The life and death of my mother, a new resident of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
My mother died a little more than a month ago.
Sometimes when something really bad happens, I have no words. I don’t always know when this will be the situation. When other people have gone — a grandfather I idolized, a grandmother I loved terribly, cherished pets, a father-in-law I considered a friend, a close friend dead in her sleep — I’ve been able to write long homages. I’ve been able to write eulogies, poems. This time, for a month, nothing came.
Now, I’m writing, and I know it will be a journey.
My mother’s children
Most people would say this month-long silence wasn’t surprising — after all, this is a hard loss to take. I won’t put a twist here saying I hated her or we were estranged, because we were not. Quite the opposite. I grew up loving my mom despite her flaws and failings -not that those were all she had, of course. I was always close to her, even over the past decade, over an ocean. My siblings always said I was her favorite, and many of her gestures seemed to indicate this was true, including the fact that, of all three of us, it was souvenirs only of my baptism that we found as we went through her things in the days after her passing.
Of course, I’m also the eldest — the eldest always has the most pictures, the most mementoes saved.
But I think there is something else. As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve become a mother myself, some part of me has come to suspect that maybe I was the kid she was able to really put all of her hope and energy into. My mom was there for her children as much as she could be, and did her best. She loved us, but she was never particularly maternal. I never grew up hearing that having kids is the best thing in the world, the ultimate goal. And I’m thankful for that. But I do think that maybe when I was a baby, when she was still in a stable marriage and more stable, herself, she put all of her hope and love into me.
My mom loved the Harry Potter books and movies. I think maybe she’d like my idea that, just as Harry is protected by his parents’ love long after they’re gone, her love, that pure, hope-filled love, has left an undying imprint on me.
I’ve never hated people. I’ve always thought there was something good even in the villains, even in the motherfuckers. I’ve always approached the world with a sense of wonder, and have never stopped believing in magic. I don’t mean that in a corny way, but a literal one: Like my mom, I am genuinely convinced there is real, actual magic out there, things most of us can’t imagine aren’t imaginary.
I think this was ingrained in me on sun-filled days on a houseboat long ago, and days when my mom would crouch on the kitchen floor to take photos of me wearing her sunglasses or pretending to talk on my toy phone.
I’ve only seen a few photos like that of my sister, and even fewer of my brother. I don’t think it has to do with how many children my mom had. I think that over time, something in her died away. She became disillusioned with her marriage, with her life, maybe with everything she’d chosen to do. And then, she had my third sister, born between my second and my brother. Samantha had a heart defect that wasn’t detected before her birth. She caught an infection during the helicopter flight to a children’s hospital in New York, and was dead within weeks.
I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room with my other sister, coloring rabbits in a coloring book. I recently found out that we got to see Samantha once, exceptionally, from behind a window in the neo-natal intensive care unit, but I don’t remember that.
I was a very sensitive kid, but I don’t remember if I ever picked up on my parents’ feelings when my youngest sister was fighting for her life, or their grief when she passed. I remember her little white coffin with a pink satin ribbon diagonally tied across it, like an Easter dress might have been colored and adorned. I remember being surprised that my preschool teachers came to the funeral, and sitting delightedly on one of their laps for a while.
I don’t know if I was any comfort to my parents then. I imagine I was, in some ways, the way kids keep you going — you have to get up and feed and care for them, keep them stimulated, try not to worry or upset them. But then, I also know that this is when my general worried nature concentrated itself on death, and I became terrified of dying, myself. A typical reaction for a young child to have when a sibling dies, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy for anyone.
My mother has always been open about the fact that my brother, who was born a few years later, was an accident. But she’s always added, sincerely, that he was also a blessing. My brother is one of my favorite people in the world. He’s funny and charming and caring, the perfect son. He was always devoted to my mom, and it was his destiny — his karma, he says my mom told him during one of their last serious conversations — to see her at her worst, and to help her. As a teenager, he found her in her bed, nearly bleeding to death from fibroids she hadn’t wanted to get checked or removed. As a young father, he took her in and, with his wife (whom I consider an honorary sister, since she loved my mother so much and took care of her with incredible devotion), tended to her as she slowly slid into death.
He should be the favorite.
I think in the end, he was.
