kid or in her marriage.
She became a successful self-employed musician, with five albums under her belt. Having only two years of professional music training when she was eight, she taught herself to play a total of eleven different instruments.
Most people get the fart, poop, and butt jokes out of their system by the time puberty passes. The sting of the nun’s ruler had effectively stunted her fart joke phase, so she was still working through it at 71.
The surgery didn’t go as planned. My five siblings, stepfather, father, and stepmother all stayed by her side at the hospital until she finally let go. Stubborn as she was, she held on for a whole week.
Mom didn’t go to heaven
Mom didn’t go to heaven, but I listened quietly as my siblings imagined her there. Each time they would talk about her looking down at us, or playing her heavenly harp, I wanted to scream. I was an open atheist and had no belief in heaven. But I saw the comfort in their imaginings and so I kept my mouth shut.
I was very close to my mother. The pain of losing her has not abated. Almost ten years later and when I think about the last moments with her, my heart seizes. It knocks the wind out of me. But in those first few days and weeks without her, I was horribly jealous of my siblings. I was even angry with them.
They had this fairy tale to cling to, a source of comfort that was not attainable for me. I tried to believe, I desperately wanted to believe that she was up there playing her music. Setting off her remote control fart machine and blaming the angels. But it didn’t work. She was gone. I didn’t know just how to cope with the crippling loss. I spent days, weeks, and months crying at the thought of her.
Humor, not heaven
One day, I found myself stuck in a dress in a fitting room. All alone, I had tried on a dress that was just a little too snug. It stuck around my waist and wouldn’t move past my rear end or over my newly augmented boobs. I struggled and became frustrated, when I caught myself in the mirror, I started to laugh. In my head, I could hear my mother laughing with me. Or more accurately, at me.
She always said how lucky I was to have inherited her tiny waist and ample derriere. And here I was, reaping the benefits of my genetics. My mother was perhaps, the only person in my family who didn’t question my decision to become a stripper. She confessed once that she was even a little envious of it. Especially given all the sin and guilt she had been fed growing up.
At that moment, stuck in a dress, I finally saw a path through my grief. And when the tears come now they often come with laughter.
Rather than remember what I’ve lost, I remember what I had. I remember when I had my first apartment and had thought my mom was using the little bathroom. But she had really gone into my bedroom and found a pair of stripper shoes. She tottered out on clear plastic eight-inch platform stilettos that lit up as she walked, into my tiny living room, asking how she looked.
I miss her every day. And I suspect I will miss her every day for the rest of my life. But I don’t need her to be in heaven. I have her here with me.
She’s in my butt.
And my eyes.
And my son’s nose.
Her humor and her music bring her back each time. And they’re real and not imagined. I don’t need heaven or angels. I only need to remember what she gave to me and the rest of the world. Her talent and her terrible fart jokes brought smiles and inappropriate snickers to everyone that crossed her path.
When my husband brings me roses, they are immediately placed on her piano that graces my dining room.
And we say in unison, “What’s better than roses on your piano?”
Tears come, but so do smiles as we repeat the punchline.
“Tulips on your organ.”