Still, I think I always represented something for my mom, a sort of hope and innocence, a golden time before things broke.
What she represented for me was complex, yet for many people, shockingly, stupidly simple. She was my mom. I know she wasn’t the world’s best mom. She was unreliable, flighty (even though she never took flight). After her divorce from my stable, responsible father, she surrounded herself with very bad men. She was always late picking me up from school. She almost made me late to a childhood friend’s wedding, where I was the maid of honor. When I wanted to go to Europe, she hid my passport. When I wanted to go to NYU, she did everything she could to make me stay in Georgia, a place where I always felt out of place, even though I spent nearly a decade of my life there. She stole money from the family college fund (albeit with good intentions; she had no other money to pay the mortgage on our once-fine, slowly rotting McMansion). She sometimes just didn’t care to prolong joy. I saw this when she was with my son once. He was so thrilled at feeding ducks in a pond and after about ten minutes, she simply pulled away — that was enough. It had been such a time of pure joy and she’d broken it, like a popped bubble. Like a dish or mug she’d throw during an argument with my stepfather. It was a shock to me at the time, especially because that particular visit was such a peaceful one, full of love.
I can say that from my mother, I inherited a fear of abandonment, a craving for stability, deep feelings of unease for any situation where I’m not in control.
And yet, she was one of the people I loved most dearly in the world.
Maybe that’s something I got from her, as well. When she was dying, we set up a crowdfunding page to help with her upcoming funeral costs. What amazed me most was how many people reached out — people from decades ago — remembering how she’d always welcomed them into her house, had never judged or snubbed anyone. Even my stepbrother, who comes from a family who often saw my mom as a crazy and horrible person, came to her funeral, remembering how she’d always treated him with kindness, had always been happy for him to stay a few days at her place when he and my brother would drive up from their college a few hours away.
I also have that ability to welcome and love people. I’m not particularly hospitable, something I regretfully admit, but I am friendly and open. I don’t judge — or, if I do, I don’t let that make me cruel or dismissive of others. I’m thankful that I got that from my mother.
When my mother visited me here in Paris a few years ago, we came across a pigeon who’d been hit by a car. It lay on the sidewalk, trembling, and I said we had to save it. I went home and got a box and put it inside. I called a pigeon rescue center I knew, located far outside the city. It was one of my mom’s last days with us, and I would have to leave her with my son and take this pigeon there. My mother was frustrated at first, which surprised me — she’s always loved and championed animals, bringing home helpless cases to our house when we were little, comforting them as well as giving them treatments in her job as a vet tech. “I don’t understand why you’re bothering,” she told me.
“It’s a living thing,” I said to her, “what makes its life more valuable than mine?”
“That’s a very Buddhist way of thinking,” she told me approvingly. I could tell she was proud.
We put the pigeon in its box out on the Juliet balcony — we didn’t want my cat to eat it or my toddler son to accidentally hurt it. We could see it shaking from pain.
“Do you have any liquid children’s Tylenol?” my mom asked. I told her we had the French equivalent.
She carefully and knowingly drew a small amount of it into an eyedropper, then opened the pigeon’s beak and administered the medicine while I watched, doubtful. Within what seemed like seconds, the pigeon stopped trembling. You could see from its body language that it felt better.
This was my mother. Her love of animals and that natural instinct that could have made her a great veterinarian had she not refused to go back to school for some inexplicable reason. But especially, what really defined her: that desire to give up, yet the drive that often won out, whether helping a suffering creature, or beating back the tidal wave of terminal cancer.
I’m grateful for things that my mother has taught me. I’m grateful that she also gave me freedom to become who I am. Our home wasn’t perfect — sometimes it was awful — but we were always allowed to speak our minds, say bad words, listen to the music we liked, share our thoughts, believe what we wanted. We were seen and valued as individuals.
I’m grateful she gave me her almond-shaped eyes, some of her recipes, her delight in bizarre knick-knacks. When my siblings and I divided up the relatively few possessions she had when she passed, among the things I chose to take were: a pair of scissors shaped like the Eiffel Tower (that we had bought together a few years ago), a stuffed animal bobcat, and a pen with a gargoyle on top. My brother and sister kept the tchotchkes they loved, too.
I’ve learned by now that when you lose someone you were close to, the loss may not come to you all at once, but in little pangs. It’s hard to spot some strange or funny object and think, “Mom would love that,” and quickly realize that there’s no point in considering buying it for her, or how I could send it to her from Paris.
One of the other objects I inherited was a bracelet she got from a middle school boyfriend. It’s imitation gold, with a flat medallion inscribed with what was supposed to be her name: “Maggie”. Only, it’s misspelled: “Magie.” Coincidentally, magie is the French word for “magic”. It seems so fitting that this person who gave me my lifelong belief in magic, who took me to hear fairytales read aloud at the local library, would have had such a confusion with her name. I wear the bracelet often. I like the feeling of it on my wrist. I like looking down and seeing my mother’s name as a magic word.
The best gifts
I am grateful to my mom for my siblings. Samantha has always been our guardian angel. My brother and my sister have always been my friends. It always surprises me when people tell me how jealous they were to have a new sibling, or the terrible feuds they had with their brothers or sisters growing up. Although we had our spats, we always loved — but more than loved- enjoyed each other. Looking back, although I had other best friends, my sister was my true childhood best friend. My brother is a kindred spirit.
When we came together for the funeral, drawn from different places where we all live very different lives, it was an instant comfort. There was a sense not only of contentment, but of laughter. The morning after my mom’s funeral, a friend took photos of us. Our friends and other family members were relieved to see how happy we looked. It’s surprising to me when I look at that happiness, remembering that we’d been sobbing by a graveside less than 24 hours before. The time I spent with them after my mother’s passing was like a balsam. There were some dark moments of sadness, grief, panic, like finger holes in a perfect ointment, but mostly there was love.
Mysteries and regrets
When my mother really started dying, she and I no longer talked to each other very much. This was her choice. I still called nearly every day, expecting, hoping, that we would go on as we had before, each other’s happy conversation partner and occasional confidante. Although she did pick up from time to time, and was happy that my son and I were coming to visit last October, we lost that connection. When we arrived for the visit, she was too sick to greet us — but more than that, she simply refused. I would have sat with her for hours, I would have done anything, but she rarely wanted us, or even just me, to come over.
I’ve struggled with it and turned it over and over. It could simply be that she was too exhausted by the disease that was laying waste to her body and brain. It could also be that she understood that it was more merciful for us if we were less used to talking and sharing our thoughts and joys and frustrations. It would be easier if she didn’t see her grandson so much — she wouldn’t have to think about not seeing him grow up, or him forgetting her. Maybe it was a decision only someone who had learned to overcome her love for animals in order to show them the final mercy of euthanasia could have made.
And so, I realized as I wrote the personal statement I read at her graveside, my mother had died for me many months before. At times, she would come back to my life, briefly, and I would hungrily grasp for some of those old moments together. But mostly I heard about her in my brother’s stories, his increasingly frequent calls to me in the quiet times on his commute to work. It was like listening to someone’s stories of a distant relative.
When we knew she didn’t have long, I had to make a choice. Would I come back and see her again, or would I wait until she passed? I thought and worried about it, I sought and was given advice and insight. Sometimes, those things came to me from unexpected sources.
Ultimately, I decided to ask her what she wanted. But I never got a chance. In the last months of her life, she wouldn’t talk to me. I decided that actions were all I could go on. I decided to save my money to help with her burial costs. I knew that there was no way I could have made a decision I wouldn’t have regretted. And yet, this one seemed to be the best option.
I was given some mercy when, two weeks before she really left us, my brother made her Facetime with me from her hospice bed. She looked near death, but smiled, and for a while, we said, “I love you, I love you” to each other, over and over. In reality, it probably wasn’t so long, but it felt like forever, this suspended moment. In my mother’s voice, I heard her whole heart, her whole being, all the truth this ever-elusive woman could utter. I heard an echo of my own voice, when I say something heartfelt. “I love you, I love you,” echoes of each other.
I had a few other conversations with her after that, but this is the one I am most grateful for. It’s the most important one, in the end.
My mother is dead, and I have many regrets. We used to talk so much about so many things, but there were some things I could never say. In many stages of my life, I wanted to muster the courage to ask her about why she is the way she is. The black sheep of her family, anti-social yet charming, kind yet selfish, devoted yet longing to run away. I wondered about her quirks and fears. Why she was so uncomfortable talking to anyone but the people closest to her on the phone, or why she didn’t like most conventions.
I often wondered if something terrible had happened to her, even before my sister’s death. A few days after her funeral, when we were looking through old photos we’d found, my aunt remarked that my mom had always been a very serious child. I wondered if this was simply her nature, or if there was something else there. She had also been an accident, and then that very aunt had been conceived to be her playmate, since the other siblings were so much older. Did she ever feel unwanted — could this have formed that difficult, tangled part of her?
What we’ve learned
The part of her that I hated, that unpredictable, careless part, does have some common grain with me. I remember so many times that my mother would threaten to leave us when we were kids. I would cry and plead with her to stay. It seemed so cruel, and yet, I think now, she was probably just overwhelmed. I’ve found myself once or twice sputtering out something similar on days when I’m exhausted, on days when I’m not at my best. And I hate myself and quickly excuse myself and try to explain what I really mean to my son, so that he’ll know I’m always there. If he knows that, I think, he’ll be able to conquer anything he faces. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to make sense.
My mother taught us many lessons, as much by wisdom she shared, as by mistakes she made.
There are things my siblings and I have all tried to avoid. But of course, as most people know, you usually end up resembling your parents in some way. All three of us have those little traps we’ve fall into, little flaws, at least, that echo hers.
On the other hand, we’re independent. We can laugh about anything. We love animals. We respect other people’s right to believe or think differently from us. We value family. We have our weird behaviors and hang-ups but manage to live with them. Cleanliness and hygiene are a priority, as is personal style. We’re proud to be Italian. We love great stories and imagination. We appreciate little gestures of kindness — even simply sending each other a funny meme. We aren’t slaves to tradition.
My brother and I have also taken up the mantle of being the family cooks. He tends to focus on the recipes my mother made later in her life, fusion and typical American fare, while I particularly cherish the recipes she’s best-known for among our friends and family: her gravy and meatballs, her baked ziti, her breaded chicken cutlets.
The thing about gravy (or, as most people who aren’t New Jersey Italians call it, “tomato sauce”) is that you can be handed down a recipe that you try to follow, but you’ll end up putting your own spin on it. I’ve been told that my gravy tends to be saltier than my mom’s. My brother and sister-in-law’s is sweeter. Sometimes, we hit the blend of seasonings perfectly. Other times, it’s not flavorful enough, or something is still unbalanced. By her late twenties, my mother always made flawless gravy. My brother and sister-in-law are that age, and I’m much older, and we’re still learning.
The other night, I made meatballs and gravy for the first time since my mother’s passing. There again came those pangs. I felt so close to her in certain moments. I remembered when she came here to stay with me and my son a few years ago, while my husband was far away. The afternoon before her flight home, she’d proudly stood in our kitchen, showing me how to make those perfect chicken cutlets (she always paired them, as tradition has it, with sweet and hot peppers). I recently realized I took a picture of her at my counter, gently mixing the homemade breadcrumb mix with her sure, yet delicate, fingers.
As I made my meatballs this time, I found myself thinking about different things — memories like that one, as well as musings. I tend to make my meatballs relatively small, so that there will be more of them. My mother’s were always big. As I worked my way through what I realized was too much meat, I wondered if this was merely due to how she’d learned to make meatballs from her mother, or if it also came from that exhaustion that sometimes crept over her. It’s faster to make fewer meatballs, after all.
I don’t know if this is really the reason, though — I think it was simply a mirror of my feelings at the time. After all, when she cooked, my mother seemed happy and light. She was in control and she was doing something she genuinely loved. It must have been hard to balance a job and other responsibilities with cooking, but we always had homemade dinners, and my mother never seemed put-upon about that, a quality I wish I retained. I enjoy cooking but it’s not my passion, even if those family recipes do make me feel closer to the people who made them before me.
Call when you get to the afterlife
In my family, when you die, you have one final obligation: to return to one of the living in a dream or with some kind of a sign, to say you’re all right.
Some of my deceased family members return this way frequently, but it seems like all of them have made some kind of appearance. Even my departed baby sister once playfully tossed a book at our other sister.
My mother’s turn came about unconventionally. She didn’t make an appearance, just as she often avoided family gatherings. The night of her death, my aunt who was closest to her asked her for a sign that she was all right. Later that night, she was suddenly jarred awake by someone giving her a big shove. She’s sure it was my mom, and it makes sense to me — my mother was always a bit of a bully to her, even though they loved each other and talked to each other every day. My mother even gave her one of her kidneys. Still, the push.
That same night, a cousin dreamt of my grandfather. He looked young — she said she had forgotten how handsome he had been back then, when she was a kid — and well. She said they were on a beach and there was a big feast being prepared, with everything decorated in white. It was for my mother. She asked where she was, and my grandfather told her that she had to find the child. My cousin didn’t make the connection, but those of us closer to her did — my sister Samantha. Then, my grandfather had said something to her about the number three. My aunt gasped when she heard this — my mother’s funeral would take place three days after her death.
Unlike most of my family members, I’ve never gotten a direct sign like that. But I do think my grandmother visited me once, when I first moved in with my husband. In our building’s stairwell one morning, I smelled her perfume, an old scent I don’t think anyone else would likely wear today. I felt all of a sudden like she would be there, nudging me with approval, saying something cheeky like she always did: “He’s hot stuff!”
The morning of my mother’s funeral, I struggled a bit to get ready. All of a sudden, I smelled the burnt odor of blow-drying hair. My mother was very fond of her hair (which made losing it from chemo especially hard) and for many years when my sister and I were younger, she would devotedly blow-dry and braid our long hair after our baths, too.
I stopped blow-drying my hair decades ago, hating the smell and the heat, so there was no way that smell came from, say, my plugged-in dryer. It could have been from my sister-in-law’s bathroom down the hall, or maybe her mother, who had used the same bathroom I was using, much earlier, had blow-dried her hair and the smell had somehow stayed. But it was such a momentary waft, and the feeling came with it like it had when I’d smelled my grandmother’s perfume. I felt like my mother was with us, getting ready, too, and that I didn’t have to feel alone inside.
I told my siblings about this, as they would share their visits with me — a heart-shaped water-stain on the ground; a group of crows my brother and I saw on a powerline as we drove down a nearby street, making us think of Dumbo, one of my mom’s favorite movies.
Trying to preserve impermanent memories
I talk to my son about my mother often, remind him who got him this or that (she loved giving him little presents). I ask if he remembers things from when she last visited, or things she’d say. Every time we read one of the Curious George books she got him, I remind him that they were her favorite books when she was a kid. I know my son probably won’t have any direct memories of my mother, but I hope still that something will remain. At the very least, he’ll know he was loved, and many of the things she left him, like those books, may have an impact on who he becomes or at the very least, be a part of that collage of memories of his childhood.
When we were going through my mother’s clothes, I realized that two light scarves she’d saved still smelled like her, that special scent I’ll never be able to break down and define, no matter how much I respond to smells (as the form of my grandmother’s and mother’s possible visits to me seem to show). I did some research and found out that while you can’t preserve a scent forever — at least not if you plan to occasionally smell it again — you can very tightly seal it in a plastic Ziploc bag, and it will remain for several years, hopefully. And so, on one of the last days before I came back to Paris, we bought the bags and I carefully folded a scarf into each one, then rolled the bags to remove as much air as possible before closing them. “Fancy Mom,” I said, for one of them, since the perfume she used for special occasions was the dominant scent on the black scarf, “and Everyday Mom,” for the other. My brother kept Everyday Mom at his place. I took Fancy Mom home with me.
I won’t open the bag often, but it’s a comfort knowing I’ll have that scent, even for a while. And maybe my son will be old enough to really understand the significance of it before it fades, and I’ll let him smell it, and maybe the memory of that will become a small part of his childhood, too.
Writing this part, I realize it’s really weird. I realize a lot of things I want to save are weird, but there you are. I think my mother would have rolled her eyes and said, “Alysa,” in an exasperated voice — but she wouldn’t have told me not to preserve the scarves or encourage my brother to take one.
The burial, the Headless Horseman, and Halloween plans
In many ways, my mother’s burial was very much like the way she’d lived. It was beyond her means and ours but shouldn’t have been –she chose a green burial, which is one of the cheapest funeral options. When I researched green burial grounds for my brother to suggest to her, I instinctively knew she’d pick Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I didn’t realize exactly what it would come to mean to her at the time; I simply knew it was the most expensive choice. I told him not to tell her about it at all, unless she really didn’t like the other choices, since she had no insurance or savings and the amount we could put in was frighteningly low.
But he did tell her, and she not only chose Sleepy Hollow — she latched onto the idea. She saw it as a way to still be a part of our lives, and to keep a part of her identity, that part that loves magic and the supernatural. She loved that the cemetery was tied to the Headless Horseman, and that every Halloween, there would be all kinds of spooky festivities in the town and even in the cemetery itself. She thought that maybe it could become a family tradition to come up to Sleepy Hollow — not some obligatory trip to a grave, but a fun Halloween activity.
And so, as we’d done before, we followed her into this dream. We did everything we could to make it happen, setting up crowdfunding, pooling our savings, beseeching relatives who she’d borrowed money from and never repaid or even thanked. People helped — old friends who still remembered her, new friends who felt our impending loss deeply. The relatives came through, some more easily than others. By the time she died, my mother knew she’d be laid to rest where she wanted. She’d even approved the burial plot location — a field with a nearby tree, overlooking a river that some say is the very one in the Headless Horseman story.
She was buried there on Wednesday, April 25. It wasn’t a big funeral, but most of the important people were there. We hadn’t been able to ask her exactly how she wanted the ceremony to be, so we chose what we thought she would have liked: a passage from the Bible, a selection from Leaves of Grass that I like to read at funerals — and that surprised me by capturing her untamed nature (it’s the source of the quote at the beginning of this post), the Yeats poem “The Coming of Wisdom with Time,” which seemed to perfectly sum up her dying, personal statements from anyone who wanted to make one, longer ones from my siblings and me, and a short Buddhist verse in closing. In the background all the while, songs by Cat Stevens, one of her favorite singers, played softly. Before the burial, when my brother was signing paperwork, I saw that the adjacent giftshop sold magnets featuring a spooky, black-and-white “photo” of the Headless Horseman. Another funny object my mom would have chuckled at. My siblings and I quickly agreed that we each had to have one.
We hadn’t known what the funeral would be like, but when it was finished, it felt right.
Everyone agreed that the cemetery was more beautiful than they’d expected. (I imagined my mom nodding in vindication. “See?!”) No one seemed upset that we’d stood so near her shrouded body. At the end, many of us shoveled earth into her grave after she’d been lowered into it. It was raining and you could see her face through the white shroud. I stopped at her hairline, but my brother said that she was still peacefully smiling, just as she had been when he’d found her dead in her bed, shortly after they’d told each other they loved each other and he’d left to take a quick shower, a few mornings before.
My mother believed in reincarnation and loved and valued all life. She was just as likely to bring home a sick kitten or rescued squirrel to nurse, as a scarab beetle. After she was lowered into the ground, and as we were preparing to put the dirt into her grave, I noticed a strange insect that seemed to be peering down into the hole. Unlike most insects, I didn’t find it fearsome or worry that it would fly onto anyone, or even that it would be accidentally crushed (bug or not, I also respect all life). It made me think of a spry, clever cricket, like something from a cartoon. I found its presence reassuring, even comical, and for a moment, I wondered if maybe that was my mother’s new form.
I didn’t say this to anyone; it seemed like a shared joke between us, something only she and I would laugh at but also find beautiful and understand.
Sometimes I think of that, and other times I think of her as some sort of Mom-shaped ghost, beautiful and misty, looking out over the river near her grave. I think of her as being happy and of being happy to talk to the other souls that are there, even if I think she probably also likes her alone time, as she did in life. Other times, I feel like she’s looking down on us from Heaven or is invisibly at our sides.
Very shortly after she was buried, my siblings and I decided to reunite in October and head to Sleepy Hollow for Halloween. We’ll bring her grandchildren, dressed in their costumes, and visit her grave and try to do the cemetery tour and some other Halloween events. It was her final wish — and that mixture of solemnity, sadness, magic, whimsy, unconventionality, and humor sums up many of the things we loved about her, and will always love.